Political Economies of Extractive Industry: From Documenting Complexity to Informing Current Debates

Introduction to Development and Change Virtual Issue 2


  • Anthony Bebbington,

  • Teresa Bornschlegl,

  • Adrienne Johnson

  • The authors are all based in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, USA. They are listed in alphabetical order, but share equal responsibility for this paper. Thanks to the reviewers of this paper as well as to Bridget O'Laughlin for helping us tighten its argument considerably.


The literature on extractive industries has grown rapidly in recent years both because the empirical significance of resource extraction has increased and because resource extraction necessarily invokes other questions of wider purchase in development studies. This virtual issue brings together articles published in Development and Change on mining, oil and gas extraction since the early 1980s that explore these inter-connections. They focus on certain interfaces: extraction and rural political economy; extraction and policies of economic adjustment; and extraction and development politics. The articles often document the complexity and contextual specificity of these interconnections, but we draw particular attention here to the insights they offer on broader issues such as the relationship between resource extraction, adjustment and neoliberalization.

There is no mistaking the rapidly growing interest in extractive industries within the development studies literature, but how is this to be explained? One factor is without a doubt the growth of natural resource extraction itself, an expansion that has its own reasons. These include: the fall-out of programmes of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform that have led to the ‘flexibilization’ of codes and regulations governing large-scale extraction, as well as the growth of under- and unemployed labour seeking opportunities in small-scale extraction and related extra-legal economies; the increase in demand from rapidly growing economies for minerals and energy; and the presence of a raft of state-owned and private companies that, while based in emerging economies, have increasingly become global actors investing in overseas resource extraction for reasons that can be mercantilist, capitalist and geopolitical (Watts, 2013). A second factor has been the process of catch up that sometimes occurs between scholarship and activism — and in this instance, human rights, development and environmental activism around resource extraction have often been ahead of the scholarly curve. A third factor is the rising interest on the part of a series of foundations and agencies that have come to view resource extraction as a critical factor in determining the quality and trajectories of state formation, transparency, food security and ecosystem health. Somewhat more recently, the climate change agenda has also become coupled with resource extraction through a concern for carbon cycles and carbon governance. One could identify other reasons but the more general point is that interest in the topic has grown significantly, both because the empirical significance of resource extraction has increased and because a range of players have recognized that resource extraction is itself constitutive of, and constituted through, other topics in development studies and social science that have yet wider purchase.

It is in this context that this virtual issue brings together the articles that Development and Change has published on mining, oil and gas extraction since the early 1980s. Although these articles do not constitute a coherent whole, they do cluster around certain interfaces between: extraction and rural political economy; extraction and adjustment; and extraction and development politics. Our hope is that in bringing these pieces together in one location, this virtual issue will constitute a useful resource and point of reference for scholars, practitioners and activists.

In this introductory paper we identify and reflect upon issues that the articles raise both collectively and individually. After briefly introducing the contributions, we first discuss themes that they raise regarding the complex and multiple social responses to the extractive industries — responses that range from resistance, through to acquiescence and support. Second, we discuss what the papers imply for the intersections between extraction, regulation and governance. Third, and more briefly, we draw attention to insights that the papers offer into the relationship between resource extraction, adjustment and neoliberalization. In the concluding section we place the papers in conversation with broader debates on extraction and, in particular, with the challenge of crafting analyses and explanations that can capture both the underlying political economy drivers of extraction and the complex and diverse ways in which resource extraction works itself out in particular contexts.


The nature of these articles and the themes that they address vary widely. Topics include child labour, clean technology, indigenous peoples, migration, resistance, livelihoods and the relationships between resource extraction and broader political economies of development and state formation. The articles also differ in how they treat extraction. In some instances, their primary concern is with issues that go far beyond mining and hydrocarbons, and they use resource extraction as an entry point into addressing these wider themes. For instance, in her 2005 piece on sapphires in Madagascar, Duffy's principal question addresses the emergence of non-state centred, often invisible, forms of governance, and she uses a discussion of the illicit and powerful networks around sapphire extraction to talk about the topic. Similarly, Rui (2005) uses a discussion of the coal sector in China to make more general points about the challenges of industrial governance and structure in China's transition from a command economy to more market-oriented modes of economic organization; while Bedi (2013) has recently explored the contradictions — and dishonesties — surrounding much environmental impact assessment through the case of a large mine and refinery in India. As a final example, Horowitz's (2011) article uses her own work on mining to elaborate a broader argument regarding the complex and diverse ways in which local populations respond to industrial development of any sort.

