The political economy of managing conflict: the state-corporate nexus and 'greening' extractivism

21 November 2023

Vicki Reif-Breitwieser - Doctoral Researcher, Department of Politics & IR, University of Sheffield

Resistance and activism against extractivism is prompting repression by state and corporate actors. This blog is the third in the series The Political Economy of Conflict by members of SPERI's Doctoral Researcher Network.

The interconnections between resource extraction, environmental harms and resistance from affected communities is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the mining industries of Latin America - the region considered the deadliest for environmental and human rights defenders. This prevalence of conflict, most recently evidenced by violent protests in Argentina’s Jujuy province, drives the need to revamp the industry's image. These efforts are strengthened by the increased pursuit of minerals considered ‘critical’ in the global energy transition, allowing corporations to adopt a responsible ‘green’ image. While violence in Jujuy has been understood in the context of state violence, interrogation of ‘green’, or ‘climate smart mining’, centres on ‘responsible’ initiatives devised by the private sector. However, neither of these narratives paint a complete picture; managing conflict is a complex affair whereby corporate and state power become intertwined and form the basis for the wider power structures that seek to justify resource-led economic growth. As the logic of ‘green extractivism’ gathers pace, how should we characterise relations between corporations and the state within conflict management?

On the surface the protests in Jujuy appear to address first and foremost the increasingly repressive politics and curtailing of democratic rights, rather than challenging resource extraction directly. However, having emerged in response to regional constitutional amendments aimed at stifling socio-environmental activism, it remains at its core a critique  of the expansion of ‘green’ extractive projects. These changes have altered the processes through which land is accessed, providing easier entry for multinational mining companies, while threatening livelihoods of indigenous land holders. At the same time instruments for contesting these developments were removed as the ‘reforms’ failed to obey the required 50-day consultation period designed to provide space for public debate. Inhibiting public discussion also violates the right of free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples (FPIC), which international bodies, such as the UN, consider a vital mechanism to protect vulnerable groups, and which forms part of the wider ‘deliberative and participatory turn in global environmental governance’. Ultimately, these amendments and their implementation suppress the right to protest and criminalise communities' ability to contest new projects legitimately. 

This process of criminalization has been recognised as a key mechanism in managing mining conflicts and is strengthened by strategic discourse from state and corporate actors alike. Most notably, extractive-led development is framed as a security issue, which legitimises the excessive use of force, such as rubber bullets aimed at the head - a practice forbidden under international human rights law. Constructing resource extraction as a priority leads to the demonisation of protesters which is enabled through ‘criminal selectivity’; the ‘under-criminalisation’ of militarised police brutality, and the ‘over-criminalisation’ of activism. Importantly, these contemporary practices do not exist in a vacuum but are inextricably linked to histories of state sanctioned violence against indigenous groups. Historically, these discourses have framed mining conflicts as matters of national security and even portrayed environmental activists as ‘terrorists’. In Argentina these accusations are deeply intertwined with ideas of nationality as indigenous protesters, such as the Mapuche, have previously been denied their belonging to Argentinian territories and described as ‘violent people that do not respect the law, the homeland or the flag’. ‘Threats’ to resource extraction are therefore socially-constructed with the purpose of minimising the potency of resistance. 

Scholarship has offered a number of possible ways of understanding state-corporate relations in the context of extractive conflicts. In the case of Jujuy, histories of marginalizations suggest it should be considered an instance of state violence. Focusing on the culpability of the state however obscures more complex dynamics as the state and corporations cooperate to maintain extraction in the face of resistance. As such, corporations benefit from the state’s ability to ‘legally’ dispossess communities; in exchange, the economic potential extractive businesses carry serves as a discursive legitimation tool for said practices. Moreover, the role of the legal apparatus is evident in the management of political and regulatory risks to extractive operations, such as stricter legislation and environmental impact assessments (EIAs). While these supposedly restrain corporate activity and tackle the well documented harms of extraction, they increasingly formalise governance structures which, rather than protecting affected groups, facilitates extraction. Indeed the idea of ‘governance capture’ has been used to understand how ‘market-enabling’ logics are now characterising the regulation of resource extraction, leaving community interests deprioritised in the process. 

Rather than emphasising how governance capture occurs within a complex state-corporate nexus, these processes have in the past been situated in the wider patterns of state corporatisation, which describes the process of state restructuring that prioritises the ‘economic’ over the ‘social’ or ‘political’. While this notion highlights how the dominance of neoliberal ideologies weakens statehood, it risks portraying the state as a ‘victim’ to corporate coercion that is devoid of agency. This obscures two critical features of the state-corporate nexus and its applicability to current extractive politics. Firstly, it fails to discuss the state’s independent interests in pursuing violent repression, missing nuances in state behaviours, such as disparities between regional and national discourses. In the context of the Jujuy protests this permits the national government to condemn the ‘unacceptable’ response of regional governor Morales, yet paradoxically maintain its vocal support for the expansion of Lithium mining in the region. 

Secondly, placing emphasis on a single entity reduces attention to the wider regimes and ideologies which perpetuate violent patterns of resource extraction and legitimate repressive ‘conflict management’. The normalisation of violence thus depends upon widespread support of certain ideas about development and progress by an array of institutions and individuals. Recognising this ideological component is critical in understanding the ways conflict is approached in green mining disputes as the logic of green capitalism is merging with existing narratives about what we may consider justifiable trade-offs for economic gain. While the behaviour of states and corporations may therefore appear constant, the ideologies and discursive instruments which precede them take new shapes. As such, the greater ‘value’ of green minerals and the necessity to stop a global climate catastrophe are becoming dominant. 

Ultimately, conflict management in extractive politics occurs on multiple levels and is driven by a distinct state-corporate nexus. Far from being static, this nexus is constantly evolving, adapting to the new challenges that contemporary resistance generates. In the case of ’green’ extractivism this has allowed corporations and states to craft new narratives that mutually reinforce each other's dominance, while eroding democratic rights in the name of sustainability and the greater global good. 

You can read previous contributions to the series here and here.

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