In my latest article (open access) for Review of International Studies I examine Indigenous resistance to neo-extractive development in Latin America and ask what this means for International Relations (IR). I contend that Indigenous resistance can disrupt traditional thinking in IR via an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledge’.
The article intends to serve as a contribution to growing debates in IR that have focused on the Eurocentrism of the discipline, it’s racial silencing and the broader calls to decolonise the subject. Indigenous struggles often remain theoretically elided within IR and viewed through the prism of domestic politics. I argue that the reason for this lies in the coloniality of space in IR. The coloniality of space is simultaneously both a material project of territorial dispossession and an epistemic project of negating other imaginaries of the world that are contrary to the hegemonic order.
First I highlight how state formation, both in and beyond Latin America, has taken place through Indigenous dispossession. State sovereignty, the key marker and subject matter of IR, was thus founded upon colonial violence. As Florencia Mallon put it, ‘The idea of the nation as an ‘imagined community’ grew in relation to its opposite, the colony.’
The experience of colonisation decimated the Indigenous populations of Latin America and curtailed their existing forms of sovereignty. This involved attacks on Indigenous communal land, customs and legal status. The primary impetus for this was access to Indigenous territory and resources. This is important to consider when reflecting on how neo-extractivism continues this colonial violence. The negation of Indigenous territory is thus not something confined to the past, but continues in the present, often justified in the name of development. Colonialism is thus not to be viewed as something that has left a past legacy, but a continuing and ongoing process that speaks to the urgency of the present. Opposed to this, there has been a rigorous process of contestation and demands for territorial control by Indigenous peoples, asserting their right to autonomy and self-governance. However, IR as a discipline often continues to view such struggles as if they were a purely domestic issue. This in turn leads to the continuing erasure of Indigenous people from the international imagination.
Scholars working on Latin America have previously coined various terms such as ‘coloniality of power’, the ‘coloniality of knowledge’ and the ‘coloniality of Being’. However, in this article I propose the term the ‘coloniality of space’ as a contribution to a specifically Historical Materialist analysis. I prefer this term, as once we come to investigate transformations in space produced through colonial imperatives, we can move from largely autonomous cultural explanations to those that are grounded in the social relations of production and historical specificity.
Exploring Indigenous resistance to neo-extractivist development is pertinent in this regard, as this allows us a window to view alternative geographies of relational belonging. In short, this asks us to consider what possibilities, transformative values and insights might emerge from the project of Indigenous resurgence and claims to autonomy.
there is a danger in allowing colonisation to be the only story of Indigenous lives. It must be recognised that colonialism is a narrative in which the Settler’s power is the fundamental reference and assumption, inherently limiting Indigenous freedom and imposing a view of the world that is but an outcome or perspective on that power.
I then contextualise current projects of resistance within the regional panorama of neo-extractivist development. Neo-extractive development entails projects of place-making as it seeks out cheap nature as the pivot of further capital accumulation. As scholars such as Eduardo Gudynas have argued, neo-extractivist development, in contrast to the older models of extractivism, now involves a more activist state working in tandem with transnational corporations to use the market to provide additional opportunities or to fund social programmes targeted to the poor. It is presented as a necessary policy to reduce poverty. The negative environmental consequences are either denied, minimised or accepted as part of a greater overall good. I contend therefore that neo-extractive development reproduces the coloniality of space, privileging the nation-state over other geographical forms of belonging.
This has created tension with many Indigenous movements as their claims to territory and natural resources are subordinated by the expansion of the resource frontier via capital and the state. The continued expansion of the natural resource frontier reinforces the pattern of colonial power relations which negate the possibilities of Indigenous sovereignty by undermining its material basis. This has led to an explosion of socio-environmental conflicts in the region, as communities resist the plunder of their territories and resources. Latin America is currently home to the largest volume of environmental conflicts in the world. According to the Environmental Justice Atlas there are currently 960 ongoing environmental conflicts in the region.
In more empirical detail the article then moves on to explore Indigenous resistance in the cases of Mexico and Bolivia. Bolivia and Mexico provide two of the most compelling examples of Indigenous struggles. Bolivia has the highest percentage of the total population who identify as belonging to an Indigenous group (41%), whereas Mexico is the nation with numerically the highest number of people who identify as belonging to an Indigenous group (16.83 million). Bolivia is also where the most far-reaching transformations have taken place in terms of state structures, with the country being renamed as a plurinational state in 2009. In short, there were (and are) efforts in Bolivia (however fraught with contradictions), to build an Indigenous State.
In the case of Mexico, the Zapatista uprising on January 1st 1994 (and their ongoing struggle), has perhaps been the most emblematic Indigenous movement of the last three decades, gaining worldwide resonance and support. As well as proving to be an inspiration for democratising Mexico from below, the Zapatistas helped propel the rise of Indigenous social justice movements in and beyond Latin America. However, unlike the situation in Bolivia where Indigenous movements converged on state transformation, Indigenous movements in Mexico have been marked by their largely autonomous character from state power.
Two different structural settings of Indigenous resistance, but contextualised within a broader process of dispossession are thereby explored.
I conclude the article with some reflections on the role of the state-based left in relation to extractive development and the need for further reflections on the meaning of development and decolonisation. I also pose questions about how a collective subject of political transformation can be formed.