Extractivism

by Diana Vela Almeida

La versión en español de este artículo está disponible aquí.

One could simply define extractivism as a productive process where natural resources are removed from the land or the underground and then put up for sale as commodities on the global market. But defining extractivism is not really this easy. Extractivism is related to existing geopolitical, economic and social relations produced throughout history. It is an economic model of development that transnational companies and states practice worldwide and that can be traced back more than 500 years all the way to the European colonial expansion. You can’t tell the history of the colonies without talking about the looting of minerals, metals, and other high-value resources in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—looting that first nourished demands for development from the European crowns and later from the United States, and more recently also from China.

Today this model of accumulation of wealth remains a key part of the structure of a globally dominant capitalistic system—a system where power is in the hands of those who control money and industry—that has extended the extractive frontier to the detriment of other forms of land and resource uses. Such exploitation has also appropriated human bodies in the form of slaves or, more recently, as labor-intensive precarious workers. Extractivism is entirely tied up with exploitation of people.

Today’s extractive industries such as gas, oil, and mining have an egregious reputation of violating human and environmental rights and supporting highly controversial political and economic reforms in poor countries.

Expanding the global frontiers of extraction

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased. Most non-industrialized countries (but also industrialized countries such as Norway, Canada, and the US) have activated their primary sectors of production to exploit landscapes that were previously inaccessible, such as in the case of fracking and tar sands extraction in the Artic or in the open sea.

Since the mid-20th century, extractive frontiers have expanded around the planet as global demand for commodities has increased.

The central idea behind such state-sanctioned extractivism is that extractive projects are strategic ventures for national development in resource-rich countries that can thereby strengthen their comparative economic advantages—that is, their economic power relative to the economic power of other nations. In other words, poor nations can exploit their natural resources as a means for economic growth, a source of employment, and ultimately a tool for poverty reduction.

This idea has been ingrained for many years in developing countries, and yet these countries have historically been unable to convert resource wealth into so-called development. Indeed, in some places that are rich in natural resources—typically in African countries with large oil or mineral deposits—there is an inverse relationship between poverty reduction and economic performance. This means that a lot of extractive activity is coupled with high levels of poverty, economic dependency on capital flows from developed countries, and political instability. This phenomenon is known as the “resource curse.”

In the last 20 years, several governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have challenged the “resource curse” by asserting national control over new forms of primary-production extractive industries. These are oriented around intensive and large-scale projects that cover previously inconceivable environments (again, like off-shore mining or fracking), as well as new forms of economic exploitation such as the agroindustry, fisheries, timber extraction, tourism, animal husbandry, and energy megaprojects.

These endeavours require national policy reforms. In Asia and Africa, extractivist national policies adhere to what is called “resource nationalism” and include the total or partial nationalization of extractive industries, renegotiation of contracts with foreign investment, increased public shareholding, new or higher taxation to expand resource rent, and value-added processing of resources.

In Latin America, the commodity boom at the beginning of the 2000s, marked by the increase in commodity prices together with transnational investments, led to great economic growth in what is called “neoextractivism”. Neoextractivism is a relative of resource nationalism and its emergence coincided with the rise to power of several progressive governments in the region that also seized more state control over natural resources within their national boundaries.

Advocates of neoextractivism claimed that new extractive practices would be “environmentally friendly” and “socially responsible”, thereby minimizing the disastrous impacts of extractivism as it was practiced throughout colonial and neoliberal history. Despite this, extractive industries have expanded and continue to expand in new frontiers with the negative effects of dispossessing people from their land, subjugating communal values to the values of extraction-driven development, and disrupting social structures, territories, and alternative forms of life.

In the debate over extractivism, there is no consensus about how to solve the problems caused by this mode of development. Some people think that extractivism should be viewed positively because of the economic growth and increased public spending that was accomplished during the early 2000s in Latin America. Others emphasise that most of the wealth produced is siphoned out of the producer countries to transnational investors, while negative impacts remain locally or regionally. And from the perspective of those who are directly affected by extractive industries, it is clear that economic revenues are not translated into socially just well-being and that these revenues are generated through the destruction of their lives and their land.

