Extractive Policing, Racialized Displacement, and the Territorial Dynamics of Modernity

by Michael S. Wilson-Becerril, Colgate University | @mwilsonbecerril

Each year, hundreds of people around the Global South die resisting and contesting resource extraction. While reports attending to this matter are growing, the phenomenon itself is not particularly new. Indeed, violent extractivism is central to the project of Western modernity.

Peru provides an apt illustration of these arguments. There (and perhaps in many similar contexts), biased mainstream commentators often accuse environmental activists of being backwards, anti-development, and even ‘terrorists.’ In framing protesters as enemies of their country’s prosperity, these dominant narratives effectively justify people’s deaths as an inevitable cost of development. Because the victims are often indigenous, dark-skinned, black, and women, one cannot abstract these discourses from the white supremacist and misogynistic legacies of colonialism that have marked the meanings of modernization in these landscapes for longer than five centuries.

More than 1 out of every 5 Peruvians live under the World Bank’s poverty line (© Michael Wilson-Becerril)

Among countless illustrations of this, a clear example is Mariella Balbi’s interview with Alberto Pizango, elected leader and spokesperson for the native communities protesting in Amazonas region in 2009. Televised in the period leading up to the June 5, 2009 massacre in Bagua, the interview features the pundit, Balbi, aggressively questioning and constantly interrupting Pizango. In one moment, Balbi charges, “Realize that you are putting this whole country at risk!” Pizango remains astonishingly calm, even as his answer is interrupted by Balbi, who abruptly closes the discussion by arguing that “the country cannot be halted for you … I am not going to lose electricity because you people do not want to dialogue.”

An overwhelming number of state officials and media pundits tend to portray mining-related activists as violent ideologues, corrupt manipulators, ignorant and manipulated, and generally opposed to common sense, opposed to dialogue, opposed to development and progress and modernization. However, in my experience, the vast majority of protesters are neither violent nor even ‘anti-miners.’ During my 15 months of fieldwork between 2014-2016, I heard repeatedly that people do not oppose extraction, but rather seek fair treatment. And in some cases, people in favor of extractive projects are the ones who organize protests. To summarize, the idea that protesters are “violent anti-miners”, working knowingly or ignorantly for some ‘NGO-powered conspiracy’ against the country’s heroic impresarios, might be easy to digest and to sell. However, it reduces, and harms, the complex relations between diverse actors in state institutions, companies, local groups, and outside organizations.

These kinds of dismissive and polarizing tones dominate, and they not only miss the nuances of conflict, but also exacerbate distrust and alienation. Therefore, they may drive conflict escalation and erode resolution efforts. For example, before president Alan García ordered military police to shoot indigenous protesters in the northern Amazonas region of Peru in 2009, he used his pulpit to refer to the protesters as “not first-class citizens” whose backward views would not be allowed to dictate the fate, and stall the progress of, millions of Peruvians. Among other venues, García articulated these notions in an open letter to El Comercio, in which he framed Peruvian natives as unproductive obstacles to their country, and as “manger dogs.”

Those who critize mining become dehumanized and treated as enemies

In such statements, García—like many others whose similar views are diffused through media and dominate public debates—drew a line between Peru’s citizenry and the “anti-development” protesters, marking the latter as enemies. In the aftermath of the confrontations, during which 10 indigenous people and 23 police were killed, and many more were injured and hospitalized, the police funerals became a national spectacle, attended by high-level politicians and covered widely in the media, in honor of the “fallen heroes,” victims of a “genocide of police,” in president García’s own words. This contrasts with the criminalizing and racist language with which the protesters and their cause were condemned, as they buried their dead quietly.

Extractivist discourses pit those who would criticize mining projects as standing against the country and its people. Protesters become obstacles to ‘national’ progress and modernity. Perceived as enemies, they can be dehumanized, treated as threats, and “ungrievable” or undeserving of empathy. This othering power has repercussions, blatant and subtle: it helps to justify repression, both through police violence and court sentences; but it also leads commentators to—strategically and sometimes unthinkingly—adopt blasé criminalizing tones (e.g., referring to protestors as violent and guilty before a court formulates a decision).

Extractive policing has been integral to what we understand as Western modernity, a period marked by the colonial imposition, and slow globalization, of two European constructs: capitalism and the nation-state. Motivated by private and corporate profits, the state sustains capitalism through the control of populations and territories. This control is not only exercised through physical violence—including beatings, killings, or imprisonment—but also by shaping the public’s subjectivities through discourses of ‘development,’ ‘nation,’ and ‘security.’ And while the people who benefit from this institutionalized model tend to be affluent, white, male, and from the Global North, those who bear the most violent ‘collateral damage’ inherent to this socioeconomic system are overwhelmingly impoverished, rural, black, and indigenous people, and especially women.

Intersectional resistance against ecological violence is the best way out of our planetary crisis

Resource conflicts interweave these issues and galvanize neighbors against the combined forces of global capitalism and the state. Precisely for these reasons, they are central to understanding, and transforming, the multiplying crises our planet faces currently: only resistance that consciously cuts simultaneously across these interrelated problems can strike at the heart of the problem. Therefore, those of us on ‘the receiving end’ of the extractive global order ought to follow the leadership of marginalized communities who, despite the increasingly sophisticated forms of repression wielded against them, are bravely organizing to contest and reverse the very dynamics that are literally destroying the planet. Intersectional resistance against ecological violence is the frontline, and the best way out, of our planetary crisis.

Contrary to the gendered tropes, classist assumptions, and racist representations that dominate mainstream debates about mining, local movements in Peru’s rural contexts are explicitly working to promote sustainable development and to stop various types of violence. Indeed, this is a concept they are theorizing, expanding, and responding to with much greater nuance and sophistication than is typically acknowledged in detached, un-reflexive, and hegemonic analyses. Highlighting and analyzing their ideas, theorizing, and actions can help to build more enduring forms of peace.

Michael Wilson-Becerril, Ph.D., is a Mexico City-native and activist-scholar specialized in the political ecologies of violence and resistance in Latin America. His academic work has appeared in the Peace Review, Feminist Review, Human Rights Review, Western Hemispheric Review, Terrorism and Political Violence, and the Journal of Resistance Studies, as well as in the co-edited volume, Violent Conflict and Civil Resistance in Latin America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). You may reach him via Twitter, Instagram, or colgate.academia.edu/MichaelWB.

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