A short history of extractivism
Colonization and extractivism are two sides of the same coin. They are a machine that produces poverty, relying on the future as a deceptive promise.
a perfect storm: The mining activity named Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state that imposed itself over the Krenak territory. It is also the cause of the disaster that struck the Rio Doce in 2015 and a continuous threat to the lives of many other Indigenous peoples in Brazil today. Is the history of Indigenous resistance in the Americas a history of resistance to the model of extractive exploitation?
Ailton Krenak: It is well noted that Brazil is named after a tree that was practically extinguished from the landscape as extractivism took shape. The colonial encounter has always been extractive: it is a conversion of the world. Since the colonial period, Brazil has been under the same rule. We moved from brazilwood to other resources: ore, precious stones, gold. This is a repeated theme in history, occurring as if it were a natural sequence, without questioning.
Since the people living here did not immediately realize what was happening, the colonialist action was able to expand itself freely, like a virus. The natives adhered to the extractivist project, hunting, gathering, and handing over what they called spices to the European ships. These spices were acquired in a kind of barter, in a rehearsal of the predatory economy to be installed with the collaboration of the native peoples – who were losing out.
It is as if someone starts to ransack your house and invites you to help. And you join in the process and engage in it until it begins to hurt. And then you say: “But you are taking my food away, you are taking my medicine, my house.” That is when the disagreement begins. After that, this practice, which arrived disguised, had to be imposed by force.
Brazil was the perfect place for extractivism: several peoples from Europe discovered different products that they could plunder simultaneously. Some extracted brazilwood, others trafficked bodies. The doors of slavery were opened, and all the abusive practices associated with it: anything could happen, as in a fantasy of endless adventure.
The first 100 or 200 years of this tropical frenzy brought suffering and death to plenty of people. It was led by an uncontrollable fever for commodities and bodies, combined with an intense production of imaginaries and of desire. Business expanded ever more quickly, until the native peoples stopped being interesting merchandise for the Europeans and were pushed aside. So it was necessary to bring labor from Africa, which fed the growing extractive activity. At this point, it had spread over a vast region, taking in the entire Atlantic coast, and causing the decimation of native peoples.
Some historians have argued that this new discovery was unimportant for Europe based on the fact that Europeans did not settle here immediately: they came and looted the territory in order to pay for the trip. These historians say that Europeans were disappointed not to find gold in Brazil immediately, as the Spanish had found in Mexico and Peru. Brazil was then considered a less important colony. But the truth is that this early period was used for a rehearsal of the looting mode. We talk about a 500-year history of Brazilian colonization, but the first 100 years were just a modulation of the looting. After that, ore extraction became more and more specialized and widespread. By the end of the 19th century, the regions in Brazil where there was gold, diamonds, and precious stones were being thoroughly explored. As Davi Kopenawa says, the whites were like boars, digging in the dirt.
Ore mining in Brazil has always been an export activity. The steel industry was only established here between the 1930s and 1940s, during the war effort, when the first steel mills were set up. The United States had co-opted Brazil to produce steel and iron sheets, supplying the demand of the USA and their allies in Europe.
Brazil has always been characterized as an extractive economy. Even today there are several communities in Brazil recognized as extractive communities. They are located in different regions and maintain a domestic economy through each season’s resources. One example of this is crab gathering. Crab is taken from the mangroves by the hands of extractive fishermen and then delivered to the market. Extractivism has such capillarity, it is so deeply rooted that several communities live by extracting from nature things that they sell – some with balance, with more harmony, and more closeness to the environment in which they live, but all participating in an incessant plundering of local life for extra-local consumption. Extractivism drains life from people’s places of origin and creates poverty.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro said that Brazil has specialized in the production of poverty. This requires a certain competence, intention, and purpose: it can only be produced in a collaborative way between those who plunder and those who are plundered. Otherwise, we would have already interrupted this flow over the last 200 or 300 years, with the growing local demand for better living conditions, housing, sanitation, and local infrastructure. In Brazilian society, the poor are the result of a collective enterprise.
