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October 09, 2023

Conflicting Narratives on Development and Environment in Argentina

lithium exploitation in Argentina

Source: Photo credits ‘no-al-litio’: Ramiro Barreiro, Latfem.org

Conflicting Narratives on Development and Environment in Argentina. What can we learn from lithium exploitation in Argentina?


Written by Mariana Paterlini

Argentina is an unequal country where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening, while its economy still depends on large-scale agriculture for export. However, since the 90s, and influenced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, mining has emerged as a potential source of economic growth. Furthermore, in the last ten years, the Northwest region has gained visibility as part of the "lithium triangle". Along with Bolivia and Chile, this area concentrates 85% of the world's reserves of this crucial metal for the energy transition. Simultaneously, the consolidation of different actors questioning the benefits and negative impacts of the dominant development model has increased over the last twenty years, giving rise to a national scenario populated by environmental conflicts.

Lithium is often presented as a critical mineral in the transition to renewable energy. Currently, governments in the North promote its exploration and, in line with their international environmental commitments, link it to sustainable mining contributing to decarbonisation. Thus, it reproduces a Modernity discourse that conceives the environment and its resources as commodities ready to serve the human economic organisation. However, its extraction implies intensive water use that alters soil conditions and negatively impacts the ecosystem, thus an exploitation of the environment. Furthermore, this practice often violates the rights of local communities. Specifically, indigenous peoples who have remained marginalised since colonial times.

This research, conducted as the dissertation to finish an International Development MA at the University of Warwick, examined cultural products related to lithium exploitation circulating in national media, guided by a transdisciplinary theoretical framework that merges postcolonial development studies, political ecology, and sociology of culture, through discourse analysis. This approach made it possible to engage with how diverse actors conceptualise their relationships with the environment differently and consider Argentina's position in relation to the current centres of economic power. Then, five development narratives were identified while observing the relation of each model with the environment, the reproduction of colonialism each one entails and their efforts towards an ideal of emancipation for the country.

Here culture is thought of as a historical process anchored in common sense, habits, and beliefs which materialise the social relations of inequality between different groups involved. Therefore, exploring the cultural dynamics in the case of lithium exploitation makes it possible to decentre the hegemonic development narrative and expand the political imagination presenting alternative possibilities at stake.

The five development narratives identified through this exercise -orthodox extractivism, extractivism with industrialisation, green new deal (GND), degrowth, and community autonomism-shape heterogeneous ways of materialising human relations with nature. Moreover, they entail fields of possibilities and practices with which different groups can identify and between which relations of opposition or articulation are established, considering the power disputes across them. Therefore, based on the frequency of circulation, the actors legitimising the narratives and the media outlet in which they circulate, orthodox extractivism and extractivism with industrialisation are residual narratives, GND is the dominant one, and degrowth and community autonomism are the emergent.

Regarding the environment, whereas residual models assimilate it as natural resources intended to be exploited intensively (lithium appears as a commodity that brings in foreign currency, referred to as the "new oil", "white gold", or a "hidden treasure", allowing local communities to leave their "primitive" original state), the dominant model frames this exploitation within environmental standards that remain unclear (lithium appears as key for an energy transition, and refer as part of a "sustainable mining" linked to accountability and efficiency). In contrast, the emergent narratives understand the environment as the co-creation of a relationship between the biophysical and its inhabitants, entailing caring relationships (indigenous peoples expose how their identities and culture disappear if their ecosystem dies). Connected to this arises the question of its management. While the residual and the dominant narratives discuss it in terms of strategic resources that provincial or national governments may administer, the emerging models stress recognising the legitimate participation of indigenous communities and organised civil society in the debate.

Regarding emancipation, orthodox extractivism is the only narrative that does not envision emancipation and reproduces colonial relations between the North and the South, assimilating development to economic growth. On the other hand, extractivism with industrialisation, GND, degrowth and community autonomism include an emancipatory aspect. Nonetheless, their understanding of emancipation differs; the two former links it to improving Argentina's position in the global market, neglecting power inequalities within the country, and understanding economic growth as the basis of development. The latter consider emancipation from a bottom-up perspective, undervaluing economic growth as the basis of development and connecting it to a shift in the relationship with the environment.

Finally, in the residual and dominant narratives, it is possible to trace persistence of the Modernity discourse with nuances, reproducing the marginalisation of local communities and focusing on the country's position within global dynamics. In this way, they neglect the differentiated impact these dynamics have in different sectors, particularly the negative consequences on already marginalised communities. On the other hand, the emergent models openly challenge this discourse, emphasising the reinforcement of local aspects to reverse the undesired effects of the current global ones.

This study showed that although emergent narratives usually appear on critical and alternative media outlets, they circulate in mainstream media to a lesser extent. Therefore, it made it possible to think that new futures, engaged with alternative development models, can be shaped by the massification of some unusual alliances already occurring in this arena. Thus, it might be relevant to delve deeper into the strategies for consolidating these unusual alliances while generating evidence to identify whether they effectively contribute to counteracting the reproduction of inequality.