In contrast, other papers are much more obviously about mining. In several instances these papers are written by authors who have committed their careers to understanding particular dynamics unleashed by resource extraction. This would be the case for the two papers by Hilson (Hilson, 2010; Hilson and Potter, 2005), who has dedicated years to understanding the dynamics of small-scale mining in Africa, and that by O'Faircheallaigh (2008) who has likewise devoted decades to understanding the implications of mining for aboriginal populations in Australia. These are also authors whose research projects are at once analytical and normative, oriented towards the search for more human and equitable forms of resource extraction that recognize the concerns and motivations of some of the less powerful actors involved.

Finally, there are papers that are simultaneously about extraction and wider challenges of development and political economy analysis. The paper by Bebbington et al. (2008a), Arsel's interview with Michael Watts (2009), and Watts's (2013) review of recent texts on oil fit this mould. These pieces argue that in economies where resource extraction has become dominant, it is not possible to discuss broader issues of governance and development without also engaging with the political economy of extraction (nationally, globally, locally). Of course, one can overstate these distinctions, and even those papers that are primarily focused on the extractive economy locate this concern in a broader context, be this of structural adjustment, de-agrarianization, indigenous people's rights or livelihoods more generally. The point is that papers about extractive industry are very rarely only about mining or hydrocarbons, and that the extraction of sub-surface resources can offer a very fruitful terrain for asking a host of research questions.


While activist narratives on extraction have a tendency to simplify, many of the articles in this collection reveal the complexity of local responses and attitudes to extractive industry. In a similar vein, the papers speak to indeterminate intersections between extractive industries, livelihoods and development that make it hard to identify exactly who wins and who loses as the extractive economy unfolds. Of course, there is a bigger picture in which larger corporate interests typically ‘win’, as do those actors who are further along the mineral commodity chain and have the power to secure access to significant shares of rents (c.f. Ribot, 1998). However, while it is vital not to lose sight of these broader patterns of accumulation and distribution, it is also important to recognize and understand the highly differentiated desires and actions of all actors in the mineral commodity chain, and in particular to recognize the diverse positions and interests that can exist within communities and within companies and states.

A recent set of articles in the journal has paid particular attention to explaining the heterogeneous subjectivities within local communities and how these subjectivities influence grassroots responses to large-scale, industrial development. For instance, Horowitz (2011) talks of communities as complex beings that are inflected with often clashing and contradictory objectives regarding economic opportunities, environmental compensation, and indigenous rights. According to her, a multiplicity of factors informs community responses to industrial development. These factors include: cultural connection to land, personal histories, the resources and organizational research of local NGOs and their relationships to community members, and the influence of local elites in making decisions and in managing industry–community relations. The presence of migration also motivates diverse responses to extraction, as demonstrated by Hurley and Arı (2011) and to a lesser extent Ekpenyong (1984). In their study of the political ecology of mining in the Western region of Turkey and the emergence of amenity migration, Hurley and Arı examine how wealthy urbanites migrating to the Turkish countryside have fought to protect the area from the booming mining sector in a bid to preserve the aesthetically-pleasing landscape of olive tree cultivation.

The papers also make clear that significant parts of the local population can often support the mining sector. Ekpenyong (1984) notes that the initial growth of the gravel industry in Nigeria was triggered by the large numbers of rural–urban migrants who moved in search of employment opportunities in the 1960s. More generally the papers on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) make patently clear the high (albeit still differentiated) level of local economic dependence on, and support for, mineral extraction (Fisher, 2007; Hilson, 2010; Hilson and Potter, 2005; Jønsson and Bryceson, 2009). Potential gains to extraction can also often lead to competition and conflict among local players as they manoeuvre to capture these gains whether through trying to secure employment opportunities or, as Ekpenyong (1984) notes, through securing ownership of the means of production in the ASM sector.

