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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.

Combatting Climate Change, Reversing Inequality: A Climate Jobs Program for Texas

By Lara R. Skinner, J. Mijin Cha, Hunter Moskowitz, and Matt Phillips - ILR Worker Institute, Cornell, July 26, 2021

Texas is currently confronted by three major, intersecting crises: the COVID-19 public health pandemic and ensuing economic crisis; a growing crisis of inequality of income, wealth, race and power; and the worsening climate crisis, which continues to take its toll on Texans through hurricanes, major flood events, wildfires, debilitating heat waves and the significant economic cost of these extreme weather events. These crises both expose and deepen existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting working families, women, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, immigrants, and the most vulnerable in our society.

A well-designed recovery from the COVID-19 global health pandemic, however, can simultaneously tackle these intersecting crises. We can put people to work in high-quality, family- and community-sustaining careers, and we can build the 21st century infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Indeed, in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it is essential that our economic recovery focus on developing a climate-friendly economy. Moreover, there are significant jobs and economic development opportunities related to building a clean energy economy. One study shows that 25 million jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next three decades by electrifying our building and transportation sectors, manufacturing electric vehicles and other low-carbon products, installing solar, wind and other renewables, making our homes and buildings highly-efficient, massively expanding and improving public transit, and much more.

Conversely, a clean, low-carbon economy built with low-wage, low-quality jobs will only exacerbate our current crisis of inequality. The new clean energy economy can support good jobs with good benefits and a pipeline for historically disadvantaged communities to high-quality, paid on-the-job training programs that lead to career advancement. Currently, the vast majority of energy efficiency, solar and wind work is non-union, and the work can be low-wage and low-quality, even as the safety requirements of solar electrical systems, for example, necesitate well-trained, highly-skilled workers.

Read the text (PDF).

Economic Update: The Challenge of Progressive Unionism

Victory for climate activists in the Dutch Courts and in Exxon and Chevron boardrooms

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 27, 2021

May 26 will go down in history as a very bad day for the fossil fuel industry for three reasons: in the Netherlands, the courts issued a landmark decision that requires Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions – including Scope 3 emissions – by 45% by 2030. Also on May 26, activist shareholders won separate victories at the corporate annual meetings of ExxonMobil and Chevron. Bill McKibben reflects on all three events in “Big Oil’s Bad Bad Day” in The New Yorker , and Jamie Henn wrote “A Landmark Day in the fight against fossil fuels” in Fossil Free Media.

The case of Royal Dutch Shell is summarized by Friends of the Earth Canada in their press release , which also links to an English-language version of the Court’s decision.

“On May 26, as a result of legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organisations the court in The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years.

…..“This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters,” says Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

The verdict requires Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. Shell is also responsible for emission from customers and suppliers. There is a threat of human rights violations to the “right to life” and “undisturbed family life”.

German news organization Deutsche Welle offers an excellent, more thorough discussion in “Shell ordered to reduce CO2 emissions in watershed ruling”, which points out that the case was argued on human rights grounds – much like the precedent-setting Urgenda case and the recent German constitutional case. In those cases however, governments were called upon to defend the human right to a future safe from the dangers of climate change. The Shell case is the first time such an argument has been tried against a corporation – and is seen as a harbinger of future legal action.

Canada’s banks continue to finance oil and gas

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 19, 2021

A report released at the end of April examines the performance and the links between Canada’s oil companies and the big banks which form Canada’s “comfortable oligopoly”: Royal Bank (RBC), Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, Bank of Montreal, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and the National Bank of Canada. Fossilized Finance: How Canada’s banks enable oil and gas production is written by Donald Gutstein and published by by the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as part of its Corporate Mapping Project. The report outlines the bank presence in the Canadian energy sector since the collapse of oil prices in 2014 – lending, underwriting, advising and investing. It also examines interlocking directorates, executive transfer, industry conference sponsorships and industry association memberships.This reveals different details than the international report, Banking on Climate Chaos, published by BankTrack in late March.

While acknowledging that the banks have begun to invest in some renewable energy projects, Fossilized Finance shows that this leopard has not changed its spots:

“In contrast to the need to reduce financing of fossil fuels, banks actually increased their lending and commitments to the industry by more than 50 per cent—to $137 billion—between 2014 and 2020. Toronto-Dominion, in particular, upped its lending by 160 per cent over the seven-year period, to nearly $33 billion in 2020. As well, banks have invested tens of billions of dollars in fossil fuel and pipeline company shares. Here, Royal Bank leads the pack with nearly $21 billion invested in the top 15 fossil fuel and pipeline companies as of November 2019. Banks continue to underwrite fossil fuel company stock and bond issues, and they continue to provide key advice on mergers, acquisitions and other corporate moves.”

