Dr. Thea Riofrancos’ Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador delves into the conflict between two radical approaches to minerals and hydrocarbons: state-driven and extraction-dependent developmentalism, and an Indigenous and grassroots repudiation of extraction for export. The fundamental questions center around whether commodifying nature is a reasonable price to pay in exchange for certain forms of development.  Resource nationalists, in Ecuador and across Latin America, say yes; Indigenous, labor, and rural constituents, and their allies, say no. But more than a politics of resistance or refusal, Ecuadorian anti-extractivists have articulated a strategy that moves beyond a binary struggle and envisions a post-extractivist political economy. 

Because Karl Polanyi’s concepts of embeddedness and fictitious commodities were at the front of my mind when I read this book, and because Dr. Riofrancos’ accounts of how Ecuadorian protagonists forged their post-extractivist visions compelled me to rethink debates unfolding elsewhere in the Amazon, specifically, in the community of Yanomami Indigenous peoples with whom I have worked on the Brazil-Venezuela border since 2016, I will dwell here on the fundamental tensions surrounding commodification as theorized by Polanyi and as I observed them actually unfold in one place. But the book is about much more. 

Polanyi formulated the concept of embeddedness to describe the inseparability of economy and society. The destructive innovation of economic liberalism was to insist that the economy was separate, or disembedded from, society. Only by imagining the economy as disembedded from society could a magical thing called the ‘self-regulating market’ emerge, ideally able to operate free from societal constraints. This is the fiction of neoliberalism, which in fact requires the constant support of the state in order to be imposed and maintained. The rise of this doctrine was accompanied by another, that of fictitious commodities, which Polanyi named as land, labor, and money: fictitious because their essential social functions long preceded the rise of market capitalism and cannot be reduced to mere interchangeable commodities, despite liberal capitalist insistence to the contrary. 

Attempting to disembed the economy from society is violent. Likewise, the ongoing commodification of land, labor, and money is violent.  Yet Western development and its many ‘alternative’ forms, take the self-regulating market and the commodification of land, labor, and money as fundamental truths, so much so that questioning them is often characterized as absurd or primitive even by leftist leaders elected during the Pink Tide in Latin America. Many communities see no way around this: for many Indigenous communities in the Amazon, including those involved in the post-extractivism movement discussed in Dr. Riofrancos’ book, ‘alternative’ development pathways such as community-run ecotourism signal a path away from mining and toward sustainable livelihoods. But this, too, involves a commodification of land and culture.

The central struggle of the book is not between a ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’ development model — although the debates originated there — but instead concern the question of whether nature itself should be subjected to ongoing commodification and extraction. This is not (only) a philosophical debate, but one that has been at the center of politics, policy, and social movements in Ecuador for decades. For some, there is only one pathway forward, and that is to engage in the Faustian bargain of selling one’s territory to save the nation: to extract hydrocarbon and mineral wealth in exchange for money. The fundamental premise here is that the land, and its mineral endowments, can be carved up and sold, and the profits from the sales will outweigh destruction to landscapes and lives. But when you carve up the land, you carve up the biosphere that sustains life. People are no longer self-sufficient. They become vulnerable, and more often than not, their attempts to assuage their vulnerability are criminalized. 

It is quite reasonable, then, that communities would choose not to disembed their economies from society, or to subordinate themselves to the commodification of their land and labor. But it is seldom so simple as a matter of refusal: as the book details, defending an unalienated relation to land and labor takes constant organizing and constant struggle, made all the more complicated when these struggles are occurring in the shadows of European colonialism and US Imperialism. The question then becomes, how do communities not only survive, but generate the means to defend themselves against relentless attacks on their lands and waters, on their autonomy and lifeways, by extractive interests? This is made even more fraught when extraction is framed as essential to broader shared goals, like national autonomy or climate change mitigation. Here I share a moment from my own fieldwork with a Yanomami Indigenous community on the Brazil-Venezuela border that illustrates the tensions and compromises involved. 

In Summer 2018, I was talking with R., a Yanomami man about my age. R was among a group of people in his Amazonian community working to launch an ecotourism enterprise in order to generate income alternatives to small-scale and illegal gold mining: a practice that had exploded in recent years, drawing non-Indigenous and Indigenous men alike into its destructive vortex. We hiked the trails of the intended ecotourism route that linked his community with the peak of Brazil’s tallest mountain, Pico da Neblina, via a weeklong trek; trails that existed first and foremost because they accessed small-scale mining operations. 

It was approaching time to make the evening meal, and everyone, Yanomami and napë,  instinctively gathered around the camp hearth built out of a few river stones and recently gathered wood. The wood, along with everyone and everything else, was wet because it was the rainy season.  But just as around the midwestern campfires of my childhood, several people vociferously offered their opinion about how best to start a fire in the rain. R. tuned them out as he got the fire going. Once it was crackling away and others had taken over the cooking, R. and I had a good laugh about how everyone all over the world seems to have firm views on how to build a fire. We soon became engrossed in a detailed comparison of fire-starting techniques. 

