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Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

For a Fair and Effective Industrial Climate Transition: Support measures for heavy industry in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

By Yelter Bollen, Tycho Van Hauwaert, and Olivier Beys - European Trade Union Institute, August 2021

Europe’s industrial base needs to undergo a swift and persistent transformation towards carbon neutrality and circularity, but this transition must happen in a fair and socially just manner. In this working paper, we evaluate the support mechanisms for heavy industry which have been put in place over the past 20 years, comparing the state of play in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

We also compare recent developments in the industrial policy frameworks of these countries, considering European as well as domestic policy levers. We conclude that policy frameworks have largely been ‘defensive’, have lacked foresight, and have had negative distributional effects. Recent shifts in policy have opened up avenues for progress, but the level of ambition remains insufficient and uneven. Major economic incentives and support measures should cohere with a just transition, at the (sub-)national as well as the EU level.

Read the text (Link).

Position Document on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Reform

By Pier Francesco Pandolfi de Rinaldis, Berthe Darras, Jean-Matthieu Thévenot - European Coordination Via Campesina, July 13, 2021

Today the Youth Articulation of ECVC has released a Position Document on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Following the latest agreement between the EU Commission, EU Parliament and European Council, the young members of ECVC want to express their opinions, concerns and proposals for the reformed CAP and its application at the national level.

“We fear that the reformed CAP will continue to neglect the real needs of young farmers, and in particular small, agroecological farmers. Moreover, we expect that the CAP will continue to miss one of its main objectives: facilitating the entrance of new farmers (…). The CAP policies significantly affect us, yet we have no say in its reform process. It is not sufficient that the role of young farmers is acknowledged on paper, we want effective policies to support us and the right to participate in decision-making. As there can be no future for EU agriculture without young farmers.”

Read the text (PDF).

Renewable energies and ‘green hydrogen’: Renewing destruction?

By Joanna Cabello - World Rainforest Movement, July 9, 2021

Industrial-scale renewable energy infrastructure has seen a revival in the agenda of the ‘energy transition’ and as part of the economic recovery plans in front of the pandemic. Besides, the production of so-called ‘green hydrogen’ from these projects adds another layer of injustices. The energy matrix and over consumption remain untouched.

In a 2020 statement from the International Hydropower Association, the world’s largest hydropower corporations are calling on governments for “fast-track planning approvals” to ensure new large dams construction can commence as soon as possible. (1) The hydro energy industry is also lobbying to make sure large dams are seen as essential to the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and to “the transition to net-zero carbon economies” (2), casting devastating projects as both ‘clean’ and central to a ‘green energy transition’.

Industrial-scale renewable energy, including hydro, wind and solar, is positioned as a solution to our ever-increasing energy consumption. On top of this, the production of the so-called ‘green hydrogen,’ adds another layer of injustices related to this mega infrastructure. Yet, the replacement of the energy source by no means addresses the real problem posed by the excessive levels of energy consumption, which are driven by accumulative economic growth. This also leaves unchallenged the violence intrinsic to the societies that such energy powers. (3)

Many corporate and state actors are pushing for increasing their capacity to produce and use hydrogen as part of the ‘green’ recovery plans from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It is becoming central in the ‘green transition’ debates. The German government has announced plans to spend 9 billion euros (UD10.7 billion dollars) supporting its domestic hydrogen industry. (4) Likewise, the European Commission has started to promote hydrogen as a way of cutting carbon emissions and reaching its Green Deal climate targets. The EU plans to scale up ‘renewable hydrogen’ projects and invest a cumulative amount of 470 billion euros (US740 billion dollars) by 2050. (5) Moreover, US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said that hydrogen “will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors [in the United States] (…) and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050.” (6)

Driving Destructive Mining: EU Civil Society Denounces EU Raw Materials Plans in European Green Deal

By various - Yes to Life No to Mining, June 2021

A global coalition of 180+ community platforms, human rights and environmental organisations, and academics from 36 nations is calling on the EU to abandon its plans to massively expand dirty mining as part of EU Green Deal and Green Recovery plans.

In a statement released in the middle of EU green week, the coalition explains why, if left unchanged, EU policies and plans will drastically increase destructive mining in Europe and in the Global South, which is bad news for the climate, ecosystems, and human rights around the world.