At the heart of these diverse scenarios lie differences of opinion, perspective and modes of interpreting the actual impacts and benefits of extraction. This remains a domain of great contention in conflicts over extractive industry and debates over the desirability (or not) of promoting extraction as part (or often the core) of a development strategy (Bebbington, 2012; Bebbington and Bury, 2013). The debate over the existence or not of the natural resource curse, and the marshalling of competing bodies of knowledge and techniques of calculation in the more formal domains of research and policy analysis, reflect this contention (Auty 1993, 2001; Bebbington et al., 2008a; Collier and Venables, 2011; Extractive Industries Review, 2003; Humphreys et al., 2007; Ross, 2012). Likewise, at the level of individual projects, or in discussions as to whether ASM reduces or aggravates poverty, similarly competing forms of calculation and valuation are deployed during policy debates, hearings on Environmental Impact Assessments or protests over compensation. While the papers in Development and Change throw light on the question of costs and benefits, there is still much ethnographic and quantitative work to be done to document and analyse actual and perceived benefits, actual and perceived costs, who incurs these, the knock-on effects of these adverse and positive impacts and the multiple ways in which all these impacts are interpreted by different players.

That said, regardless of the state of knowledge, there is agreement in much of the literature that the most critical factor in determining the final disposition of costs and benefits hinges around the existence and quality of institutions (be these laws on consultation, transparency mechanisms, tax systems, impact-benefit agreements or others). The paper by Bebbington et al. (2008a) makes this case, while O'Faircheallaigh's (2008) examination of negotiations between aboriginal groups and mining companies in Australia illustrates how the presence and precise nature of institutions influence outcomes. He argues that although mining agreements between communities and companies are a product of negotiation, the degree to which they are effective in providing cultural protection depends on prior efforts to reduce the power asymmetries that work to the disadvantage of indigenous people. If the disadvantageous bargaining position of indigenous peoples has not been offset prior to the negotiation of the agreement, the potential contributions of the agreement will be much diminished.

While many of these articles therefore ‘unpack’ the term ‘community’ and shed light on the ways in which diverging local interests can lead to equally diverse responses — running from resistance through to negotiation and acquiescence — one dimension of difference that is largely absent from these discussions relates to the influence of gender on the relationships among extraction, development and social change. This may reflect the relative invisibility of gender in the broader academic literature on extraction (though see Lahiri-Dutt, 2011, and also Bedi, 2013 in this virtual issue). Up until now, discussions centred on gender in extraction have mainly looked at the impacts of such activities on women rather than on how individuals’ gendered subjectivities lead to highly differentiated responses. Given this, there is fertile ground for more work to be done on the ways in which gender affects community desires and how gender informs specific livelihood responses and forms of protest, acquiescence and regulation.

While articles in this collection do explore divergent interests and positions within local populations affected by or involved in extraction, they throw less light on the importance of employing a more nuanced approach to analysing companies and their responses to community relations. This is partly an effect of the relative emphasis on ASM in these articles, but may also reflect a tendency for analyses to cast accounts of community struggles against companies in simple David vs. Goliath terms — and often to view companies generically, without distinguishing among different forms, structures of ownership or business strategies (but see the comments of O'Faircheallaigh, 2008, on this). This is not to defend companies or negate the many adverse impacts that can be generated by extractive activities, but it is to suggest the importance of recognizing that firms are not all the same, nor do they engage with communities in the same fashion (O'Faircheallaigh, 2008). In looking at the highly differentiated realities of companies and their relations to communities, the paper by Bebbington et al. (2008a) suggests the importance of two factors. First, the spatial reach of extractive industry companies is highly uneven, reflecting the shifting movement of mining investment capital (especially in exploration), differences in company access to technology and the changing global geographies of mineral demand. Second, the internal workings and size of extractive enterprises vary greatly. Smaller mining companies — with their relative lack of capital and small or non-existent community relations teams — are more likely to engage with communities in less subtle, more rushed and often more antagonistic ways, and so are more likely to trigger social conflict. Opening the ‘black box’ of the firm in future research on extraction and development, difficult though this may be, would lead to greater understanding of the highly uneven patterns of company–community interactions in the extractive sector.

Competing visions of rural capitalism may also underlie the tensions that can arise within local populations, as well as between them and mineral extraction (Hurley and Arı, 2011). While this competition is often pitched as one that pits agrarian capitalism against extractive capitalism, this is just one of many possible forms. Differences might also hinge around the forms and extent that the extractive economy should take, the relations between a small- and medium-scale capitalist form of extraction and large-scale capital intensive extraction, as well as around the tensions between a rural capitalism grounded in the extractive economy and one rooted in amenity-based forms of capitalism (where leisure, tourism and construction are prioritized). This is the focus of the paper by Hurley and Arı (2011) who discuss the competition between mining and housing development as different visions for the commodification of the landscape in Turkey. The issues raised by their discussion are important and suggest, inter alia, the value of exploring extraction as one among several forms of capitalism, focusing on the ways in which these different capitalist projects interact with and constitute each other. This in turn raises other questions such as: how are livelihoods impacted and produced by the presence of more than one industry in a particular space?; is it possible for extraction to address wealth disparities in combination with other modes of income generation such as commercial agriculture?; and to what degree do these different rural capitalisms produce different types of inequality?


