n June 2012, during a rise in Indigenous resistance to mining and oil exploration in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa asked, “How can one make decisions without information?” (Riofrancos p. 149). The president went on to explain that without resource reconnaissance, Ecuador’s gift would remain unknown to Ecuadorians. 

The exploration of extractivismo in Resource Radicals is a gift – of a very different kind — that Thea Riofrancos and Ecuadorian activists give scholars of Latin America, environmental policy, and the politics of development. It forces us to see how President Correa’s frustrations reflect the intramural lives of leftist politicians. What is information, and can it be democratic? How did Ecuador’s leftist government communicate the socio-economics and proliferation of extraction with leftist social movements? 

For anti-extractivists listening to President Correa’s speech, information was another form of extraction that meant little to Indigenous communities in the highlands. As part of the 1998 constitution, the Ecuadorian government adopted consulta previa to communicate matters of extraction with environmental interest groups. Although former cabinet member Monica Chuji believed that communities would accept more mining projects with better information, in practice the government was neither forthcoming nor transparent. By looking at consulta previa, or prior consultation, Riofrancos explores how the government shares and produces information through distrust and subjectivity. As she brilliantly shows, governmental consulta previa can assume the worst of Indigenous perspectives and flattens their impact on environmental policy to political opposition. Through interviews with officials and a close textual analysis of federal policies, Riofrancos shows that state consultation is a form of socialization incommensurable with how communities value consultation and fosters more state control than local democracy (Riofrancos, pp. 98, 105-6).

Information is not neutral; in Ecuador, information is connected to the state or industry and often favors mining at the expense of community politics. Information is not rooted in local perspectives; as Theodore Porter (1996) argues in Trust in Numbers, information is a political solution to a political problem precisely because it can neutralize politics. He makes this argument comparing the differences in politics of knowledge production between nations. In an exciting contrast, however, Riofrancos sifts through the politics of information with one country’s spectrum of leftist politics to tell a timely and intimate story about intramural communication between a leftist government and a leftist movement (Riofrancos, pp. 166-7) 

Without a common obstacle in neoliberalism, information divided “resource radicals” into the resource nationalists in power and anti-extractionists in resistance. Unlike neoliberals, both groups considered themselves leftists and environmentalists. However, they disagreed about the inherent nature of resource extraction. Within “extractivismo discourse," resource nationalists in power wanted to use resource rents to alleviate poverty, while anti-extractionists in resistance wanted no extraction at all.

The ensuing conflict between “left in power” and “left in resistance” resonates with many stories of development and environmental change in the Americas, especially during the Pink Tide (1999-2013). In the context of the Chinese-led commodity boom (2000-2014), several leftist governments in Latin America expanded mining and oil operations. Leftist governments proved they could marginalize radicals, co-opt green initiatives, or flat out exploit more resources. The Correa administration did manage to use resource rents to reduce poverty nationwide from 37.6 to 22.5 percent, but at what costs? (Riofrancos, p. 170) Beyond economic evaluations of “la tierra,” leftists groups implored the government to consider “el territorio,” which also valued land for cultural and ecological reasons. Which ecosystems, species, and traditions did not survive?

Ecuador’s case is telling but not unique. Western imperialism, technological innovation, and the ideology of capitalism were actors causing ecological damage in the tropical world; endogenous forces were often as earth-shattering as exogenous ones. As Sergio Briquets-Díaz and Jorge Pérez-López (2000) reveal in Cuba and DJ Peterson (1993) shows in the Soviet Union, socialism and communism also joined in the destruction of the environment, especially in the name of top-down, statist, technocratic rule. Other revolutionary governments like China and Mexico have also historically invested in extraction to expand political and social power. 

I want to take this opportunity to borrow from the insights of Riofrancos’ excellent analysis in order to think through its lessons for environmental politics in Mexico, the subject of my own dissertation research. Mexico’s energy politics hold a special place in the economic history of Latin America. For many, Mexico's nationalization of oil on March 18, 1938, symbolized Latin American resistance against foreign multinational corporations. After years of political mobilization, laborers in the petroleum sector fought to convince Mexico’s most leftist president, Lázarzo Cárdenas, to extract oil for Mexicans rather than foreigners (Santiago 2009). Since Mexico’s economic nationalism influenced labor and leadership in oil-producing countries like Chile, Venezuela, and Ecuador from the 1930s to the 1960s, how did decades of labor organization bolster popular ideas about extractivismo in Ecuador? What did grassroots organizing look like among resource nationalists? Considering the mineral-based commodity boom in post-oil Ecuador, how did mineral extraction in Mexico change after 1938? Was there an expansion in foreign-owned mineral extraction in Mexico even as global prices for copper, iron, and silver plummeted in the postwar period?

Borrowing from Riofrancos’ generative understanding of a “left in power,” investigating the PRI’s extractivismo as nationalistic and characteristic of the “left in power” questions the concept of the so-called Pax Priísta, or the postwar period of diminishing socio-political conflict and steady economic growth. In the context of extractivismo, much of the economic growth during the Pax Priísta’s Green Revolution and Mexican Miracle can be characterized by socio-political conflict. The PRI adopted a resource nationalist position to combat U.S. economic hegemony but moved farther right politically. Together with oil power and politics, they drastically transformed the countryside through chemical-intensive agriculture that provided urban consumers cheap diets at the expense of rural land and economic security.