Not a neutral economic model

To further understand the complexity of the problem with extractivism, let us look at three interrelated dimensions of what makes up the extractivist economic model—and then consider how to go beyond the economic considerations of extractivism.

First, for extractivism to work, any biophysical “nature” becomes exclusively framed as a natural resource. That is, nature is conceived as an input (e.g. a resource like oil, soil, or trees) for the production of a commodity (e.g. gas, food, or timber). This simplifies the multiplicity of socionature relations with which such an economic model is entangled.  

When thinking about the environmental impacts of extraction, we surely need to consider what will happen to other elements in nature that are interconnected with the extracted resource, including water, air, soil, plants, and human and non-human animals. A cascading effect of environmental change indeed often occurs in ecosystems that are impacted by extraction, and thus interrelated elements of nature become irreversibly altered.

Second, extractive projects are normally located in or close to marginal, poor, and racialized (i.e. conceived as non-white) populations. Extractivism arrives with promises of improved life conditions, more jobs, and infrastructure development. But large-scale extractive industries are by no means necessarily interested in forwarding local employment and improving the livelihood of people. Instead, experience tells us that they often serve to diminish alternative economic activities and disrupt existing community networks and social structures. Extractive industries have frequently dispossessed people of land rights with the result of cultural disruption and violence.

Demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit.

Marginal populations still bear the brunt of the social costs of extractivism and don’t necessarily reap any benefits. In response to this, demands for social and environmental justice revolve around claims that the social and environmental costs of extractivism are higher than any economic benefit but that these costs are not accounted for in the decisions.

New demands from feminist movements and women Indigenous defenders highlight the relation between extractivism and patriarchal and racial violence and how this disproportionately impacts women. Examples are the increase in prostitution and sexual violence in communities restructured by extractivism and the externalization the social costs—the transfer of responsibilities for caring that are pivotal for the functioning of any economy—to women. As women are primarily responsible for the reproduction of life, they are highly vulnerable to the rupture of community or loss of territory. Because of that, women organizations have become the frontline defenders of their territories in the resistance against extractivism.

Finally, extractivism is a highly political endeavour that maintains a model of capital accumulation and destruction. It has led to the increase of socio-environmental conflicts around the globe, involving measures by states and industry to control resistance and criminalize social protest.

So, in sum, one should define extractivism as far from neutral or apolitical; it is an economic model that reflects a specific political position that relies on a given, predefined understanding of growth-oriented development as the ultimate good. Extractivism thereby reinforces political-economic arrangements that are biased against marginalized people who are deprived of their power to influence political decisions.

From an extractivist political perspective, resistance against extractivism is naïve, obstinate NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard-ism), or ignorant of the economic needs of the countries that could be “developed” by extractive projects. In reality, actions of resistance are contestations that challenge the dominant extractivist worldview and the uneven power relations between actors who decide, actors who benefit, and actors who bear the negative consequences of extraction. Under these conditions, extractivism is in complete contradiction to social and environmental justice and care for nature and life itself.

All in all, extractivism as a single model of production remains one of the most expansionist global enterprises and it squashes any other ways of living with the land. The 500 years’ legacy of extractivism is part of ongoing imperialist interest from industrial powers in securing access and control over natural resources around the globe, even in today´s green energy transitions. As such, extractivism stands in sharp contrast to flourishing alternative forms of land use and livelihoods.

Opposition to extractivism does not mean that people can’t use a resource at all and by no means implies a binary choice between either extractivism or underdevelopment. Instead, anti-extractivism is about focusing on what type of life we want to achieve as a whole and how we build global systems of justice. We can nourish ourselves from several non-extractivist modes of production and reproduction that center on a dignified life for all.  