Recurrent across all these papers is a concern for how the extractive economy is being governed, coupled with recognition of the many limitations of these modes of governance. The articles also reveal different ways of framing such problems of governance. Several focus on the formal, governmental regulation of extraction. This is true of the two papers on China (Ohshita and Ortolano, 2006; Rui, 2005), Bedi (2013) on India, and also — albeit in a somewhat different way — of Hilson and Potter's (2005) discussion of structural adjustment and mining, as well as Hilson (2010) on child labour in Ghana and Fisher (2007) on Tanzania.

The papers on China each deal with problems of industrial organization in the coal mining sector. Ohshita and Ortolano explore the ways in which industrial organization limits the diffusion of clean technology in state-owned coal enterprises. The authors argue that fragmentation among lines of authority helps to explain why the diffusion of clean technologies has been so slow, notwithstanding the urgent need to resolve the air pollution problems accompanying China's increasing coal consumption. This fragmentation inhibits better coordination among and between central agencies and local governments, and weakens incentives for technological change. Rui (2005) offers a similar picture, arguing that while the existence of different models of industrial organization (state owned, village owned, private) in the coal sector inhibits modernization, changing these different ownership structures is difficult because they each perform different purposes. In this approach, the governance of extraction is cast by and large as a problem of public management and industrial organization — which of course is part of the question. But it is only a part.

The papers by Hilson, Fisher, and Hilson and Potter also focus on formal governmental regulation of extraction. Hilson and Potter (2005) analyse how the implementation of structural adjustment in Ghana influenced both the regulation of the mining sector and the livelihoods of artisanal gold miners. The authors argue that adjustment policies in the mineral sector were primarily concerned with promoting the expansion of large-scale gold mining through foreign investment, at the expense of artisanal gold miners. As a consequence, state authorities failed to protect communities both from displacement and from environmental pollution induced by large-scale mining activities. Moreover, while new mining regulations were advantageous for large-scale mining companies, they created a raft of new transaction costs for small-scale miners, not least by introducing time- and money-intensive bureaucratic procedures for obtaining licences. Overall, they argue, these policies were designed in ways that further marginalized artisanal gold miners.

Following a comparable line of argument, Fisher (2007) concludes that Tanzanian government policy to formalize the rights of artisanal and small-scale gold and diamond miners has reinforced inequalities of wealth and power in ways that perpetuate prior forms of exclusion. While policy allowed some miners (primarily the wealthier ‘entrepreneurial small-scale miners’) a greater role in mineral resource management and community development, it created no means for including the ‘silent voices’ of those poorer women, children or elderly people who had fewer or no rights to formalize. The message here echoes a more general criticism of many rural development interventions — namely that when a policy treats a ‘target’ population as homogeneous, its effects will inevitably be biased against those members of the population who are less able to take advantage of the policy because they lack the necessary skills, power, assets or capacities. The implication of this argument — that better governance requires better up-front recognition and analysis of complexity — is also the punchline of Hilson's (2010) paper on child labour. Hilson argues that interventions inspired by ILO norms on child labour that aim to reduce children's work in ASM in Ghana, typically fail to understand why it is that those children are working in the first place. As such the interventions misinterpret the context in which they operate, and miss the larger point which is that any attempt to improve governance of the rural political economy must depart from a nuanced understanding of the complexity of actually existing livelihoods. Otherwise the effects will be disappointing and likely negative.

As in the papers on Chinese coal mining, these three articles also draw attention to policy design as a governance problem. In these renderings: structural adjustment policies are designed in ways that do not recognize the needs of the ASM sector; norms and interventions to reduce child labour in ASM do not recognize the complexities of livelihood that lead children and their families to opt for work over school; and policies for formalizing ASM can privilege rights owners while simultaneously failing to create mechanisms through which the voices of excluded groups might be heard. Of course the authors are not suggesting that if only design were improved and more research done prior to the definition of policy, things would be hunky-dory. But they do draw our attention to the challenge of how rules for the regulation of extraction might be designed in ways that are more intelligent.

