Persistent neoextractivism



Economic power and political strength combine to link the State to the mechanisms of agromineral and financial accumulation

Between 2019 and 2022, the Brazilian government dismantled the institutions for monitoring and controlling the guarantee of social, labor and environmental rights. In the land and territorial field, there was a stimulus for the invasion of public lands, the intrusion of indigenous lands and the spread of a multifaceted crime, which affected, in particular, the rights of indigenous and traditional peoples.

A recent Inesc study showed that more than half of the tax waiver amounts granted by Sudam in the North and Sudene in the Northeast, in 2021, benefited companies operating in mining, energy and oil, largely subject to fines imposed by Ibama for irregularities.[I]

Months after the withdrawal of the coup and anti-democratic forces from the government, several fronts aimed at legalizing the grabbing of public lands continue in action: the time frame project, for example, expresses the ruralist intention of promoting a kind of practical revocation of Brazil's membership to ILO Convention 169 on self-declaration of identities by traditional peoples.

In defense of this time frame thesis, a representative of the Mato Grosso Agricultural Forum recognizes that many territories claimed by indigenous peoples “are in areas already anthropized by agriculture, livestock, or cities”,[ii] therefore, alleging the actual invasion of those lands as justification for not returning them to the people whose areas were intruded. On the other hand, the prospect of continuing to occupy the Amazon and the Cerrado with large agro-mineral projects of an extractive nature remains strong – among them, oil at the mouth of the Amazon is the most visible. How to understand this persistence?

The literature on large extractive projects characterizes them as a form of occupation of territories with a view to integrating them into the market and capital circuit. The persistence of the developmentalist ideology that has justified these projects throughout different situations and governments suggests, however, that the great extractive project is more than a simple appropriation of territories by the market. It would also be an instrument through which capital “appropriates” the State and influences the political sphere itself.

Research shows that the reasons for implementing extractive projects are found as much – if not more – in the realm of politics as in the economy and that the power of large corporations can virtually, in certain areas, replace the State. Among historians, such as Marc Bloch among others, there is an old discussion about to what extent the concentration of power in a few hands is a requirement for carrying out large infrastructures for the exploitation of resources, or whether the forces involved in these projects are that, in a way, they shape the State itself.

The same question arises for today's financialized primary-export extractive capitalism. It is known that the developmental State in Latin America played a mediating role for businesses dependent on territorial, energy and water resources: the State offered basic inputs and infrastructure, supported corporations with tax and credit favors and signaled new territorial horizons for profitable investment. , subsidized and low risk. The State's action was also to help structure the institutional triangle formed by the business owner, the consultancy consortium and the contractors.[iii]

With the process of reprimarization of the Brazilian economy, large projects were reinforced in their role of mediation between “accumulation by dispossession” – based on the expropriation of lands from small producers, indigenous and traditional peoples – and the subordination of the State to coalitions developmentalist, now financialized[iv]. These blocks of interests thus link the aforementioned “institutional triangle” to the forces of the political system whose electoral success depends heavily on surpluses in extractive income mediated by large projects.

Such peculiar forms of interaction between the State and the business sector have led to the reduction of the democratic project to a type of “parliamentary capitalism”, driven by agribusiness benches and lobbies. Its articulation in promoting extractive projects has meant that the act of investing on a large scale also means governing on several scales. By conditioning the location of their investments to the offer of regulatory advantages, tax incentives, and relaxation of laws and regulations by national states and local authorities, corporations become quasi-subjects of certain government policies.

With the growth of areas occupied with the production of commodities, Increasing foreign exchange flows originate from processes of peasant expropriation and pressure on traditionally occupied lands. The cycle of rising prices of commodities, verified in the second decade of this century, stimulated such processes, at the same time that it favored, within the scope of the formal political system, a growing commodification of electoral processes.

Never before has the abstract figure of the “political market”, frequently evoked in political science debates, gained a more literal meaning – configuring, this time, a market regulated by case-by-case negotiations, involving positions and the definition of codes and norms based on the relative strength of each interest group.

Accumulation through dispossession is therefore logically linked to a weakening of the democratic public sphere – given that it is heavily monopolized by some business groups – resulting in dispossession not only of environmental and territorial resources, but also of spaces of speech. , in particular the possibilities for affected groups to make themselves heard in decision-making spaces. This “restricted democracy” implies, at the same time, a non-transparent allocation of the extractive surplus and the exceptional power of large corporations to manage their private “social policies” with the purpose of sterilizing, at its inception, any more substantive discussion about social implications. and environmental aspects of projects in the areas where their investments are implemented.