Further resources:

Bond, P. (2017). Uneven development and resource extractivism in Africa. In Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics (pp. 404-413). Routledge.

  • This article explains the expansion of neoliberal environmentalism in the extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Africa. The author argues that if accounting the social and environmental costs, African countries end up poorer than before extraction.

Burchardt, H. J., & Dietz, K. (2014). (Neo-) extractivism–a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly35(3), 468-486.

  • An overview of key debates of ‘Neo-extractivism’ and the role of the state in Latin America.

Engels, B., & Dietz, K. (Eds.). (2017). Contested extractivism, society and the state: Struggles over mining and land. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • A presentation of several case studies around the globe on the conflicts between extractivism and other land uses.

Galeano, E. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. NYU Press.

  • A classic essay on the history of the looting of natural resources, colonialism and uneven development in Latin America from the 15th century to the 20th century.

Svampa, M. (2015). Commodities consensus: Neoextractivism and enclosure of the commons in Latin America. South Atlantic Quarterly114(1), 65-82.

  • A critical analysis of neo-extractivism, capital accumulation, environmental conflicts and development. It ends up discussing proposals around ideas of post-extractivism and transitions.

Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Diana combines political ecology, ecological economics and feminist critical geography to study extractivism, neoliberal environmentalism and socio-environmental resistance. Contact: diana.velaalmeida[at]ntnu.no

Jevons paradox

by Sam Bliss

The Jevons paradox is that efficiency enables growth. New technologies that can produce more goods from a given amount of resources allow the economy as a whole to produce more. More resources get used overall.

This is the magic of industrial capitalism and the secret of growth. Economists have known it for a long time. So why is it called a paradox?

A question of scale

The paradox is that we tend to assume that the more efficiently we use a resource the less of it we will use.

This is the case in our personal lives. If you buy a more fuel-efficient car, you might drive a little bit more but overall you will likely burn less gasoline. Switching to a low-flow showerhead typically saves water at home.

This efficiency-for-conservation logic appears correct for most subsets of the economy. When a business switches to energy-efficient light bulbs, its electricity bills go down. Municipalities that require new buildings to meet energy efficiency standards might see energy use decrease within city limits. 

But at the level of the whole economy, the reverse is true. These efficiency gains contribute to increasing production and consumption, which increases the extraction of resources and the generation of wastes.

Energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions.

This suggests that energy-efficient technologies do not reduce carbon emissions, that fertilizer-saving precision farming techniques do not decrease fertilizer applications overall, and that increasing agricultural yields does not spare land for nature. Real-world evidence supports these claims.

Environmental policy focused on efficiency gains does not by itself benefit the environment. Economies grow by developing and deploying increasingly efficient technologies. 

How growth happens

Consider a hypothetical example. If the owner of a tea kettle factory installs a new machine that can make one kettle from less raw copper than before, he might continue to produce the same amount of kettles at a lower cost, or he might choose to make more kettles overall from the same amount of copper. 

Either way, profits will go up. The factory owner can buy more machines to make even more kettles from even more copper. Or he can invest those profits elsewhere, increasing production in another sector of the economy and thus increasing the use of copper and other materials. 

As more tea kettle factories adopt the copper-saving technology, they might start selling kettles at lower prices to compete for customers. As tea kettles get cheaper, people will be able to buy more of them. Since more kettles can be sold, factories will make more—using more copper. 

Copper’s price might increase as factories increase their demand for it. When the price goes up, more potential copper mining sites become profitable, which further raises supply.

Or, even if all tea kettle factories end up using less copper with the new, copper-saving machines, copper’s price will fall and other sectors will be able to afford more copper and therefore demand more. 

Cheaper copper could make all copper-containing things cheaper, not just tea kettles, leaving people with more money to spend. They can demand more of the products of all economic sectors, further increasing the use of many materials, including copper. 

Cheaper copper might increase industrial profits, too, which capitalists either reinvest to increase production or spend on luxury things. 

