The paradox of post-extractivism: the SDGs offer a better alternative

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Aidan Davy
Chief Operating Officer

In his thoughtful and considered book, ‘In Defence of Globalization’, Jagdish Bhagwati argues that while critics of globalisation often attribute social ills such as poverty and environmental degradation to economic globalisation, in reality social causes such as poverty alleviation and gender equality are advanced rather than set back by globalisation.

In a similar vein, advocates of a ‘post-extractivist’ development paradigm seem genuinely motivated by a desire for social equity, broad-based and inclusive economic opportunity, and a model of development that is truly sustainable. Paradoxically, however, the pursuit of a post-extractivist development trajectory may do far more harm than good to their cause.

At its core, post-extractivism involves a rejection of large-scale mining, typically but not exclusively funded by foreign direct investment and enabled by a complicit host government that fails to exercise adequate oversight. Post-extractivism equates mining with widespread pollution, loss of biodiversity, adverse social impacts, and the systematic violation of economic, social and cultural rights. In turn, the products of minerals or metals extraction fuel unsustainable levels of consumption and exacerbate global problems such as climate change.

Post-extractivism is, in its own way, a response to globalisation. However, there are a variety of ways to respond to globalist forces, as Chile has shown in its approach to managing and embracing globalisation.

There are two critical problems with the post-extractivist model. First, it assumes a level of protectionism which is harmful both to the economy it aims to protect, and to the wider global economy. Though protectionist policies are currently enjoying support in some democratic states today, it is imperative to recall that protectionist policies result in domestic firms becoming less competitive in the global market, an overall drop in a country’s gross domestic product, and decreases in world exports.

My fundamental problem with the post-extractivist model is that I cannot reconcile its view of large-scale mining with my own experience, and it is also completely at odds with the approach to responsible metals and minerals development advocated by the ICMM and practiced by many leading companies. The reality of modern responsible mining is far removed from the dystopian view promoted by advocates of post-extractivism.  Determined efforts are made by responsible companies to minimise the negatives, though this does not mean that no adverse impacts ever occur. Companies are working to ensure that these adverse effects are outweighed by the benefits.

Responsible companies support strong governance and regulatory oversight, as they know that without this, the full potentially positive contribution of mining and metals to sustainable development will not be realised.

Post-extractivist advocates emphasise the importance of achieving two indispensable conditions: zero poverty and zero extinction. They also call for environmental and social costs to be internalised, materials consumption and wastage to be reduced, and highlight the importance of transitioning to a low carbon future. However, they are largely silent on the means of implementation.

If these aspirations sound familiar, perhaps that is because they are a subset of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by 193 countries in 2015, which David Nabarro1 refers to as the first time there has ever been 'a plan for the future of the world and its people.'

The SDGs also overlap with many of the aims post-extractivist proponents seek to achieve, including greater transparency, stronger environmental and social protections, poverty alleviation, and citizen development.

Furthermore, some of the countries and regions that have made the most impressive inroads to poverty alleviation in Latin America have done so based on an extractives-led model of development. Admittedly, there are limits to such development, but done well, it forms the basis for building essential human, financial, intellectual and social capital.

Appeals for change are compelling – which is why they are frequently invoked by civil society, political and business leaders. However, it is incumbent on advocates of post-extractivism to offer a vision of an alternative future that is sharper than the pixelated version currently on offer. 

Since the concept of post-extractivism was developed in the late 2000’s before the SDGs were launched, it is time for its advocates to acknowledge that a better alternative – which enjoys broad support across countries and continents – already exists.

Instead of imposing a post-extractivist mining model – and therefore eliminating the progress in development it can and often has brought – it would be better for proponents of the model to instead take up support of achieving the SDGs, working with governments, mining firms and civil society to reach these worthy objectives.

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  1. UN Special Adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change