Yesterday’s comment piece in the Guardian by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera on the geopolitical significance of the upcoming elections in Brazil happened to resonate strongly with my first lecture as a postgraduate, given to a [thankfully] sympathetic bunch of geography undergrads at the University of the West of England just this week. The lecture was entitled “Geographically and Historically Specific ‘Hydro-Social’ Relations: The Political Ecology of a Copper Mine”, and sought to situate a proposed mine in parched southern Arizona – the Rosemont Copper project – within a critique of the political economic commodification of nature. Guardiola-Rivera’s article, meanwhile, asks whether voters in Brazil will return the “southern superpower” to “the fold of the US” by electing a centre-right, neoliberal government; or, will they back the incumbent Workers Party president to continue leading Latin America toward greater autonomy. “Brazil’s election is a geopolitical turning point”, its banner reads.
It was on the behalf of the United States and its powerful mining companies that a Brazilian dictatorship waged a war by proxy in Chile during the 1970s, says Guardiola-Rivera. The conflict culminated in the coup d’état that in 1973 unseated Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende and provided the U.S. with means to regulate the contradictions inherent to extractive industry. In a Geoforum article in 2000, Gavin Bridge pointed to the post-war supply-crisis in the copper industry which began to threaten 75% of its production capacity, diverting the gaze of mining firms to new low-cost sources of high-grade ores in South America. By shifting production overseas, U.S. copper producers could off-set the increasing costs resulting from both the depletion of their own high-grade ores, and institutional fatigue in confronting civil and judicial resistance to the local externalities of mining.
“The concept of contradiction is central to dialectical analyses of capitalist development and has a long lineage within Marxist and neo-Marxist accounts of the historical evolution of capitalist societies”, Bridge observes. “For any given mineral deposit, production today reduces the opportunity for production tomorrow”, a fact which has led some observers to label mining a “robber industry”, in that a mine is constantly consuming its capital. Moreover, the asymmetric relations of power between mining firms and the communities in which they operate have historically provided a means for accumulating great wealth at the expense of local populations. The contradictions which extractive industry must regulate in order to continue are its ‘theft’ from itself through the depletion of physical assets; and also its ‘theft’ from the local community which, allied to the environmental impacts of mining, provokes socio-political strategies of resistance.
Today, the people of Brazil will decide whether the efforts of the incumbent president, Dilma Rousseff, are sufficient to counter the neoliberal manifesto of her opponent, Aecio Neves of the centre-right Social-Democrat party (PSDB). Rousseff has instituted a social-welfare programme which has lifted tens of millions out of poverty, but has faced protests over a lack of investment in education, health and transport infrastructure. Neves promises to cut public spending and shrink government. Music to the ears of powerful financiers and industrialists in the U.S. who would welcome the southern superpower back into their masterly fold, says Guardiola-Rivera. Meanwhile near Tucson, Arizona, the Rosemont Copper proposal remains stalled by significant resistance from local ecological and economic interest groups in the National Environmental Policy Act process. Seven years after Rosemont submitted its plan of operations to the U.S. Forest Service, and in spite of all debates around democracy and participation in environmental decision-making, it is not impossible that a Brazilian election result could be the straw that breaks the camels back. Rosemont’s new Canadian owner, Hudbay Minerals, has also acquired a “low-cost, open pit mining operation” in southern Peru, with an estimated 620 million tonnes of copper reserves. Paradoxically, Guardiola-Rivera’s hopes for transformative politics and an autonomous, less unequal Latin America could have severe consequences for local communities in the [relatively] mineral-rich landscape of the south-western United States.
As I tried to put across in my lecture on Thursday, a political-ecological perspective highlights the significance of global-scale ideologies and geopolitics for local environmental struggles. This example shows how we cannot begin to understand specific socio-natural problems without first understanding the specific historical and geographical forces which have shaped them.