Whilst the hegemonic development discourse aims to improve Argentina's position in the global system, it reproduces mechanisms that exacerbate the differentiated impact of this development model on different sectors of the population, producing environmental damages and more inequality. This analysis sought to deepen understanding of this situation and demonstrate alternative ways forward. The final goal remains on the side of hope and advocates for the plural construction of a development model intersected by the values of social justice, in which the motto of the Sustainable Development Goals becomes a reality: leaving no one behind.

Author Bio

Mariana Paterlini has recently graduated with an MA in International Development at the University of Warwick. She is a human rights activist whose practice has focused on feminism, gender rights, economic, social, and cultural rights and, more recently, the right to the future. Her master's dissertation addressed continuities and ruptures traceable in the narratives circulating in the public debate on development and the environment in Argentina. She was a Chevening scholar, and this piece was made possible by funding from the Chevening Scholarships, the UK government's global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).


July 15, 2021

By the West, for the West: Deconstructing the Development Discourse

India bus

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Written by Shreyanshi Upadhyaya

The term development is hard to define because, over the years, it has come to connote different things: in the realm of economics as an objective such as modernisation, capital growth, poverty eradication; in the realm of ideas as a meta-narrative, discourse, or grand strategy; in the realm of development agencies as aid; and finally, for leaders of the developing countries development has meant a beacon of hope for prosperity. Despite these different meanings, in the realm of common-sense understandings, development has always had a positive connotation. Developing countries have adopted numerous development paths and the UN grandiose Development Goals. However, despite these makeovers, development has failed to produce any successful process of eradicating global poverty or inequality. Then why do we still believe that development works?

The invention of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘global poverty’

In 1949, US President Truman advanced his Point Four Program wherein he made it the West’s self-ascribed agenda to deal with ‘poverty’ in ‘underdeveloped’ areas. It is in the context of the Cold War competition for world domination between the West and the East that the ‘grand strategy’ of Western-style development was advanced by the US, where development aid was sent to the newly independent countries in exchange for their loyalty.

The development discourse during the Cold War became a force that the leaders of the ‘underdeveloped’ world genuinely believed in. Development promised to them a world where they could be as prosperous as their former colonisers. Their colonial experience had taught them that there was no space for demonstrated weakness and vulnerabilities such as insecure systems of food, health, trade, etc., in the international arena, which was already taken care of in the developed West. To undo this insecurity, development presented a beacon of hope. Hence, as E.P. Thompson notes, the people who were objects of development during the colonial times and had ended up in a situation of depravity due to its very functioning, came to fight “not against development but about it”. Such was the hope that was eschewed by the ideology.

Even in the neoliberal era, bullied by the IMF and World Bank for decades, developing countries adopted American institutions and policies under Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) to learn “good” economic practices to get a sip out of the elixir of development which was the stronghold of the West. Even as they witnessed, for instance, during the East Asian crisis, the coercion of these fellow developing countries by the US and the IMF to reduce government welfare expenditure—even as it resulted in the resurgence of AIDS in Thailand and curtailed food subsidies for the starving in Indonesia—they were told it would be painful at first, but in the end, they will emerge ‘developed’. Adopting SAPs on the recommendation of these international financial institutions led to similar adverse consequences for the African economies, at times heightening unemployment and social insecurity. The developing world held onto the hope of development even as, a decade after, the same policies—increased government spending, massive deficits, bailing out of banks, interest rates as low as zero—that they were lectured about being against growth were adopted by the US to deal with its own 2008 crisis, aided by some of the same officials at the IMF and the World Bank. Why, despite this, did the non-West continued to follow the linear path to development?

With Truman’s speech in 1949, two billion people suddenly came to homogenously identify themselves as ‘underdeveloped’. Failing to note what they possessed—cultural diversity, talented population, and biodiversity—they came to see themselves in terms of what they were lacking: development. The term ‘underdevelopment’ had never before been used to classify entire populations into a hierarchy, where the developed were superior and the ‘underdeveloped’ inferior. The term was thus the creation of the development discourse advanced by the West. The development discourse helped solidify a specific perception into a fact that suddenly dichotomised the world and spoke to the vulnerability of the newly independent countries. Hence, the discourse of development was enticing because it not only made the achievement of Western-style development seem attainable for the ‘underdeveloped’, but also created the desirability of such development in the first place.

Similarly, global poverty—which rendered two-thirds of the world poor—was a phenomenon that was the construction of the development discourse. Poor people had always existed in all societies—which, as highlighted by Mustapha Kamal Pasha, kept devising vernacular methods for their support—but they had never become a feature that characterised countries in this manner before. Global poverty meant that the ‘underdeveloped’ countries came to be defined in relation to the standard of prosperity set by the ‘developed’ countries.