Someone who also had a very interesting take on this was Darcy Ribeiro. He said that in the colonial period, human bodies were burnt like coal. By the age of 30 or 40, people in subordinate conditions were sick or dead: all their health and energy were used up in the mills, in the mines – in extraction. If they were not slaves, they were working in conditions analogous to slavery.
Until the 19th century, everybody “owned” enslaved people in Brazil, including people who had already been enslaved and somehow managed to save money; when they wanted to expand their horizons, they bought a person. Some even owned two or three people. Culturally it was not a reprehensible thing. Morally, slave ownership was a means of experiencing autonomy.
Implanted here by colonialism, enslavement spread like a plague. Later, it evolved to consolidate the Brazilian social classes. It gave birth to an ideological repertoire that frames poverty as a virtue. The Catholic church widely spreads this thought, and Brazil is a Catholic-minded country, although it is now being invaded by Evangelical fundamentalism. Which is even worse.
Evangelical fundamentalism is a dystopian phenomenon produced here at the end of the 20th century. It has become a kind of Taliban of Christianity. It is allied to totalitarian ideas and flirts with fascism: its devotees believe that they are protected by God. Many pastors are at the head of real militias, including those who elected the current head of state. Some of the largest militia forces in Brazil are Evangelical, not Catholic. This is a recent phenomenon, and few scholars, sociologists, anthropologists are interested in looking at it. They often treat this as a natural phenomenon, just like it is natural for Brazil to be called Brazil and for people to go from enslavement to another type of misery analogous to slavery, in which five or six generations of people reproduce themselves in poverty.
When I learned that in India there were castes, and especially one caste that they used to call “untouchables,” the Dalits, I was horrified. I thought: how can a society let someone live in an eternally condemned, miserable condition, and dictate that people will have to reproduce socially within that strata? Later I realized that in Brazil we produce another kind of caste. When Viveiros de Castro says that we have specialized in producing poverty, he is referring to this tragedy. It is not just a circumstantial expression, something that happens under one government or another: it permeates the colonial history of Brazil.
“Work dignifies,” they say. Artisanal miners exist in this context. The garimpeiro only exists in hordes. One miner alone cannot stand on his feet. When you look at those images from Serra Pelada, with thousands of half-naked men dragging sacks of mud and ore, you see a huge, monumental anthill. The photographs from that time cause an enormous impact: we see a bestialization of life (which is different from animalizing life). Subjected to a miserable condition, those bodies are in full activity. They are super healthy, strong men, young bodies proudly dragging their own weight in mud. It is a tragedy, because these values are deeply ingrained in people’s mentality.
Europe doesn’t want to stop eating ore, oil, and coal. They have a belly full of looting the world.
Brazilian mining has always been engaged in the global exchange system. For the extractivism to keep going, you must have local people serving the looting system, colluding with it, earning from it, and there has to be a constant flow of these goods to Europe. Europe doesn’t want to stop eating ore, oil, and coal. They have a belly full of looting the world. Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries buy, consume, and transform everything that exists on the periphery of the world. If they wanted, they would stop it. The only ones able to stop it are those who buy. Those who sell are in no position to stop anything. Those who sell have always done so, they have been engaged in this dynamic since the Europeans arrived in the Americas – to plunder gold, precious stones, wood, and human bodies.
aps: We have been observing an intensification of natural disasters and unusual phenomena, in Brazil and worldwide, largely caused by climate change. How does extractivism relate to the environmental catastrophe that we witness today?
AK: We are witnessing the continued extraction of the top layer of the world. Forests are being cleared, mountains are being removed by mineral activity, and Earth’s topsoil is being increasingly consumed in food production.
The Green Revolution optimized the way that soil is extracted, allowing for an accelerated agricultural production never before seen on the planet. Agricultural soil does not occur uniformly, but only in certain regions of the planet. It is not possible to consider farming in a desert, for instance; some deserts produce nothing but their own ecosystems. The FAO, the United Nations’ food program, has shown that the agricultural areas are being reduced by desertification. The last islands of agricultural soil on the planet are being devoured by intensive use, by mechanization, and by the constant dumping of what are called “correctives”: bombardments on the body of the earth, to make it productive. We are drugging the land.