Many of the researchers involved in the CCPA/Corporate Mapping Project have written chapters in Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power blocks Energy Democracy, a book edited by William Carroll and published by Athabasca University Press. Readers of the WCR may be particularly interested in Chapter 15, “From Clean Growth to Climate Justice” by Marc Lee, but all the excellent chapters are available for free download here. The publisher’s summary states: “Anchored in sociological and political theory, this comprehensive volume provides hard data and empirical research that traces the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry through economics, politics, media, and higher education. Contributors demonstrate how corporations secure popular consent, and coopt, disorganize, or marginalize dissenting perspectives to position the fossil fuel industry as a national public good. They also investigate the difficult position of Indigenous communities who, while suffering the worst environmental and health impacts from carbon extraction, must fight for their land or participate in fossil capitalism to secure income and jobs. The volume concludes with a look at emergent forms of activism and resistance, spurred by the fact that a just energy transition is still feasible. This book provides essential context to the climate crisis and will transform discussions of energy democracy.”

If you are outraged by what these researchers reveal, a personal option to switch banks is now made easier through the Bank Green website, launched in April in association with BankTrack. So far, Bank Green covers more than 300 banks globally, including only two “ethical banks” in Canada: Vancity, and Duca Credit Union. The website provides information for customers and encourages them to switch banks and divest from fossil fuels.

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

Job creation potential of nature-based solutions to climate change

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 10, 2021

U.K. think tank Green Alliance commissioned research to measure the economic impact of nature-based investments for a green recovery, and released the results on May 4. The full report, Green Renewal – The Economics of Enhancing the Natural Environment, was written by WPI Economics, and states: “Looking at just three types of enhancement (woodland creation, peatland restoration and urban green infrastructure) we find that an expanded programme of nature restoration could create at least 16,050 jobs in the 20% of constituencies likely to face the most significant employment challenges. We present place-based analysis of the labour market and nature based solutions, which can also be found on an interactive webpage here.” The report emphasizes that nature-based interventions can create jobs in areas that need them the most – stating that two thirds of the most suitable land for planting trees is in constituencies with worse than average labour market challenges.

Jobs for a Green Recovery is a summary report written by Green Alliance, based on the economic WPI report. It emphasizes the impact of Covid on youth employment, stating that 63% of those newly unemployed in 2020-21 are under 25, argues that nature-based jobs are long-term, skilled and productive, and makes specific recommendations for the British government so that such jobs can become part of the U.K. green recovery. Green Alliance estimates that investments in nature-related jobs have a high cost-benefit ratio, with £4.60 back for every £1 invested in peatland, £2.80 back in woodland, and £1.30 back for salt marsh creation.

Jobs for a Green Recovery includes brief U.K. case studies. An interesting a related Canadian example can be found in the new Seed the North initiative, described in The Tyee here . Seed the North is a small start-up company in Northern B.C., with big ambition to scale up. Currently, the project collects wild seed from Canadian trees, uses innovative technology to encase the seed in bio-char, and then uses drone technology to plant seeds in remote forest areas. The result: increased regeneration of disturbed land, restored soil health, a statistically significant contribution to carbon sequestration, and economic benefits flowing through co-ownership to the local First Nations communities who participate.

Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, et. al. - Earthworks, March 31, 2021

It is critical that the clean energy economy not repeat the mistakes of the dirty fossil fuel economy that it is seeking to replace. The pivot from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing. We can accelerate the renewable energy transition and drive improvements in the social and environmental performance of the mining industry by reducing overall demand for new minerals, increasing mineral recycling and reuse, and ensuring that mining only takes place if it meets high environmental, human rights and social standards.

This report is designed to inform downstream battery metal users of key environmental, social, and governance issues associated with the extraction and processing of the three battery metals of principal concern for the development of electric vehicles and low-carbon energy infrastructure—lithium, cobalt and nickel—and to offer guidance on responsible minerals sourcing practices. This report reflects and summarizes some of the key concerns of communities impacted by current and proposed mineral extraction in hotspots around the world: Argentina, Chile and the United States for lithium, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Russia for nickel, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt.

Read the text (PDF).

To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

Ecosocialismo: Envisioning Latin America’s Green New Deal

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