The development discourse led to the construction of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘global poverty’, both of which ushered the creation of new discourses and practices that shaped the reality to which they referred. Faced with this new social reality where their existence came to be defined in terms of ‘poverty’ and ‘underdevelopment’, the discourse of development came to be naturalised as the necessary response for the leaders of the Global South, which they believed must be followed at any cost. Hence, development can be understood as a pervasive discourse, through which, the West influences and produces social reality for the non-West.

‘Benign’ Remodelling of non-Western Societies through ‘Science’ and ‘Objectivity’

At the heart of the Western discourse of development lies the normative need to compare non-Western societies to those of the West and frame the difference in terms of something the former is lacking and should aspire to achieve. It is what they lack, and the West possesses, is precisely what makes the non-West ‘underdeveloped’. Since the West holds, through virtue of experience (which itself is abstracted from history), the secrets to development, the path to development cannot be walked without an external intervention by the West.

Hence, the discourse of development encourages a study of the non-Western society by the knowledge-bearers and experts of the West. These interventions have produced descriptions and statistics—which cannot help but remind one of the colonial practices of census for resource exploitation—of the ‘underdeveloped’ that convey the various standards in which the non-West is lacking against entirely Western-centric rubrics. Therefore, the discourse of development has attempted to normalise the world in terms of the developed West’s experience and expectations.

However, the failure to meet these standards is not taken kindly to in the development discourse. Prescriptions given by development institutions, abstracted from any relation to colonialism, indicate that the ‘underdeveloped’ are oppressed by their own lack of initiatives, primitive societies, traditions, and overpopulation. These adjectives are also repeated endlessly as the root cause of ‘problems’ in the developing countries. For instance, framing of the ‘crises’ of African agriculture by the World Bank rests on the seemingly obvious connection between “more people/less land/ lower productivity/less food” which are merely vast generalisations that not only ignore the historical experience and difference in social structures but also end up caricaturing Africa because of its population.

Timothy Mitchel has shown that USAID’s development texts on Egypt have continually portrayed the Nile Valley and the peasantry living there as external to the political and economic transformations of the twentieth century, and hence, static over centuries. Portrayed as primitive and unchanging, then, agriculture at Nile Valley understandably needs the influx of Western technology and expertise. Jonathan Crush blames the development discourse for the propagation of the idea that societies evolved in a linear fashion, which then allowed development professionals to assume certain societies as static or being stuck in the past.

Given the ‘problems’ of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries in meeting the Western standards of development, the development discourse benevolently takes it upon itself to share its knowledge, science, and expertise to tackle them. Arturo Escobar highlights that development thinking has led to a conception of the social life in the non-West as a technical problem which requires the intervention of experts and science to rescue itself from its own stagnation. Every aspect of life—even the poor themselves—is subjected to the eyes of the experts and in military language, ‘action plans’ are drawn to impose on such societies. This trust in experts is combined with a blind faith in science, technology, planning, international organisations, and aid agencies, which are all seen as neutral and inevitably beneficial since their value has already been proven by the Western achievement of development.

Though development presents itself as essential, it seldom produces any new knowledge to tackle the problems it had set out to. Mark Duffield has shown that since 1950s, development reports carry the same recommendations: check population growth, modernise agriculture, reforestation, increase aid spending, renewed focus on poverty reduction, etc. Hence, the ‘technical’ study of societies through development analyses leads to a common diagnosis of problems in diverse societies, which, in turn, leads to the transfer of standardised policies from one country to another to tackle them.

This uniform application of development techniques has had irreversible consequences for the societies and cultures within the non-West. The use of buzzwords such as ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ to denote the upliftment and involvement of communities in the development processes—which attach a moral feel-good character to the cause—has led to the legitimisation of many development interventions. However, the reality of the development discourse goes against the very idea of involving communities, who are continually ignored in the process. Stacy Leigh Pigg points out that in development planning, though it is widely assumed that villagers are “people who don’t understand”, there is an implicit sense that villagers must be labelled as ignorant not due to their absence of knowledge, but because of “the presence of too much locally-instilled belief”. Hence, the price of development has been the destruction of history and cultural traditions for two thirds of the world’s people.

The development discourse—by reducing people to data points, by destroying many historical practices of the non-West and tainting their cultures, by remodelling the non-Western societies according to Western standards, and by regarding percentage point decreases as an indication of poverty and inequality reduction—does violence to the very hope of a future without poverty and inequality. Thus, the development discourse advanced by the West works for the advancement of the West.

Author Bio

Shreyanshi Upadhyaya is a part-time Research Assistant at WICID and a full-time MA International Relations student at Warwick University. She draws inspiration from Postcolonial and Feminist International Relations theories, and her current research interests centre on optics, popular culture, and the construction of the national security environment in India.


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