Recently, a dust storm hit a region of intensive agricultural activity in the countryside of São Paulo – a region that became rich from coffee, sugar cane, and soy monocultures. From there rose a cloud of sickly dust never before seen. It looked like a storm in the desert, and stopped the life of the wealthy cities in the state, all the way to the south of Minas Gerais, knocking out the internet signal and electricity grids. This was not an isolated event: a few days later, it happened again in Rio Grande do Sul. We may enter a phase in which long periods without rain result in storms like these. We still don’t know what harm they could cause to the health of people exposed to the dust.
The dispute for agricultural territories is terribly violent. We are experiencing a constant invasion of the territories of traditional communities – Quilombolas, Indigenous, and riverine communities. Places where family farming was practiced are being taken over by predatory agribusiness.
Europe consumes all this as if it were doing Brazil a great favor. Consume, consume, consume: this extraction of life is leaving behind thirty million families living in unemployment and in absolute poverty. We are back on the map of starvation. Yet, some say that we are the granary of the world. It is an outrageous denialism. I am impressed that people in Europe, who buy these products, play dumb and pretend not to see that they are collaborating with the death of thousands of people, and with the destruction of life in the Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Cerrado, and in the Rainforest that they call the Amazon.
aps: In “Tomorrow Is Not for Sale,” you make a statement about the trivialization of life, especially in the way the Brazilian government has dealt with the pandemic. You say that there is also a trivialization of the power of the word, in favor of a generalized idea that the “economy can’t stop.” Can you comment further on this point?
AK: The financialization of life has managed to intertwine life and economy to the point where they seem to be almost the same thing: to be alive is to produce. The experience of life is shared with millions of other non-human beings. The speciesism of the human is what instituted the economy as a relationship between things, beings, people, and worlds. It is as if humans were wearing a costume, that of the economy in the sense of capitalism, and they wear this costume to subordinate life, to “pimp” life around them, to use Suely Rolnik’s term.
If the economy cannot stop, then what can stop is life: the life of other beings, of millions of species that are becoming extinct.
Suely Rolnik has for years worked on the question of how capitalism extracts life from its place, as if in an abusive relationship. She says that capitalism has settled into this practice of pimping out life from the land, from the air, or from people’s bodies. We are all summoned to collaborate in this dynamic, for it to be always active. If the economy cannot stop, then what can stop is life: the life of other beings, of millions of species that are becoming extinct. Will this go on until Homo sapiens enters the species extinction list and devours itself? The devouring of the world has been in practice for a long time, it has become a way of being in the world: one lives by devouring the world.
By questioning this way of being in the world, we may not need to separate life and economy into two poles. Life, as we are experiencing it, produces a process that we call economy, that is fed by necropolitics, by the production of death. As long as there is matter to be burned, as long as there is a body to burn, this economy will continue to heat up. The result is what is happening with the planet’s climate: Earth has a fever. We have heated up the race so much that now Earth will not continue to respond to our demands for water, food, and life in the same way that it did before. We are now in a race against time.
aps: In Ideas for Postponing the End of the World, you draw a distinction between quasi-humans and very-human-humans. Is it possible for Europeans to become quasi-humans?
AK: It would be a very radical move: Europeans invented the idea of the Human. They invented it to occupy the central place within the human species, by what has come to be called “white supremacy” in the conflicts in the United States. White supremacism is this elective place of the European white, that the white United States also claim: to treat whites as a species that do not have the same quality as the quasi-humans or the sub-humans. This is a Eurocentric thought, with strong diffusion in the colonies.
Europe has ruled the world based on the idea of race, even when this idea wasn’t yet established. They were already operating with this concept when they went out to colonize the rest of the world and enslave other human beings. If Europe can enslave other humans, it is because they are not considered so human. That’s why I propose this idea of quasi-human.
If you think about an individual, a single European person – a poet, a writer, an artist – they can renounce this supremacist place and live a sub-human experience. Some have done this, some great European artists have done this. Philosophers and writers, artists in the broad sense of the word. But this has never been a broad, collective maneuver: Europe won’t give up its place of privilege. It has already waged global wars to secure that privilege.