Resource Radical’s post-Cold War framework can also help think through endogenous forces of transition between Mexico’s Miracle and its so-called Guerra Sucia. There was little consensus on the value of industrial agriculture in postwar Mexico. Although U.S. and Mexican officials worked together to spread Green Revolution techniques from Sonora to the rest of Mexico, Mexican politicians and grassroots actors disagreed about the application of its changes. Disagreements notwithstanding, the PRI — just as much as the United States — supported the expansion of the agrochemical industry and large-scale agriculture. 

Inspired by legacies of Zapatismo and agrarian reform, leaders like Ruben Jaramillo and Lucio Cabañas presented alternative visions for land tenure, but the Mexican military killed them and crushed their movements. Since the 1980s, large-scale mining, agricultural, and deforestation projects have only increased. Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries in which to fight for environmental justice today, especially for Black, Indigenous, and women leaders, whom paramilitary groups target at higher rates. 

What kind of resource radicals were Afro-Ecuadorians? Since Riofrancos notes that Afro-Ecuadorians have the same right to consultation as Indigenous Ecuadorians (Riofrancos, pp. 83, 86, 94, 169), it would be interesting to explore how the Black environmental knowledge mediates the socialization of consultation between the state and Afro-Ecuadorians and between Afro-Ecuadorians and Indigenous Ecuadorians. Black people across the Americas also experience ecological disparities more than others, but scholars tend to associate environmental stewardship with Indigenous communities. Thinking of Tiffany Lethabo King’s work, how did Black and Native communities communicate extractivismo with and without the state? Did environmental experiences of lowland Black populations situate them within the “left in resistance”? The environmental practices and ideas of coastal Afrodescendants get more attention in Brazil, Cuba, and Colombia, but are also relevant in Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador where lowlands populations are often Black and usually face agricultural extraction regimes that date back to slavery. Can thinking about the role of agriculture in extractivismo discourse put the coastal lowlands and often Afrodescendants into the conversation? 

In Mexico, my work on environmental justice and social movements in coastal Guerrero broadly addresses myths about the environmental experiences and social movements across a spectrum of mestizo, Afro-Indigenous, and Indigenous people in the region. Within the historiography, Costa Grande is better known for its political activism and environmentalism than Costa Chica, the poorer but predominantly Afrodescendiente coast. Despite narratives about the region's lack of political formation, however, afrodescendiente communities have been active participants in coastal politics. Furthermore, scholars like Ulises Tabarez-Moreno (2020) and Meztli Yoalli Rodriguez Aguilera (2021) show that Afro-Mexicans are also leaders against certain forms of extraction and ecocide today. 

In the case of Ecuador, does consulta previa with Afro-Ecuadorian communities also reveal their ideas on extractivismo? In a binary between resource nationalists in the southern Amazon and anti-extractionists in the Andean highlands, it can be easy to miss the role of Afro-Ecuadorians in coastal regions like Esmeraldas. Black communities there also maintain ideas about how to care for the environment and allocate resources. Ecuadorian anthropologist Pilar Esqüez Guevara investigates how Afro-Ecuadorians in Esmeraldas have cultivated coconuts and chocolate in the lowlands and have their environmental justice claims. 

Among other things, Guevara’s documentary Rasapando Coco (2018) presents a battle over information and extraction afflicting coconut-growing Afro-Ecuadorians. Coastal communities have grown coconuts for generations to sell coconut byproducts and use in their food, hair, and homes. However, debates over the healthiness of coconut oil are adversely affecting growers. The Ecuadorian government tells them that coconut oil is unhealthy and discontinues financial support. The government would prefer to finance more profitable ventures in industrialized coconut production for non-comestible goods. Rather than reject extraction outright, these communities want access to land, markets, and the benefit of the doubt. But where is the consulta previa for Afro-Ecuadorian coconut growers regarding the value of their heritage crops? Can they facilitate organic agriculture or ecotourism in non-extractive ways? Can the government be transparent and regain community trust? 

The consulta previa, like the cost-benefit analysis and a standardized test, is a scheme to replace trust and neutralize politics and culture. Resource Radicals reminds us that information is a political communication commodity that reinforces power more than it distributes or dismantles it. Leftist governments are not immune to valuing information over community knowledge and experience. Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians will undoubtedly shape state formation and democracy in Ecuador, and consulta previa helps. But consulta previa can also limit the integrity of local perspectives because the government can always try to use information to decide who gets to say what and when.

Works Cited

DJ Peterson, Troubled Lands (Westview, 1993)
Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers (Princeton, 1996).
Sergio Briquets-Díaz and Jorge Pérez-López, Conquering Nature (Pittsburgh, 2000)
Myrna I. Santiago, The Ecology of Oil (Cambridge, 2009).
Pilar Esqüez Guevara, Rasapando Coco (film, 2018)
Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals (Duke, 2019)
Ulises Tabarez-Moreno, “Toward an Afro-Indigenous ecopolitics,” City, 1-2, (2020) pp. 1-13
Meztli Yoalli Rodriguez Aguilera, “Grieving geographies, mourning waters,” Feminist Anthropology, 3, 1 (2021)