The Amazon and the battle of ideas

Climate & Natural resources10 Dec 2013Karolien van Teijlingen

Although the modalities of power employed in resource struggles are all different and context-specific, a recurrent element of these struggles is the use of discursive power.

The Broker’s dossier on power dynamics and natural resources leaves little room for doubt: the race for resources and the attached conflicts bring about many different forms of power, employed to gain access to and control over natural resources. Whereas the cases discussed and the modalities of power are all different and context-specific, a recurrent element in these and the many other struggles over resources on the Latin American continent is the use of discursive power.

The Amazon as ‘tierra vacía’

Discursive power is used to implicitly or explicitly advance a particular worldview and consequently steer and legitimize, or cover-up, certain interventions. If successful, discourses can even become taken-for-granted frames of reference and the particularistic interests and power relations they promote may even become ´natural´ occurrences to wider society. No wonder many researchers analyzing environmental disputes have come to conclude that ‘power is partly a matter of winning the battle of ideas’.1

Far too often, as the dossier shows, the battle of ideas is won by governments and companies, or a coalition between the two. The struggles over the Amazon are no exception to this. For many centuries, dreams of ´El Dorado´ and resource booms led governments and merchants into the Amazon forest to extract its natural resource wealth. Their interventions were supported by the powerful discourse of the Amazon as ‘tierras vacías’2: empty lands whose resource wealth should serve the rest of the nation´s progress. Other dimensions and valuations of the complex Amazonian territories were left out of this image and its populations in particular were regarded as non-existent or backwards, in dire need of civilization and modernization. Later, neoliberal discourses have blended in with this tradition, picturing the Amazon as an economic utility and promoting large scale projects by transnational companies to induce economic growth – and thus human development.

Shifting paradigms?

In recent decades, various winds of discursive change have blown through the Amazon. The very literal view of the earth from space as a ‘small fragile ball’3 changed worldviews on ‘our common future’ and the sustainable development discourse moved to centre stage, aiming to reconcile growth and ecological sustainability. Governments and companies engaging in extractive industries were eager to adopt this discourse into a ´sustainable mining´ discourse, harnessed with codes of conducts and sustainability reports. These efforts have not been without results, as large scale mining companies now are ranked as ‘best in class’ companies by social responsible investment funds and praised as champions of conservation by glossy magazines4 .

More recently, innovative discourses of ‘buen vivir’ (living well) emerged in Bolivia and Ecuador and these development discourses with roots in indigenous cosmologies were adopted by their left-leaning governments as shifts of paradigm after decades of neoliberal policies5 . In Ecuador, buen vivir became part of the new constitution in 2008, which is also the first in the world to grant rights to nature. The Yasuní-ITT initiative, extensively debated by Arsel and Pellegrini and Odell in The Broker’s dossier, is probably the most famous and striking example of these innovative discourses on the natural resource wealth of the Amazon.

Or business as usual?

Despite the sometimes promising and innovative shifts in discourses on the Amazon, it seems that the powerful tierras vacías discourse from the past still continues to loom in current politics. Because of its extraction policies, critical scholars from Brazil have denominated the Amazon as the ‘modern colony’ of the economic and political elite from the southeast of the country6 and communities resisting these power patterns have been labelled as being ‘against progress’7 . During fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2012, state officials typified the Oriente as an extremely poor area, where ‘people live in real misery’ as they live in wooden houses and work as subsistence farmers. This view legitimizes the state’s efforts to ordernar, ‘tidy up’ these territories8 and those who oppose it are labelled ‘extortionists’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘dangerous’ to the revolutionary project of the state by the popular President Correa9.

These recent uses of old discourses, together with the ongoing expansion of the mining frontier, raise questions of whether the alternative discourses on the Amazon should be seen as signs of genuine shifts or as the strategic cooptation of counter-discourses to gain ground in the battle of ideas and continue business as usual.

Winning counter discourses

Although not very widespread, there are some hopeful cases in which deprived discourses of communities from the Amazon have been able to gain power over the government and company discourses and change business as usual. In Juruti Velho in Brazil, for example, after decades of campaigning and negotiating, an association of 47 local communities acquired collective titles over their lands, protecting them from mining concessions by the transnational company Alcoa10. Other cases in Latin America, in which counter-discourses became powerful enough to stop, at least temporarily, the expansion of extractive activities, can be found in Argentina, Chile and Ecuador11. In many of these cases, local communities formed strategic coalitions with powerful actors at regional, national or international level, enabling them to frame and strengthen their discourses.