In the book Ideas for Postponing the End of the World, I say that they have instituted a club: the club of elected humans. They are white. The rest is sub-humanity. The whole set of laws, the national State and international apparatuses, and the very idea of reason, emanate from Eurocentrism. And to those we can add notions such as human rights, poverty, wealth, or the human development index. The World Health Organization, the UN, FAO, UNESCO, all these supra-national institutions organize the world from Eurocentric perspectives.
The world has a vast layer of peripheries where different humanities are instituted: the quasi-humans, the sub-humans, and the non-humans also. These gradations are very well shaped and guaranteed by an economic system that institutes poverty as the rule of operation for the peripheral countries. The destiny of Third World countries is to be poor. It would be a scandalous simplification to imagine that there is a global will to grant the Third World the same quality of life as the First World. This is demonstrably unfeasible from the ecological, economic, historical, or political point of view. We have to stop this lie.
We must finally admit that there really is a divide, and that this exclusive world of Eurocentric humanity has borders. We must recognize these borders, and demand that relations with the other layers of the world be based on reality, not on manipulation. Europe needs to be bothered, as it is bothered by the environmental refugees arriving at its doors. Those starving, scourged people whose countries were destroyed by the West. Imagine the malaise of Europe, with thousands of people knocking on the door and saying, “Look, you’ve wrecked my country, I’m here now asking for asylum.” Do you remember that Bob Dylan song, “knock knock knocking on Heaven’s door”? It’s a dystopia. If you build such a small heaven, you’ll have to put up with the noise of people shouting at the door.
aps: What kind of future do you imagine for Earth and humanity? Can we rely on the notion of “future”?
AK: I have lived immersed in worldviews in which the future is ancestral. This statement is not meant to project anything, it is not a prospect of the after: it is about the now. Ancestrality is not in the remote past; it is something in the now. What we are living today is ancestral.
It is very convenient for the consumption of subjectivities – this attractive commodity in the extractive market – that we keep on fabricating the promises of a fake future. But the only possibility to produce world is the Earth. The living organism of the Earth: Pacha Mama, Gaia. I have been in a series of dialogues with scientists who have encouraged me to think that life on planet Earth is amazing. I became acquainted with notions such as autopoiesis: the idea that Earth produces life on Earth.
A fellow traveler in these public debates, the climatologist Antonio Nobre, is an enthusiast of the idea that trees talk and cooperate with each other through an infonetwork spread throughout the Earth. He told me once that the living organism of the Earth expresses itself in unconditional love. Earth’s regenerating living particles produce life in unconditional love. It is wonderful to hear a scientist using words heard more usually from a poet or a musician.
Nobre says this based on research, on studies by scientists such as Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, or Jeremy Narby – author of a wonderful study on the power of plants to transmit knowledge and wisdom to other beings. Narby’s book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge talks about the intelligence of plants and about communicating with plants. This research is also articulated in recent works by Emanuele Coccia, for instance, who works with the notion of metamorphosis. Coccia reminds us that life is always in transformation. A tree can be a butterfly, which can be a bird, which can be many other organisms, each one experiencing the flow of life with its own apparatus.
These ideas translate into sumak kawsay, the wonderful notion of “good living” of the Quechua, Aymara, and hundreds of other Andean peoples. We are talking about the production of life, about ecology, political ecology, or cosmopolitics. It can be difficult to move between different worlds and to recognize reality in different qualities of worlding.
The future is an invention that fits very well into the logic of the West: it is a promise that doesn’t need to be kept.
It is tempting to imagine futures. The future is an invention that fits very well into the logic of the West: it is a promise that doesn’t need to be kept. Life is here and now. If you promise me something outside this here and now, that promise is a bet: it may happen, it may not happen. Life, on the other hand, is a constant production of meaning, not a promise. Life produces meaning in itself, by its very materiality.