Even if the initial factory owner decides to give his workers a raise rather than keeping the profit or increasing production, then the workers will have more money to spend on tea kettles and everything else. Even if they decide to save all that additional income, the banking sector will direct it toward investing in more new machinery to produce more things from more materials.

No matter what, it seems, copper consumption rises in the end, because efficiency increases kickstart the growth machine.

The more efficiently society can use copper, the more of it will generally be used. Unless, that is, society intentionally limits its use of copper. 

The same goes for just about any resource.

150 years of more

English economist William Stanley Jevons gets credit for being the first to point all this out. In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

In 1865, Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less. 

These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal. 

That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.

In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further. 

A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury. 

In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.

Fighting growth with collective self-limitation

To prevent catastrophic climate change, humanity must rapidly reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. But despite decades of policy efforts and international negotiations, emissions continue to rise every year.

The focus on making energy use more efficient is paradoxically worsening the problem, as efficiency gains facilitate increasing, not decreasing, carbon burning. And renewable energy sources are adding to fossil fuels, not replacing them. Earth’s limited sources of coal, oil, and gas will not run out in time to save the stable climate.

But what if governments around the world treated coal like they do asbestos? What if petroleum extraction and uses were subject to strict limits like those of mercury?

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically.

To limit the use of fossil fuels, or anything else, society must impose limits on itself, preferably democratically. We must set limits on our own activity.  

Once binding limits are in place, efficiency gains become one of several tools for staying within them. With a hard cap on the total amount of oil that can be burned, adopting increasingly fuel-efficient machinery cannot backfire and spark growth of oil-burning economic activity. Instead, fuel efficiency would allow more useful work to be done with the limited amount of oil that society permits itself to combust. 

Of course, we must also be skeptical of the maximizing mentality that considers efficiency and more to be good things as such. Collectively limiting ourselves offers not just an escape from capitalism’s endless loops of efficiency and growth; it also provides the constraints necessary to imagine and act out new ideas about what makes the good life, as well as revive and protect traditional lifeways. 

For many communities around the world, a global project to limit resource use could bring liberation from pollution, exploitation, and the one-way path toward Western-style development. To them, limits do not mean reductions or sacrifice but an opportunity to pursue goals other than growth.

Efficiency makes growth. But limits make creativity.

Once free from the efficiency mindset, we see that setting legal limits is not the only solution to the Jevons phenomenon. Society can also purposefully choose less-efficient production processes, setting the paradox in reverse by constraining the potential scale of the economy. If efficiency makes growth, maybe inefficiency makes degrowth.

Further reading suggestions:

David Owen. “The Efficiency Dilemma.The New Yorker, December 12, 2010. 
This
New Yorker piece captivatingly chronicles the history of the Jevons paradox as an idea and as a real material force

Christopher L. Magee and Tessaleno C. Devezas, “A Simple Extension of Dematerialization Theory: Incorporation of Technical Progress and the Rebound Effect,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 117, no. Supplement C (April 1, 2017): 196–205.
This is the article in which MIT researchers show that the Jevons paradox applies to pretty much every material, energy source, and industrial process for which data exists.

Salvador Pueyo. 2020. “Jevons’ Paradox and a Tax on Aviation to Prevent the next Pandemic.” Preprint. SocArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/vb5q3.
The Jevons paradox holds that using a resource more efficiently leads to economic growth and thus more of that resource is used overall. In this article, Salvador Pueyo shows that, similarly, advances in disease control have enabled humans and livestock to live at higher densities, eventually bringing about more ferocious outbreaks. He argues that the aviation industry shifts costs onto society by spreading diseases around the world, and should thus be taxed.

Sam Bliss, “Why growth and the environment can’t coexist.Grist. 
This video explains degrowth in 4 minutes, starting from a Jevons-inspired explanation of how increasing efficiency in orange juice production leads to more oranges consumed, not less.