In a somewhat similar vein, Bedi's (2013) discussion of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in Orissa, India, explores the potential of a particular instrument (the EIA), and of the rules governing the use of that instrument, for ensuring that extractive industry investments foster inclusive and environmentally sound forms of development. She subjects these instruments to a close reading, focusing on the ways in which they conceptualize ‘development’, use this conceptualization to justify large-scale investment, and address questions of benefit ‘trickle down’, project-affected populations (especially tribal groups), land acquisition, social change and impacts on water and forests. Her conclusions are less than sanguine: indeed, she argues that although these regulatory instruments systematically overstate benefits and understate potentially adverse impacts, they have consistently been approved by government bureaucracies. That said, her paper also suggests that appeals, expert panels and certain ministerial processes can serve as countervailing regulatory mechanisms, reversing some of these environmental ‘mis-assessments’ (to use Bedi's term).

A slightly different approach is that which views governance less as a design challenge and more as a domain of contestation, and which interprets governance arrangements as products of this contestation. This framing is apparent in the papers by O'Faircheallaigh (2008), Hurley and Arı (2011) and Bebbington et al. (2008a) as well as in some parts of the interview with Michael Watts (Arsel, 2009). O'Faircheallaigh (2008) is concerned with the emergence of impact–benefit agreements between mining companies and aboriginal peoples in Australia, and in particular the extent to which such agreements serve as adequate means of governing the potentially adverse effects of mining on aboriginal cultural heritage. (The conclusion is ‘rarely, but sometimes’.) The analysis is interesting in many respects, not the least of which is the process of counter-factual reasoning that the author uses at the end of the paper to assess and reject a series of alternative explanations of the patterns found. The article concludes that the single most important factor in explaining whether such agreements protect cultural heritage in practice (and not just on paper) is the potential that the aboriginal group in question has for exercising forms of direct action that would make life difficult for the company. Direct action, O'Faircheallaigh argues, is one of the few instruments available to indigenous groups because government policy and mining legislation have been designed to work systematically in favour of mining companies (this conclusion is strikingly similar to those from our own research in Peru and Ecuador: see Bebbington, 2007; Bebbington et al., 2008b). Governance as practised is thus a product of power relationships, and so the same set of formal rules is likely to result in quite different practices across space and time depending on the uneven geographies of power relations.

That said, such governance tussles should not be viewed as only pitting elites against subalterns. Hurley and Arı's (2011) paper on resistance to government mining policy — and private mining investment — in Turkey argues that conflict has much to do with competing capitalist projects (as noted in the previous section). Indeed, in this case resistance to mining comes primarily from wealthy second-home owners, amenity in-migrants, and the tourist industry. Long-standing local residents are much more ambivalent on the issue, seeing potential benefits from mining. This case study of the Kaz Ida Mountains in Western Turkey makes clear that governance arrangements ultimately reflect an attempt to accommodate the needs of foreign investment, the needs of villagers’ livelihoods, and the needs of amenity migrants.

The interview with Michael Watts (Arsel, 2009) similarly troubles any easy association of resistance to extraction with heroic subaltern actors. Watts emphasizes the multiple political projects that contest oil development in the Niger Delta, while also recognizing that many of these projects are at once self-interested and still poorly understood. Perhaps what comes out most clearly in his interview is the sense that actual governance arrangements — from how concessions are given and administered to how rents are captured and distributed — are in considerable measure a product of illicit and extra-legal behaviour. This ranges from the crimes of companies bribing officials, and officials and politicians stealing rents, to the organized criminal groups who work the creeks of the Niger Delta, extorting and trading in stolen oil. Even if much of this illicit activity is not yet well understood, the implication, again, is that governance arrangements are products of contention as much as of efforts to craft ‘good’ public management and industrial organization.