When I say that the present is ancestral, it is in the sense that everything that happened in what we call the past is living matter for us to consider the now. Let’s imagine that we are in a conversation with boys and girls in a philosophy class for 12-year-old children who ask us, “what is going to happen after this instant, in this class?” We might answer: “let’s look at what has happened during the time we were together in class.” And we are going to look at the experiences we had, the affections, the insights, and we are going to put all of that together and lay it on the table. Probably the next instant will look like these things that we put together.
When I say that the future is ancestral, I am saying that we gather in memory everything that is needed to build the next module, the next step. This cannot be a counterfeiting, the ancestral future needs to be made with real, living matter. It doesn’t matter if this matter was cool or not, if it was pleasurable or traumatic. We have to put the matter on the table and think: tomorrow will look like this yesterday, and we can change it by influencing its objective body, the body of history. If we falsify, if we lie about the future, it will not work. There won’t be food for everyone, there won’t be oxygen, medicine or shelter for everyone.
But there is another way of thinking, or many others. Some are reported in Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologiques. Each Indigenous myth from the Americas – the Mythologiques contain hundreds of them – holds a capsule of information about time. It is possible to imagine a time of myth, a mythical time: that instant that inaugurates everything and that is experienced as a living uncertainty. The time of myth is prior to the anguish of being sure.
In fact, this instant appears in narrative myths from all over the world, from different worlds. I could find parallels to this notion of time in Buddhism and other meditative traditions in India or Tibet. The Dalai Lama, for example, talks about the idea of the present, the instant, as indistinct fruition. It’s what they call the ocean of impermanence: an immensity, as if there were no borders. Some people believe that this can only be experienced by an enlightened person: the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, the guru. Well, we can all experience it.
Paradoxically, Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is individual, unique; it doesn’t entertain the idea of a universal experience, of everyone experiencing an awareness of the present. And for me, this is disappointing, because my expectation, or my wish, is that this could be communicated to multitudes of people.
There is a samba song that says: “whatever comes, I will take.” It is about samba: that samba is an instantaneous thing. Going back to Emanuele Coccia, if life doesn’t stop, if life is incessant and it reproduces itself all the time, the most that can happen to us in the next instant is another life.
Another song, by Toquinho, says something like, “if you give me pencil and paper, I can draw the world, color life.” It is a fantasy about childhood, about the permanent willingness to live in the here and now. As we become adults, we petrify. And the more we petrify, the more we yearn for the future. The longing for the future is proportional to the state of necrosis of our body and spirit. A child doesn’t think about the future – a child lives. We need to always be able to awaken that child in us. We want to experience that, but we want guarantees, and for that, there is no guarantee.
aps: There is a verse by Carlos Drummond de Andrade in which he asks, suddenly, “Where is Brazil?” How do we answer that question today, especially when we consider that much of the national symbolism has rightly been criticized as colonial symbolism and that other motifs such as the Brazilian national team jersey and the colors of the flag have been largely captured by the extreme right now in power? Does Brazil exist, or has it existed anywhere?
AK: Considering Drummond’s poetics, one must understand this question as metaphysical. Drummond was already calling into question the narrative that there was a place in South America destined to be called Brazil. He also questioned the colonial invention of this place.
If he asks where Brazil is, he may be asking a question about space, about the colonial claim to configure a place in the world, naming it Brazil, and even producing a social response to this place, which would be “the Brazilians.” That is, besides inventing a place, you also produce an idea of a people that will institute this humanity called Brazilians.
I am very happy to comment on this expression by Drummond, because I have never believed that there is a place corresponding to the idea of Brazil. And, even less so, that the people that came from all over the world to colonize and be colonized in this territory have been constituted as “the Brazilians.” I think that we have been living for a long time in a vast camp, to which more and more people from outside arrive, with desires wholly different from one another’s. Brazil is an invention, and the Brazilian is a sociological fiction.
It is like in that Gilberto Gil song: the poet is walking on the beach and finds a mermaid and is amazed. But other guys, hungry, see a whale, and they want to eat it. The song then speaks of a body torn to pieces in the sand. There is no agreement about what had existed there: a mermaid or a whale?