__________________

Sam Bliss is a wildly inefficient researcher, writer, gardener, and warehouse manager of Food Not Bombs Burlington. He participates in and studies non-market food systems in Vermont.

Talc, the widowmaker of Madarangajodi

A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

by Arpita Bisht

Madarangajodi is a quaint hamlet in the foothills lining the densely forested Indian state of Odisha with a population of about 195 people living in 54 households.  Small, but neatly painted mud houses line the streets. Villagers collect mud of various colors to adorn the walls of houses, resulting in a series of dwellings with a variety of soothing, earthen colors. Each house has a courtyard and a garden, children play in common spaces, which are ample in the village, and old trees mark the beginning and end of streets. The village has a predominantly tribal population (composed of the Munda, Bhuyian, Milkawan, and Pattron tribes), who have historically been and largely still are forest dwellers.

This idyllic little hamlet, however, hides a harsh tale of exploitation, labor and human rights violations, and contamination. The village is the site of an ongoing environmental justice struggle against a private talc mining company that has operated there for over 15 years, and has resulted in the death of many miners.

Like the ghost town of Delamar, Nevada, nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker’, the deaths of the 45 miners has left 45 widows in the village over the past few years. Delamar, which witnessed a mining boom between 1893 and 1909, became the largest producer of gold within the state until 1909, and contributed significantly to employment generation and economic growth. However, large amounts of silica dust generated from gold mining resulted in the death of a large number of miners from silicosis. The exact number of people that suffered from silicosis remain unknown given the constant migration of people in and out of the mining town. The once flourishing mining colony of at least 1500 people currently lies abandoned.

Madarangajodi, unless stringent and timely action is taken, faces a similar fate. The major difference between the two is that Delamar—being a constructed mining town, enabled workers to have the option of moving back to their original home, whereas Madarangajodi is an old settlement of tribals. Indigenous inhabitants, largely income poor, often have the limited choices of either living in the environmentally polluted and socioeconomically exploitative environments, or moving to larger towns as daily wage laborers and slum dwellers.

This article presents a glimpse into the lives of the victims of environmental injustice due to mining. Although the case may appear to be an isolated event, it is only one small piece in the larger picture of the underbelly of the privatization and ecosystem exploitation-driven growth agenda that is becoming increasingly popular in India.

 

The mining industry in Odisha

The state of Odisha has some of the richest rainforests in India, with significant biodiversity—including endangered mega fauna such as tigers and elephants. Sacred groves of ancient trees dating back to over 500 years, found in various locations around the state, are sites of worship for local communities. Further, these regions are also home to 62 tribes, including 13 Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups—who have unique cultures and who are often dependent on forests and forest produce for livelihood sustenance. Incidentally, Odisha has 16.92% of total mineral reserves of the country—with chromite, nickel ore, graphite, bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal accounting for 97.37 per cent, 95.10 per cent, 76.67 per cent, 49.74 per cent, 33.91 per cent, 28.56 per cent and 27.59 per cent respectively of the total deposits in the country. As such, the state is a prime location for the mining industry. The villages of the mining rich areas in the region have, over the past few decades, been witness to cases of police brutality, dispossessions, loss of livelihoods, spread of mining mafia, as well as Naxalism—an internal insurgency and a violent manifestation of the struggle against dispossession and often termed the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Talc mining in Madarangajodi

Talc is a hydrous magnesium silicate and is used in various industries such as cosmetics, food, paper, pharmaceuticals, plastic, paint, coatings, rubber, electrical cable, and ceramics. Large boulders of talc are first broken into smaller pieces and then crushed using mechanical crushers—often generating large quantities of silica dust which disperses in the air during stone blasting and quarrying. This makes the talc mining industry workers extremely prone to lung disease.