Thus, while neoliberal rhetoric insists on the virtues of the free market, large corporations have become more concerned than ever with what they call “non-market” strategies, particularly in the field of politics – be it in the decision-making spheres, whether in the field of business implementation. This is the case of corporations' interest in studies of the so-called “social risks” – namely, those that society can pose to business – and their growing reference to what they call “territorial governance”.

To control territories of interest for their investments, corporations seek to map and monitor the degrees of organization of society in territories where they believe there are greater possibilities for community mobilization by organized collective subjects.

In addition to actions that aim to anticipate and neutralize possible conflicts, companies also adopt strategies for situations arising after the triggering of conflicts, seeking to manage critical reactions to the environmental and social impacts of their projects. When such criticism comes directly from affected groups, research finds the adoption of “dismantling tactics” through actions such as:[v] (i) “demoralization” of those affected, suggesting that they are cheating the system to obtain benefits, instead of perceiving them as demanding their rights; (ii) “institutional metamorphosis”, in which the institutional changes of negotiators and the diversity of decision-making levels end up allowing a discourse of disengagement with previous promises under the allegation of having been made by others; (iii) “planned abandonment”, in which the company alleges incompetence in a certain mitigating issue, transferring competence to others; (iv) “bureaucratic incorporation” of certain organizations of affected groups which, given the diversity of affected social groups, ends up depriving them of legitimacy.

The fact is that, since the 1990s, in parallel with the existence of a neo-extractivist development model, we have seen a kind of change in the division of social disciplining work between the State and corporations involved in large projects, with the latter starting to invest in advance in sociopolitical stabilization of the “surroundings” of agromineral establishments through authoritarian practices of surveillance and control. These are the processes through which neoextractivism and authoritarianism support each other; economic power and political strength combine to link the State to the mechanisms of agro-mineral and financial accumulation.

Such readjustments between the political and economic spheres reflect more or less lasting reorderings through which extractive capitalism has sought to escape the criticisms to which it is the subject and ensure continuity in the mechanisms for obtaining its profits. These changes certainly need to be followed and understood by those who work to defend the rights of rural workers, small producers, traditional peoples and communities, social groups, mostly non-white, threatened by dispossession regimes based on land grabbing, in investment in land as a financial asset and in the State's actions in favor of land concentration via financing, infrastructure, deregulation and re-regulation of laws and standards.

But it is worth noting that conjunctures also count, as demonstrated by the present statements by ruralists that the times of “tranquility” under Jair Bolsonaro gave way to the policy of “damage containment” under Lula.[vi] As we know, what affects the peace of mind of those who violate their rights is the resistance of small rural producers, peoples and communities in their struggle to guarantee land for those who work on it and to protect the integrity of traditionally occupied territories. What the powerful understand by damage are, in turn, the signs of autonomy that peasants, indigenous peoples and quilombolas demand to – in the political sphere – define and defend their own ways of life.

* Henri Acselrad is a retired full professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] INESC, Tax Incentives in the Amazon, Technical Note, Brasília, June 2023,


[iii] G. Lins Ribeiro, Transnational companies – a big project from the inside, São Paulo, ANPOCS/Marco Zero, 1991.

[iv] We understand neoextractivism here as the result of this process of articulation between reprimarization and financialization of the economy. Neo-extractist would, therefore, be the subordinate mode of international insertion of economies on the periphery of global capitalism, based on export specialization in goods intensive in natural resources, the appropriation of extraordinary income by large extractive and financial corporations and the ecological submission of peripheral societies to globalized capitalism; H. Acselrad, Extractive Capitalism, the earth is round, 3/6/2023:

[v] Parry Scott, “Planned neglect: an interpretation of dam projects based on the experience of UHE Itaparica on the São Francisco River”. In: A. Zhouri. Development, Recognition of Rights and Territorial Conflicts. Brasília: ABA, 2012.

[vi] Ranier Bragon, Agro moves between Bolsonarism, orphanhood in the center-right and distrust with Lula, Folha de S. Paul, 16 / 9 / 2023.

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