Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Resource Extraction and Protest in Peru

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Images by Lars Klove

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Resource extraction—and especially mining—has powered Peru’s economic growth and driven the country’s social investment policies since the 1990s. Since its transition to democracy in 2001, Peru has seen its gdp more than double. However, the benefits of this growth haven’t been distributed equally, and increasing reliance on the extractive industry has brought rising levels of social unrest.

What explains this escalation in protests in a context of democracy and unprecedented abundance? And what are the implications of such protests for national politics in the future?

In attempting to answer these questions in his book Resource Extraction and Protest in Peru, Moisés Arce, political science chair at the University of Missouri, makes an important contribution to regionwide research on social mobilization. Although the book focuses on Peru, Arce places his argument in the broader context of Latin American politics, and his theoretical framework can be used for comparative purposes elsewhere in the region.

In the first part of the book, Arce asserts that the critical factor behind the rise in protests across Latin American countries, and specifically within Peru since the end of President Alberto Fujimori’s authoritarian regime (1990–2000), may be the advent of democracy itself, and the opportunities it has created for mobilization.

Arce uses an original dataset from Peruvian print media, recording 31 years of mobilizations, to identify two broad waves of protest: one during the early to mid-1980s and the other in the mid-to late 2000s. Underscoring his thesis, the principal similarity between these two periods was the high level of political liberalization.

The emphasis on in-country comparison is a welcome departure from much of the existing literature, which fails to take into account the nuance and variance of protests within individual countries. Perhaps the most important contribution of this book is Arce’s finding that the correlation between protests and subnational political fragmentation is stronger than between protests and high levels of rents from natural resource extraction. Although Arce argues that “demands for services” or “disputes over the distribution and use of revenues generated from natural resource extraction” generally drive such protests, it is political fragmentation that provides the fertile ground for social unrest, rather than the specific natural resource issue.

The level of political fragmentation—which Arce describes as a large number of independent movements receiving low shares of the vote—is greater at the regional level than at the national level. Regional parties tend to be personality-driven and ephemeral, and very few last more than an election or two. The fragmented, multi-party environment creates a context in which “these regional parties do not need to mobilize support across all groups of society or make broad appeals to their constituents,” but rather secure their support from small segments of the voting population.

Because of this, parties are not accountable or responsive to citizens’ demands beyond the narrow group that elected them. Without a channel through which to exercise their demands, contention arises. This argument makes an important qualification to the “more money, more conflict” argument. With Arce, the assertion becomes “more fragmentation, more conflict.”

However, Arce’s argument would be stronger if he took into account the fact that regional and local governments do not have the authority to govern the extractive process. They do not formulate the laws that regulate the process, nor the way profits are distributed. Decisions related to the extractive industry are made at the national level. The real power of the “more fragmentation more conflict” thesis is that it explains the difficulties of regional governance, particularly in redistributing economic benefits, when the rules of the game are determined nationally.

The other type of resource-driven mobilizations, which center around “demands for rights”—including environmental concerns such as maintaining a water supply or protecting agricultural lands—have a different logic. As Arce puts it, such conflicts are “less frequent but highly publicized.”

The second part of the book focuses on the impact of these localized protests on national politics. In this section, he presents three comparative cases: conflicts around mining projects at the Tambogrande mine in Piura and Cerro Quilish in Cajamarca, and the conflict in Bagua around legislative decisions that facilitated resource extraction on communal lands in the Peruvian Amazon. He uses these cases to argue that protests are successful when social actors develop an effective narrative around their cause that allows them to build associational and collective power, which he defines as “organizational capacity” and “coalitional capacity,” respectively.

Arce carefully shows how the three protests—some of the most emblematic of Peruvian resource-based conflict—successfully halted extractive projects or overturned government initiatives by developing broad coalitions and linking the practice of extraction to injustice.

This selection of cases certainly contributes to the discussion of the immediate consequences of mobilization, but does not help to illuminate the larger, long-term political consequences, the stated aim of this section. The extent to which these three successful cases have “the potential to shape the long-term development strategy of the state,” however, is not entirely clear. They also do not do much to deepen the argument outlined in Part One. The book’s overall argument would have benefitted from including at least one case that associated local political fragmentation with protest.

One longer-term consequence of mobilization that Arce articulates has  been the creation of the ley de consulta previa (law of prior consultation)—a legal framework under the ilo Convention 169 that was approved by President Ollanta Humala in 2011 and recognizes the rights of affected Indigenous populations to be involved in r source governance. Arce refers to this law as an important outcome of the Bagua mobilizations.

In the other cases, however, success seems confined to the short term: halting individual projects that appeared to be potentially destructive of local livelihoods without any structural change that may prevent similar conflicts from arising in the future.

In the final pages of the book, the author shows some optimism—shared by many Peruvians at the time of Humala’s election—about the president’s capacity to fulfill his promise to “make mining serve the whole population and not just a minority.” Unfortunately, it took little time before resource conflicts resumed under his administration.

Arce’s book is a careful, thought-provoking and well-written account of the causes and consequences of resource-related protests in Peru. It represents a rigorous attempt to study what is becoming one of the defining political and economic issues in the region.

Tags: Fresh Look, Natural resource extraction, Peru
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