Talc mining in the region has had various impacts on the local community and ecosystem. The mine has visibly consumed almost half of the hill nearby. Destruction of forest land, which is a source of livelihood given the dependence on forests of the local tribal communities, has implications on access to food and fuel. As a result of reduced access, villagers are forced to clear new spaces for agriculture and to walk farther for forest produce collection activities. Forests are also closely intertwined with tribal culture, which often means that forest clearing due to mining has impacts on traditional ecological knowledge and alters the patterns of interaction between local communities and forests. However, what forms the core of the environmental justice struggle in the region is the death of over 45 men working in the mine from silicosis.

Silicosis, also known as miners’ disease, is the most commonly occurring occupational disease for miners and stone cutters. It occurs as a result of fine particulate silica dust settling in the lungs of workers upon prolonged exposure without adequate protection for a prolonged period of time (between 5-10 years). Silicosis is an easily preventable but progressive disease that has no cure. This means that it gets progressively worse over time and the aim of treatment is limited to the reduction of symptoms and pain. Silicosis paves the way for other respiratory infections and patients often die from diseases such as tuberculosis. In mines with largely non-mechanized mining and quarrying, the chances of silicosis are extremely high.

However, prevention of the disease is not difficult. Procedures such as wet-drilling and provision of adequate safety masks which can capture the fine silica dust are some of the easy measures to be taken to prevent or at least reduce the occurrence of this lethal disease. And yet various factors such as income poverty of local residents, lack of alternative livelihood options, monetary and social power wielded by the mining companies, lack of regular checks etc., allows the companies to get away with avoiding both maintenance of safety standards and paying compensation to the affected people and families.

During our time in the village, we were taken into the house of a late-stage silicosis patient. Entering into the dark mud hut, what we saw could only be described as a barely alive, barely human figure. No muscle, no fat, only skin and bones, eyes wide and hollow due to extreme weight loss and malnourishment. The man lay on a bed, incapable of moving, of eating, drinking, or of any motion except occasional violent shivering. The torture he was going through was conveyed by the violent movements of his constantly shaking body, and a repetitive groan emanating from his throat. This man had no healthcare options, no doctors, no medicine, and no sedatives to dull his pain. He lay there in bed, awaiting an agonizing death. He received no compensation and no healthcare from the company that he dedicated over 10 years of his life to. He will leave behind a wife and three young children. He is emblematic of the face of oppression, of exploitation, of unimportant and forgotten deaths, and of the brutality of a system that favors private profit over individual human life.

 

img_3892
View of the talc mine from a distance showing the scale of mining operation, the location of agricultural land with cattle, and the appropriation of large section off the top of the mountain due to mining operations. The village is located at the foothills of the hill, within the remaining forested land. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

The widows of Madarangajodi

The widows of Madarangajodi appear to have been the worst indirect victims of the mine. Owing to marriage at a young age, most of these women have on average two or three children whose education, nutrition, and healthcare suddenly becomes their sole responsibility. Women, especially those of the older generation, have rarely had access to work outside of the household, thus making it either difficult for them to get jobs, or forcing them to end up working in exploitative jobs. The relatively more financially stable families have the option of engaging in agriculture, but the more financially unstable and income poor are forced into daily wage labor.

These widows receive a small compensation of 1000INR (€13.7) per month by the company and 300 INR (€4.2) per month by the government. Further, the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Generation Act), which guarantees 100 days of paid labor per year to anyone willing to work, has allowed some of these women to get employed in small jobs such as construction of roads, government buildings, or cleaning jobs. However, often repayment of costs of medical care for their late husbands and maintenance of basic livelihood sustenance forces women to put their young children into child labor. Children as young as 8 were employed as daily wage earners in the village—often exploitative.

 

 A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

One woman who lost her husband to silicosis in 2006 now has the disease; their household conditions forced her to often replace her husband at work once he started falling ill on a regular basis. She has three children aged 8, 10 and 15, all of whom are currently forced to work as daily wage laborers in a nearby village since she is no longer capable of doing any laborious work, let alone grueling construction work in the heat.

