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Extractivisms in Latin America

Bruna Viana de Freitas

Understanding extractivisms is a prerequisite for understanding the Latin American reality of the 21st century, given its central role in defining political and social dynamics across the region (1). The story of extractivism in Latin America dates back to the colonial period when precious minerals and other natural resources were sent from conquered territories to capitals in Europe (2). Although the world's geopolitical organisation has changed since then, the role of Latin American countries in the global economy is still primarily based on extracting natural resources and exporting them to international markets. The foreign investment Latin America has received in the mining sector since the 1990s is higher than any other part of the world (3). In fact, being export-oriented is one of the criteria that defines the concept of extractivism for Gudynas:
Extractivisms refer to a particular set of natural resource appropriations characterised by large volumes removed and/or high intensity, where half or more are exported as raw materials, with no or limited industrial processing. 
(Gudynas, 2016, p. 14, my translation)

This extractivist trajectory was strengthened during the so-called commodities boom at the beginning of the 21st century, which coincided with a wave of progressive governments taking over several Latin American countries (4). The election of Hugo Chávez in 1999 in Venezuela was followed by Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica in Uruguay (5). Despite rejecting the spread of neoliberal policies of the previous decade, progressive governments surfed the wave of economic growth made possible by high commodity prices (6). The reprimarisation of economies that occurred at this time required the implementation of significant mining ventures and large dams to enable the exploitation of minerals. With support from national states and the World Bank, large global mining companies redirected their investments to Latin America (7). This decision's social, environmental, territorial and political impacts have generally been minimised or denied by progressive governments. In general, governments prioritised increasing social spending and promoting inclusion through consumption (8). After the end of the commodities boom, conservative and progressive political elites held up the extractive sector as the only possible alternative to achieve the promised development of Latin American economies (9).

The locally caused impacts of mining include using and polluting water; consuming energy; polluting the air and soil; harming biodiversity; generating waste that is stored in mine tailings; impacting traditional livelihoods; increasing violence, child labour and sexual abuse (10). Beyond local impacts, extractivism generates what Gudynas calls spillover effects, affecting "the meanings by which we understand development, politics, justice, democracy and nature"  (Gudynas, 2016a, p. 15 my translation). Among the spillover effects cited by the author are the loosening of environmental norms; the alteration in types and uses of territories to allow mining; the strengthening of the discourse that the extractive sector is essential to afford social assistance programmes, and of the idea that environmental and social damage can be compensated by financial payment, leading to the consolidation of a compensatory State (11).
Whether as early as in the extraction phase or through its insertion in global marketing and production networks, the mining sector is strongly influenced by global factors (demand, prices, investments), which depend on a limited number of influential international actors. This limits the ability of local communities and governments to influence the extractive sector. Successful strategies often articulate local, national and global levels of power (12). The climate change challenge is an example of a global dynamic that strongly affects Latin American countries. To World Bank estimates, securing a maximum two °C global warming scenario and sustaining the current global consumption pattern would mean increasing up to 500% in demand for the so-called critical minerals needed to build clean energy technologies and store their electricity (13) - lithium, copper, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth metals (14). The current geographic concentration of the critical minerals is higher than the concentration of oil and gas (15).  Latin America (especially Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Peru) represent a significant proportion of current global extraction and reserves of lithium, copper, graphite, nickel and rare earths (16). Despite that, recent discussions on a just energy transition are often limited to the relocation of fossil fuel industries’ workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on the operation of such companies (17)
Read more about the increased demand for minerals due to the energy transition. 


  1. Gudynas, 2015

  2. Gudynas, 2015; Svampa, 2019

  3. Vio Gorget & Walter, 2016

  4. Gudynas, 2016a; Svampa, 2019 

  5. Gudynas, 2016b

  6. Gudynas, 2016b

  7. Nacif, 2016

  8. Gudynas, 2016b; Svampa, 2019

  9. Svampa, 2019

  10. Amazon Watch & APIB, 2022; Deniau et al., 2021; Marín & Goya, 2021

  11. Gudynas, 2016a

  12. Gudynas, 2015, 2016a

  13. Hund et al., 2020

  14. Deniau et al., 2021

  15. IEA, 2022

  16. The increased demand for minerals will be caused to sustain technologies needed to generate and store energy through renewable sources (solar panels, wind turbines and electric grids), provide the materials required to replace conventional cars with electric ones, and the batteries needed to support the decarbonisation of the transportation sector (Deniau et al., 2021).

  17. Bainton et al., 2021


Amazon Watch, & APIB. (2022). Cumplicity in Destruction: How mining companies and international investors drive indigenous rights violations and threaten the future of the Amazon.

Bainton, N., Kemp, D., Lèbre, E., Owen, J. R., & Marston, G. (2021). The energy-extractives nexus and the just transition. Sustainable Development, 29(4), 624–634.

Deniau, Y., Herrera, V., & Walter, M. (2021). Mapping Community Resistance to the Impacts of Mining for the Energy Transition in the Americas .


Gudynas, E. (2015). Extractivismos: ecología, economía y política de un modo de entender el desarrollo y la naturaleza (Primera edición). CEDIB, Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia.

Gudynas, E. (2016a). Extractivismos en América del Sur y sus efectos derrame. La Revista / Boletín Sociedad

Suiza Americanistas, 13–23.

Gudynas, E. (2016b). Beyond varieties of development: Disputes and alternatives. Third World Quarterly, 37, 721–732.

Hund, K., Porta, D. la, Fabregas, T. P., Laing, T., & Drexhage, J. (2020). Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition.

IEA, I. E. A. (2022). The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions .

Marín, A., & Goya, D. (2021). Mining—The dark side of the energy transition. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 41, 86–88.

Nacif, F. (2016). Un Estado a la medida del extractivismo Las políticas de la «Minería Sustentable» impulsadas en América Latina desde 1990. Integra Educativa.

Svampa, M. (2019). Las fronteras del neoextractivismo en América Latina. transcript Verlag / Bielefeld University Press.

Vio Gorget, D., & Walter, M. (2016). Marcos normativos e institucionales de la minería en América Latina .

About the author

Bruna Viana is a participatory processes facilitator, with experience in supporting organisations from different sectors to create collaboration between relevant actors and to make decisions that consider all their impacts. She is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters in Power, Participation and Social Change from the Institute of Development Studies - University of Sussex, UK. Bruna is also an Amani fellow, having studied for a postgraduate diploma in Social Innovation Management at the Amani Institute. 

About this website

On this website, I publish stories of relevant projects I have been involved in during my journey, as well as content - reflections, proposals and stories - that I trust may inspire more conscious and sustainable views on how we relate, produce, consume and live. I hope that what feeds my thoughts may generate ideas within you as well. If something you find here makes you want to have further conversations, write to me at

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