Some ways forward in the battle of ideas

This contribution tries to make a case for the importance of the battle of ideas in power struggles over natural resources. Hence, one way to open up the black box of resource-related disputes is to critically study the powerful discourses that legitimize and steer current and past interventions, and to reveal taken-for-granted concepts and how they are transformed into material practices and control. Equally important are the counter-discourses, the deprived discourses and historical events that are erased from current discourses.

This contribution also hints at the possibility to support and facilitate social movements and local communities with a counter-discourse to establish coalitions with more powerful (civil society) actors across scales, enabling them to make their voices heard and change hegemonic discourses. As Larry A. Fisher rightly points out rightly in his contribution, the role of brokers and mediators like researchers, journalists, ombudsmen and NGO representatives is crucial and one to consider closely.

Finally, although this is quite utopian, governments and companies (and their investors!) willing to cede power and break with business as usual could learn from this particular take on resource-related disputes to pay genuine attention to the counter-discourses and the claims, interests and values they communicate. They could do so by integrating the genuine participation of a wide range of stakeholders in their operations, policies and funding requirements12. Evidently, even the best designed participation process cannot reconcile a ‘no’ to mining with the interests of a mining company, but many elements of the modus operandi of powerful actors can be worked out and some ideas that are fought over could eventually become shared.


1 Quote from Bryant, R. (1997) Beyond the impasse: the power of political ecology in Third World environmental research. Area, volume 29, issue 1, pages 5–19. For a good discussion of environmental discourse see Mels, T. (2009) Analysing Environmental Discourses and Representations. In: Castree, N. et al (eds) A Companion to Environmental Geography. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2 This notion can be found in literature about the history of development policies in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, such as Marques, G. (2012) Amazônia: uma moderna colônia energetic-mineral? Universidade & Sociedade number 49, page 32-45; Bebbington, A. (2009) The New Extraction: Rewriting the Political Ecology of the Andes? NACLA report of the Americas, September/October 2009: p. 12-20; Gordillo, R. (2003) ¿El Oro del Diablo? Ecuador: historia del petróleo. Quito: Corporación.

3 From the famous Brundtland report launched by the World Commission on Environmental Development in 1987, ‘Our Common Future’. Although indirect notions of the term appeared before, the Brundtland report ‘launched’ the concept of sustainable development.

4 Bauxite mining company Norsk Hydro, active in Paragominas and Trombetas in the Brazilian Pará state, was ranked first in its category by the Socially Responsible Investment Fund of the Belgian KBC Bank. Other mining companies such as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton rank among the first 20. According to the sustainability index in the 2013 Guia de Sustentabilidade of Exame magazine, Vale was chosen as the most sustainable in the mining sector, as it conserves a total of 13700 km2 of forest investing 70 millions of Reais.

5 There is a great risk of simplification of this concept, as there are diverse explanations and it should be understood in the context of a longstanding struggle over rights, territory and development of indigenous peoples and environmental organizations in the Andes. For further reading see Walsh, C. (2010) Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional arrangements and (de)colonial entanglements. Development, Vol. 53, No. 1, p. 15-21; or Thomson, B. (2011) Pachakuti: Indigenous perspectives, buen vivir, sumaq kawsay and degrowth. Development, Vol. 54, No.4, p: 448–454.

6 Marques, G. (2012) Amazônia: uma moderna colônia energetic-mineral? Universidade & Sociedade number 49, page 32-45

7 Mittelman, D. (2008) The Stories of Juruti Velho. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 24.

8 From interviews with officials from the National Secretary of Planning and Development (SENPLADES) and Secretary of the People, Social Movements and Citizen Participation (Secretaría de Pueblos) and Mining Regulation Agency (ARCOM).

9 These terms were used by President Rafael Correa in press conferences and radio interviews during the debates of a new mining law in 2009. Correa enjoys great popularity in the country: during his re-election in January 2013 he won with 57,1 percent of the votes.

10 Nahum, J. and Castro, I. (2013) Um capítulo da questão agrária na Amazônia: mineração e campesinato no município de Juruti (PA). In: Gentil de Coimbra de Oliveira, JM (2013) Espaço, natureza e sociedade: olhares e perspectivas. Belém: GAPTA/UFPA.

11 See for example Urkidi, L. (2010) A global environmental movement against gold mining: Pascua–Lama in Chile. Ecological Economics, Vol. 70, p. 219–227 or Bebbington, A.; Humphreys Bebbington, D.; Bury, J.; Lingan, J.; Muñoz, J.P. & Scurrah, M. (2008a) Mining and Social Movements: Struggles over Livelihood and Rural Territorial Development in the Andes. World Development, Vol. 36, No. 12, p. 2888-2905.

12 For similar recommendations, read the policy brief of the ENGOV project, a collaborative research project of CEDLA and 6 other Latin American and European research institutes on environmental governance in Latin America and the Caribbean.