Watts's interview also conveys the sense that ‘Nigeria’ and the oil economy have to be understood as co-constitutive (Arsel, 2009) — a form of interpretation that he also explores in his review of recent books by Mitchell and Victor et al. (Watts, 2013). That is, the form that oil has taken in Nigeria cannot be understood without appreciating the ways in which the hydrocarbon complex intersected with existing Nigerian society and politics. Likewise, there is absolutely no way of understanding contemporary Nigeria separately from the context of oil, of its changing international prices, or of the more or less ungovernable transnational corporations that control the hydrocarbon sector. The paper by Bebbington et al. (2008a) makes similar arguments at a more general level, emphasizing the extent to which the expansion of extractive industry reworks politics, economy, aspirations and imaginations in the societies in which it takes root. That paper also argues that institutional change in the sector is much more likely to emerge from conflict and negotiation than from technocratic design. This implies that conflict should not be read in exclusively negative ways, as it bears the potential to co-produce institutions that could foster a more socially inclusive and ecologically viable form of development of the mineral sector. In a similar spirit, Watts argues that, for there to be any hope of oil extraction having positive development effects in Nigeria, there would need to be a complete overhaul of the current state machinery and the existence of ‘civil society organizations with sufficient power, representation and civic depth (and participation) to exercise fiscal oversight’ (Arsel, 2009: 1201).

Such governance challenges go well beyond the formal sphere. Duffy's (2005) paper emphasizes the extent to which struggles over natural resources have elicited forms of governance existing not only outside the state but also outside the law and beyond public scrutiny (anticipating, in a different register, some of Watts's points). Duffy makes a two-step argument on the basis of resource governance in Madagascar. She notes how struggles over conservation have led to the emergence of significant powers of governance that are controlled by international environmental NGOs and their sponsors — powers that sideline much of the state sector, and over which Malagasy citizens have no mechanisms of accountability. However, illegal gemstone mining (in this case of sapphires) has in turn elicited the emergence of yet more powerful networks of producers, traders and government officials that control the extraction and flow of sapphires in ways over which conservation NGOs have very little influence. The implication is that the often massive rents that extraction generates easily induce forms of governance that are chronically difficult to hold to account and that exist in the interests of those who seek to control these rents. Literature on conflict minerals and informal extraction in West and Central Africa makes similar points.


We have already noted that a number of these articles discuss the extractive economy in relation to structural adjustment and policy and institutional reforms that might otherwise be referred to as neoliberalizing in nature. The association is important because, although natural resource extraction is patently not only a feature of neoliberalized economies, neoliberal reforms have clearly facilitated investment in mining and hydrocarbons. As authors like Campbell (2003, 2008) have demonstrated, these reforms have changed regulations related to taxation, royalties, capital repatriation, licensing and environmental control in ways designed to increase investor interest when there is at least some geological potential. In fostering export orientation, reforms have also encouraged governments to woo extractive industry. In these processes, certain organizations and countries have been especially important. The World Bank Group has assisted the rewriting of mining codes, and in various countries the government of Canada has been active in the same task. Not infrequently, reforms passed in the moment and aftermath of economic and financial crisis have helped make countries far more attractive to extractive industries (and may well continue to do so in the present moment).

Such governance reforms are important not just because of the changes they have facilitated in the extractive sector, but also because they prove to be remarkably sticky. This has been especially apparent in those countries of Latin America that have very self-consciously sought to contest and distance themselves from neoliberalism. Several of these economies have a historical dependence on resource extraction (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela) and have continued to support and promote large-scale mining and hydrocarbon investment with the involvement of transnational enterprises. While tax codes have changed, and national companies have been created or strengthened, the broadly company- and market-friendly organization of the sector has changed much less, notwithstanding the ‘post-neoliberal’ credentials of their governments (Bebbington, 2009; Gudynas, 2010; Kaup, 2010, 2013). This persistence raises many questions, in particular regarding the political effects of the extractive economy and the assemblages of power that surround resource extraction. As Mitchell (2011) argues for the case of oil, these assemblages have massive and largely adverse consequences for the quality and possibilities of democracy (see also Arsel, 2009 and Watts, 2013, in this collection).

A number of the papers in this virtual issue also relate extraction to processes of adjustment through analyzing the dynamics of the rural economy and especially of rural labour markets. In particular, they relate the growth of small-scale and artisanal mining to the increasing squeeze on peasant agriculture and the tendency towards de-agrarianized rural economies (Fisher, 2007; Hilson, 2010; Hilson and Potter, 2005; Jønsson and Bryceson, 2009). Of course, tendencies towards de-agrarianization are not only related to neoliberalization: there are historical patterns and issues of technological and cultural change also at play. However, the papers do point to linkages between adjustment, neoliberalization, unemployment, problems of peasant viability and the increased number of people seeking work in small-scale mining. Indeed, the significant emphasis among these papers on small-scale, licit and illicit, forms of extraction (Duffy, 2005; Ekpenyong, 1984; Fisher, 2007; Hilson, 2010; Hilson and Potter, 2005; Jønsson and Bryceson, 2009) is very welcome given that the recent literature has been dominated by an interest in large-scale mining and hydrocarbon activity, notwithstanding the sustained and important work on small-scale mining by scholars such as Gavin Hilson, Roy Maconachie (e.g. Maconachie, 2011; Maconachie and Hilson, 2011) and — earlier on — David Cleary (1990).