Yet another woman, aged 33, whose husband happened to possess agricultural land, now farms to support her two children—a daughter aged 13 and a son aged 7. She breaks down and cries while recounting the horrors of her husbands’ disease, and her struggle to provide children with two square meals, a primary school education and to keep them from being forced into child labor. She describes the years of economic instability, the pressure of protecting her children from hunger, the struggle of protecting her land from outsiders, all the while handling the physical strain of dealing with her husband’s severe illness and soon after the emotional strain of dealing with his death. She has finally, after five years of his death, been able to afford a decent standard of living surviving off agriculture, is able to send her children to school, and has built a small two-room mud house.

 

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Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

Left: Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Right: 33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

Social mobilization and resistance

With the help of a local activist and some lawyers, the widows have been able to shut down the operations of the mining company by bringing the matter to the local court. As of now, about 29 court cases against the mining company have been filed by the women. However, the threat of the mining mafia looms large in the areas, often preventing them for pursuing, and sometimes forcing them to withdraw cases. For instance, on the day that we visited the village, death threats were immediately communicated to us, issued presumably in order to discourage any interventions by outsiders, and to prevent the publication of the piece in media.

 

The need for alternatives

Natural resources have historically formed the basis of the socioeconomic system. Whereas pre-industrial economies relied on terrestrial natural resources by using forest products, agriculture and surface water for livelihood sustenance needs, the current economic system relies on an expanded base of sub-terrestrial resources for sustenance. From groundwater to fossil fuels, metallic and non-metallic minerals—it is largely dependent on resources, often extracted in scales that have resulted in ecological degradation at the local, regional, and global level. This comes at the cost of ecosystems—either on the source-side (e.g., in the form of resource extraction) or sink-side (e.g., in the form of ‘filling’ of ecological sinks such as oceans)—evidenced by the fact that 15 out of the 24 ecosystem services quantified by the MEA are already being degraded or seeing unsustainable rates of extraction.

Since sub-terrestrial resources are not evenly distributed within the earth’s surface, specific areas with large volumes, high concentrations, and relatively pure forms of minerals tend to suffer most from exploitation. As indicated by the concept of ‘resource curse’, such regions do not often benefit directly from the appropriation of these resources. In fact, many mineral-rich regions tend to suffer the most in terms of other sectors such as education, healthcare, environmental and ecological indicators, and alternative income generation opportunities. Further, these locations are often the site of environmental injustices occurring from the imposition of negative environmental and social externalities upon local people and communities, which are increasing in frequency across the world.

Socioeconomic progress through access to electricity, sanitation, medical and healthcare facilities, and education are certainly necessary for large sections of disadvantaged populations in India, and in other parts of the world. However, looking beyond the rhetoric of pursuit of growth for the poor, there is an urgent need to examine how the real costs and benefits of economic growth are being distributed. The village of Madarangajodi, some could argue, is a small case with respect to number of victims, given the benefits of the talc mine to economic growth and industrial development in the larger context. However, the growing incidents of similar such cases of environmental injustice taking place across India highlight the urgent need to question a system which incentivizes large-scale ecosystem degradation, livelihood destruction, and associated human rights violations for the benefit of fictitious growth for the poor, and real growth for the already advantaged elite minority.

What is needed instead is a political economic system that ensures ecologically viable progress for the vast majority of the marginalized people across the country. This is not only possible, but very much practical, as has been evidenced by the hundreds of successful grassroots and community initiatives in India documented by the organization Vikalp Sangam— ‘the coming together of Alternatives’ in India. Alternatives exist and must be explored if we are to transition into a socially, economically equitable society with a sustained ecological base.

Arpita Bisht is a Doctoral Scholar studying biophysical expansion of extractivism and related socio-ecological conflicts, ecological degradation and human rights violations in India. She is interested in exploring linkages between, and implications of, social mobilization on unsustainable patterns of extractivism. Her research interests also include anthropological studies of indigenous and tribal communities with a special focus on the pluralistic conceptualization of nature as God, and on the nature of human-nature interactions in these cultures.

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