“The EU is embarking on a desperate plunder for raw materials. Instead of delivering a greener economy, the European Commission’s plans will lead to more extraction beyond ecological limits, more exploitation of communities and their land, and new toxic trade deals. Europe is consuming as if we had three planets available”, says Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Coordinated by the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network’s European Working Group, the statement’s signatories are united in support of an urgent and rapid transition to renewable energy.

However, they argue that relying on expanding mining to meet the material needs of this transition will replicate the injustices, destruction and dangerous assumptions that have caused climate breakdown in the first place:

“The EU growth and Green Deal plans must consider a deep respect of the rights of affected communities in the Global South, that are opposing the destruction of their lands, defending water and even their lives. A strong collective voice is arising from affected communities around the Planet, denouncing hundreds of new mining projects for European consumption. Their urgent message needs to be heard in the North: Yes to Life No to Mining”, says Guadalupe Rodriguez, Latin American Contact Person for the global Yes to Life, No to Mining solidarity network.

“Research shows that a mining-intensive green transition will pose significant new threats to biodiversity that is critical to regulating our shared climate. It is absolutely clear we cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis. Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘green mining’. We need an EU Green Deal that addresses the root causes of climate change, including the role that mining and extractivism play in biodiversity loss ”, adds Yvonne Orengo of Andrew Lees Trust, which is supporting mining affected communities in Madagascar.

The statement sets out a number of actions the EU can take to change course towards climate and environmental justice, including recognising in law communities’ Right to Say No to unwanted extractive projects and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Read the text (PDF).

Just Transition policies in Canada, EU and OECD countries, including unique case studies

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, April 8, 2021

How Can we Manage a Just Transition? A comparative review of policies to support a just transition from carbon intensive industries was released by the University of Victoria , Institute for Integrated Energy Systems in late March 2021. The researchers examined national Just Transition policies in Canada and in twenty-five European Union and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, along with EU-level and regional entities. Seven main thematic areas were identified: i) governance mechanisms: ii) climate and sustainability planning; iii) workforce development; iv) economic development; v) regional and rural development; vi) innovation and research; vii) social security. Amongst the key findings: Jobs and environment-focussed initiatives are the most common, with well-developed workforce and skills strategies evident. However, the researchers highlight many deficiencies, including a lack of social justice language in policies; a lack of targeted strategies, excepting for the coal industry; a lack of proactive planning – with the exception of workforce development measures; and a lack of integrated planning at the industrial/economic planning level. The report points to best practice examples – in New Zealand for its proactive approach, and in Scotland and Ireland, for accountability through Just Transitions Commissions.

The report provides a thorough literature review, international analysis, and identifies areas where further research is needed. It also provides ten brief, unique case studies which include, but go beyond fossil-fuel related transitions, consisting of: Ontario, Canada; Grand-Est, France; Saarland, Germany; Western Macedonia, Greece; Piedmont, Italy; Incheon, Capital Region, Korea; Bay of Plenty, New Zealand; Basque Country, Spain; Kalmar, Småland with Islands, Sweden; and Wales, United Kingdom.

Nordic and German unions collaborate, aim to be Just Transition "frontrunners"

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 18, 2021

The Road to a Carbon-Free Europe. Each country report, about 25 pages, summarizes the national climate goals and policies, especially as related to Just Transition, for Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland , Norway, and Sweden. A Synthesis Report brings together the main findings, and presents the resulting policy recommendations, jointly adopted by the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) in November and December 2020.

The Synthesis Report calls for holistic climate change policies to navigate the broad-based transformation of society that will result from climate change, incorporating Just Transition principles as outlined by the ILO Decent Work Agenda and its four pillars: social dialogue, social protection, rights at work and job creation. Because Germany and the Nordic countries are export-oriented economies dependent on trade, and facing similar challenges in the emissions-heavy sectors of their economies, the report sees many common opportunities for zero-emission innovations and technology.

A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

By Andy Whitmore - War on Want, March 2021

There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals: the materials needed at high volumes for the production of renewable energy technologies. Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this transition cannot be achieved by expanding our reliance on other materials. The voices arguing for ‘digging our way out of the climate crisis’, particularly those that make up the global mining industry, are powerful but self-serving and must be rejected. We need carefully planned, lowcarbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.