R.’s knowledge of fire-starting included an extensive catalogue of different kinds of wood with different cooking applications (fish vs. boar) for different seasons (wet vs. dry). I talked about charcoal briquettes that come pre-soaked with lighter fluid, gas grills fueled by cannisters that you put in your car to drive to the gas station to exchange, and synthetic smoke flavor in liquid form.  Of course, R. was familiar with most of these things; he had been all over Brazil during his time in the military. But at the end of a long day, we were having fun comparing the very different webs of socio-ecological relations comprising these different cooking techniques. His questions probed the origins of various grilling products, so I talked about the supply chains of charcoal briquettes (wood and coal waste, perhaps some corn starch), which led to discussions on mining and deforestation, large-scale agriculture, container shipping, and product development labs. I talked about coal mining and the industrial revolution in Britain, which we connected back to colonialism, conquest, climate change, and commodification while he demonstrated how to bring two wet sticks to a smolder by rubbing them together in a particular way. As I was trying and failing to reproduce his technique, he offered the following observation on charcoal briquettes:

"For every difficulty, no matter how small, a napë has some commodity to sell you. These things make life easier. It is impressive. But all commodities demand payment. First, you must have money, and to have money you must do something to get money [“like gold mining,” I said. He added “Or menial labor in a city”]. Second, suddenly your life is filled with easy commodities and you’ve forgotten the most basic things. The forest is no longer your home but a dangerous place where you can get lost and die of hunger. We become like you, like napë who don’t know how to walk properly in the forest. Third, the commodity itself seems simple, it is just a tool, but it takes so much to make it. If we made charcoal briquettes pre-soaked with lighter fluid here, we would not have to wait so long for dinner but we would destroy our forest.” 

R. was not alone in his critique of commodification. At the same time, he was at the center of a herculean attempt to monetize a less locally-destructive form of relations to the community and the land. The community had, for decades, brokered a series of arrangements with gold miners that enriched some households but also brought the familiar hazards — violence, disease, environmental degradation. With NGO partners, a critical mass were opting for a different form of commodification via ecotourism, with the vision that a successful ecotourism business would make it more worthwhile for community members to leave the gold in the ground and keep the forest intact because napë would come not to dig gold and hire Indigenous porters for cheap but instead would pay premium prices to climb Pico da Neblina, appreciate nature, and hopefully become allies in the defense of Yanomami culture. A gamble from the outset; it has been completely stalled by COVID-19 while mining has intensified.

For many reasons, ‘alternative’ forms of development, like ecotourism, are preferable to mining on Indigenous land.  They take contrasting approaches to subterranean endowments: miners dig them up, ecotourists leave them in the ground. But both involve the commodification of land and the deepening transformation of an Indigenous society that was, until recently, non-monetized. Yanomami mining proponents want to be the protagonists in the commodification process and oversee extractive operations; they find sympathy among the many members of the community who are skeptical of the ecotourism venture, who do not wish to be commodified themselves, turned into objects of curiosity photographed for tourists’ amusement. 

In contrast to the cases discussed in the Resource Radicals, and despite the misgivings around commodifying minerals vs. commodifying landscapes and cultures, desires to move beyond commodification were dismissed as impractical, as a move backward to a past that is no longer accessible, rather than a vision for the future. It is a matter of choosing the least bad — or, in development parlance, ‘more sustainable,’ — form of commodification to slow the onslaught of the most destructive forms of extractive capitalism in seemingly remote regions of the Amazon.

But in Resource Radicals, the debate moves beyond these dilemmas. Rather than allow those who see extraction and developmentalism as the only way forward to set the terms of the debate, anti-extractivists articulate a future away from extractive developmentalism and its seemingly endless socio-ecological compromises. The stakes of their struggle are at once local and global: can they prove that it is possible to de-commodify land, to restore it to its peoples, and thereby slow the processes of extraction that drive climate change? Like the protagonists in this book, and like some of Dr. Riofrancos’ conclusions, Polanyi argued that escaping commodification and the violence of market economy was not a matter of going backward, but a matter of proper planning and power-sharing.

Polanyi, of course, was not concerned with the Amazon. It was too far removed from his personal and scholarly worlds in Europe and the US.  But his insight that the myth of the self-regulating market persists because it represents a stark utopia can be adapted to the central conflict that is masterfully analyzed by Dr. Riofrancos. Pro-mining leftists may be more grounded than free-market utopians because they see plainly the role of the state in orchestrating economic affairs, but they can be seduced by a different kind of utopia promised by the extractivist model, especially during the commodity boom which captured the leaders elected during the Pink Tide in Latin America. In this utopia, monies captured from the process of commodifying land and substrata can be channeled to build modernist visions of a just, equitable, and prosperous society; indeed, increased social spending changed the lives of millions. This has many variations, including alternative development schemes such as ecotourism that I have discussed here, or the conviction that our only way out of the climate crisis is to exponentially increase mining. These, too, take proper planning and power-sharing to minimize their harms. 

The tension here is that is entirely possible to realize a form of wholesale extractivism that is entirely consistent with Polanyi’s vision and entirely consistent with Leftist developmentalism. From our present moment of resurgent fascism, increased assassinations of activists and environmental defenders, and wholesale environmental destruction, that would constitute a major victory. But for the anti-extractivist critics in the book, it is not enough. Because their analyses are not based on abstractions but on the actual conditions of the living Earth, they cannot be dismissed. There is a lot we can learn from their translation of this conviction in to action, from the manner in which they articulated what might seem like halcyon dreams of a bygone era into an urgent political economic agenda demanded by the crises of our present moment.