It would be unfair to expect thirteen research papers, one interview and a book review, published over a period of twenty-seven years, to share much in common beyond their interest in phenomena related to the extraction of materials in the subsoil — and clearly there is much diversity in the articles brought together in this virtual issue. Yet, even when their empirical foci are different, a closer look at the papers reveals themes that recur more than might initially be expected. Some of these themes are familiar ones of rural development: the complexity of rural political economy, the increasing role of off-farm income in rural livelihoods, the multiplicity of interests in rural politics and the recurrent tendency of the state to prioritize capital accumulation and the capture of rents over the rights of rural populations — rights that have been systematically violated in the past. Other themes resonate with discussions of development that go beyond the rural, particularly the emphasis on governance and power relations, and the causal significance of institutional arrangements. In this sense, the papers collected together here provide another venue — that of resource extraction — to explore old chestnuts in development studies.

At the same time as drawing such links to far wider concerns, a number of the papers also recognize that in some contexts, resource extraction has characteristics that make it a particularly sui generis phenomenon. It is associated with often enormous rents that reflect the immense market power of those who extract resources and control their trade, and/or the scarcity of these resources relative to levels of market demand. These rents elicit forms of behaviour and social organization that can be so powerful as to transform state, society and economy in ways that are often beneficial only for small segments of the population. Meanwhile, the materialities of the particular resources in question are such that they have causal powers and effects of their own, adding a further element of specificity to the sector, albeit one that receives less attention in these papers (other than Watts, 2013; see also Kaup, 2008; Mitchell, 2011; Valdivia, 2008).

While exploring the many complexities and contingencies surrounding extraction, this set of articles says less about the macro- and structural relationships between extractive industries and patterns of political economic and societal change than authors such as Mitchell (2011) have done; neither do debates on the natural resource curse (see Auty, 1993, Ross, 2012 and many others) feature prominently in these papers. Larger questions regarding the relationships between economic power and political power as manifest through the extractive economy remain critically important, precisely in order to understand possible pathways toward deeper democracies under conditions of resource extraction. There is also a set of questions to do with the metabolic foundations of capitalism that merits much more exploration (c.f. Huber, 2009; Martínez-Alier et al., 2010), both to understand the relationships between resource extraction, carbon and climate change and to engage with the discussion of post-extractivism (a debate which has taken on increasing vigour in Latin America: see Alayza and Gudynas, 2011; Gudynas, 2010). Debates such as these go right to the core of the relationships between hydrocarbons, minerals and the political economies and ecologies of capitalism. At the same time, engaging such debates can easily take discussions to levels of abstraction and aggregation that lose the richness, nuance and complexity revealed in the articles collected together here. Indeed, one of the intellectual challenges facing work on extractive industry henceforth is to find modes of analysis and narrative that are able to tack back and forth between these understandings of structure and explorations of difference. Of course, this is a challenge shared with very many other parts of development studies, critical or otherwise.


  • Anthony Bebbington is Director of the Graduate School of Geography and Milton P. and Alice C. Higgins Professor of Environment and Society at Clark University, Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. His most recent books include: Social Conflict, Economic Development and Extractive Industries: Evidence from Latin America (Routledge, 2012) and Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil and Gas in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2013, with J. Bury). E-mail: abebbington@clarku.edu

  • Teresa Bornschlegl is a PhD candidate in Geography at Clark University. Her research interests involve critical development theory, law and geography, extractive industries, access to environmental justice/judiciary and critical legal studies. She is currently working on environmental law and the regulation of hydrocarbons in Ecuador. E-mail: tbornschlegl@clarku.edu

  • Adrienne Johnson is a PhD candidate in Geography at Clark University. Her research interests involve the political ecologies of extractive industries and agrarian change. Currently, she is conducting fieldwork on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in Ecuador and has previously worked on palm oil in Indonesia. E-mail: AdJohnson@clarku.edu