Academics, communities and organisations have labelled this new mining frontier, ‘green extractivism’: the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of “solving” climate change, while at the same time mining companies profit from an unjust, arbitrary and volatile transition. There are multiple environmental, social, governance and human rights concerns associated with this expansion, and threats to communities on the frontlines of conflicts arising from mining for transition minerals are set to increase in the future. However, these threats are happening now. From the deserts of Argentina to the forests of West Papua, impacted communities are resisting the rise of ‘green extractivism’ everywhere it is occurring. They embody the many ways we need to transform our energy-intense societies to ones based on democratic and fair access to the essential elements for a dignified life. We must act in solidarity with impacted communities across the globe.

This report includes in-depth studies written by frontline organisations in Indonesia and Philippines directly resisting nickel mining in both countries respectively. These exclusive case studies highlight the threats, potential impacts and worrying trends associated with nickel mining and illustrate, in detail, the landscape for mining expansion in the region.

Read the text (PDF).

Ukraine: neither NATO nor Moscow!

By staff - Anarchist Communist Group, January 29, 2022

The Western media is pounding the drum for a conflict between Putin’s Russia and the Western powers over Ukraine.

Let us be clear. Vladimir Putin leads a gangster regime in Russia, sometimes referred to as a kleptocracy (rule by thieves). He runs an oppressive regime and as an ex-high up in the Russian secret police, the KGB, he has extremely close relations with its latest incarnation, the FSB (Federal Service Bureau of the Russian Federation). He has come down heavily on any form of opposition, and the anarchist movement in Russia has suffered, with anarchist militants, arrested tortured and given heavy prison sentences. The Putin regime is massing large numbers of troops on Ukraine’s borders for a number of reasons. The domestic situation is far from healthy and the Covid pandemic has aggravated this. Putin is wary of growing discontent and hopes that his belligerent attitude will unite the Russian masses behind him and make them forget their economic woes. This is a gamble, as the Russian masses are in general not keen to engage in warfare with their fellow Slavs in Ukraine, and remember the disastrous consequences of the war in Afghanistan, when Russian troops sent in to save the pro-Russian regime there were bogged down for years with massive casualties.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of republics emerged that had separated from the Russian Federation. Among these was Ukraine, the largest in terms of landmass and the most important in terms of industrial development, an industrial development that had reached its climax under Stalin and his successors.

The fall of the Soviet Union seriously weakened Russia but thanks to rising oil prices coupled with the rise to power of Putin, it began to re-assert itself. It was determined to control and influence the surrounding countries on its borders, both for defence reasons and to re-affirm its control over those regions which it had established after World War Two.

The political-military alliance it had established with its satellites, the Warsaw Pact, was dissolved. However, the corresponding political-military alliance developed by the United States and the Western European powers, NATO, was not wound up and remains an instrument of both the USA and various component Western countries. In fact, NATO sought to increase its influence and has intervened in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. Despite promising the Russian regime that it would not expand its influence east of what was East Germany, it has invested its forces in the countries surrounding Russia, including the Baltic States.

NATO is an aggressive military machine, not a body there to passively defend the West. It has intervened in Libya, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It actively seeks to recruit not just former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into its alliance, but also so called neutral countries like Finland and Sweden, both very close to Russia. It demands that each component country of NATO spends at least 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on military expenditure.

Global Just Transition case studies from a trade union viewpoint

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 14, 2021

Just Transition: Putting planet, people and jobs first” is the theme of a special issue of Equal Times, published in December 2020. The compilation of articles provides a trade union point of view to describe the just transition experiences in Bangladesh, Tunisia, Argentina, and Senegal, as well as the more frequently cited experiences in Spain and Scotland. The complete Special Issue is here , and was supported financially by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Although Spain’s 2018 agreement regarding coal transition is well known, this article is a welcome English-language text, translated from the original Spanish version written by Spanish journalist María José Carmona. Another useful English text on the topic is The Just Transition Strategy within the Strategic Energy and Climate Framework, translated and published by the Spanish government in 2019. And an earlier report from the Central Confederation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) provides brief summaries of Spanish and other Just Transition frameworks, in A Fair Climate Policy for Workers: Implementing a just transition in various European countries and Canada (2019). It covers Germany, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, and Canada in a brief 32 pages.

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