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State of Power 2021: Neoextractivism and State Violence

Aldo Orellana Lopez writing in the State of Power 2021 report from the Transnational Institute

The tenth #StateofPower2021 report from the Transnational Institute was published in May 2021. It contains a selection of essays from contributors globally which explore the history, structures and changing dynamics of the military, policing and homeland security in the world today, as well as outlining emancipatory visions and ideas to end the violence of the state.

TerraJusta’s own Aldo Orellana Lopez was invited to contribute an essay to this year’s report. In ‘Neoextractivism and state violence: Defending the defenders in Latin America’, Aldo charts the recent history of extractive industries in Latin America, which has made the continent one of the most dangerous and deadly places for indigenous peoples and frontline community defenders. Here we share an extract with you (read the full essay – and all the others in this year’s report  – on TNI’s website, and find out about related events etc via their Twitter)


At the turn of the 21st century, high prices for raw materials on international markets stimulated growth in export-oriented extractive activities. This so-called ‘super cycle’ put even more pressure on affected territories and communities. Resistance grew, led mainly by indigenous and peasant movements. The level of conflict intensified throughout Latin America, as did state-sponsored repression, the criminalisation of protest and the assassination of environmental and social leaders. Maristella Svampa calls this the era of ‘neoextractivism’.

Conflicts increase year after year. According to the Observatorio de Conflictos Ambientales (OCMAL), in 2010, there were 120 mining conflicts affecting 150 communities in Latin America. In 2014, the number of conflicts had reached 198, affecting 297 communities and involving 207 projects. In 2017, 217 conflicts were reported, which involved 227 projects and 331 communities. In 2018 OCMAL registered 259 conflicts.

The assassination of environmental leaders during this period were also cause for alarm. Global Witness reports that between 2002 and 2013, 908 such murders were reported worldwide, of which 760 – 83% – were in Latin America. In 2016, over half of the 200 activists killed were in this region.

In the era of neoextractivism, one of the main roles of the state – which nominally has the monopoly over the use of force – is to guarantee the security of transnational capital invested in extractive operations. ‘States of emergency and exception’ are a pattern of legal abuse found repeatedly throughout Latin America. The state uses this situation to militarise territories and suspend constitutional rights to spread fear among the population and make it easier to develop extractive activities.

In recent decades, several Latin American governments have created tough police units designed to control protests and intervene in socio-environmental conflicts. One such unit is the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD for its acronym in Spanish) in Colombia. ESMAD has become notorious for its brutality, especially when repressing indigenous and peasant communities who resist eviction from their land to clear the way for mining, oil exploitation and the construction of mega-dams. Meanwhile Earth Rights International (ERI) has brought to light how the law ‘empowers the Peruvian National Police… to create agreements with extractive companies that allow the Police to provide private security services within the facilities and other areas … of extractive projects in return for profit’

These situations of conflict and repression also lead to processes that ‘criminalise social protest’ by detaining and prosecuting social leaders for forced and ambiguous accusations of criminal offences, such as terrorism, sabotage, conspiracy and extortion.

The growing violence associated with extractivism exposes the systemic crisis engulfing the transnational capitalist model as well as the planet’s ecological limits.

Read the full essay on the State of Power 2021 webpage