Book Club

The Chair read for you Le capitalisme au village. Pétrole, État et luttes environnementales en Amazonie by Doris Buu-Sao

Published on 05 April 2024

Capitalism in the village. Oil, State and environmental conflicts in Amazonia

In Le capitalisme au village *, Doris Buu-Sao, Associate Professor in political science at the University of Lille, provides a demystified analysis of the cohabitation of Peruvian indigenous populations with the extractive industries that have been established on their territory for some fifty years. Drawn from a thesis, this book dives into the Andoas camp, a region of the Peruvian Amazon in the north of the country, in an accessible academic style and illustrated with excerpts from interviews and observations of situations made during the field survey conducted by the researcher between 2012 and 2014.

This immersion reveals complex, long-standing socio-economic dynamics between the extractive industry and native communities, neither resigned nor totally hostile, far from Western perceptions of a deluded decolonial anti-capitalism of Amazonian populations, sometimes reduced to groups of “ecologically noble savages”[1]. Instead, the book describes ambivalent, contradictory, but always heavily asymmetrical relations for the populations on whom the establishment of the oil industry has been imposed without consultation (the legal status of indigenous villages did not exist 50 years ago, when the first oil concessions were granted).

These “frictions of extractivism” are characterized by the coexistence of indigenous leaders’ highly critical views of extractive capitalism, with a form of acceptance of the structures and benefits brought by the industry (jobs, access to healthcare, education, certain privileges). In fact, these populations, affected by the social, environmental and health consequences of extractive activities, have ended up claiming a right to work for them, often as a form of compensation. This phenomenon is made possible by the communal enterprise system, the subject of an in-depth analysis: local people are not only employed as workers, but are also in charge of these enterprises, which are akin to subcontractors, and become de facto entrepreneurs, intermediaries in the capitalist order. On this point, the book provides additional documentation to recontextualize these contradictions within centuries of colonization marked by various interactions with foreign actors who came to exert their hold on the Amazon region[2].

By observing these frictions, the author makes an interesting contribution to the study of the expansion of global capitalism. The author completes the principle of “accumulation by dispossession” – described by Marxist geographer David Harvey[3] as the privatization of natural and human resources, essential to overcoming crises of overaccumulation self-generated by the system – and prefers the term “capitalism by appropriation”. Beyond mere dispossession, this concept incorporates the dimension of appropriation of the capitalist order by local populations – an appropriation facilitated by all the advantages already mentioned, which are part of a pacification strategy implemented by the fossil fuel industry faced with protest movements. Capitalism no longer appears as an overarching order but is characterized instead by the way it takes shape in the territories it affects.

The socio-economic compromise reached is nonetheless fragile, and the expectation of compensation and benefits through work does not negate the criticism from indigenous populations, who continue to mobilize to protest the ecological impact of extractive activities. Protests have sometimes taken violent forms, notably in 2008 and 2009, when armed gatherings and acts of reprisal against repression by the forces of law and order, characterized by the execution of hostages, erupted.

In response, extractive companies have professionalized conflict management and community relations. The state has also sought to apply policies of conflict repression that are not necessarily armed, but its action in the broad sense is often contested due to its consilience with the oil industries, and the regalian gap it has left to the companies in these territories. Part of the struggle of the native leaders is therefore to get the inhabitants to turn back to the state for health, education, and compensation services, rather than to the private companies, which provide these services only to buy a relative form of social peace.

The withdrawal of the state from these territories is a decisive matter for the future of native populations, as the expected transition of extractive industries in these small-scale operations[4]  will raise the question of the reallocation of financial resources and ultimately the very survival of these communities. Wage-earners made dependent on a cash income that is scarce in these regions – and that dwindles as the resource dries up – are now exposed to the risk of fossil fuel facilities being dismantled. At the same time, the progressive application of the market economy has led to the abandonment of certain local and autonomous productions (manioc) in favor of the purchase of imported food resources (rice). In addition to the environmental degradation of their territory, this has led to an economic deadlock for the native populations, trapped as they are by a rent they are largely excluded from.

Guillaume Dupont, PhD Candidate, Adapt or disappear: the role of National Oil Companies in financing energy diversification.

*  Buu-Sao, D., Le capitalisme au village. Pétrole, État et luttes environnementales en Amazonie, CNRS Ed., pp 320

[1] Redford, K. H. (1991). The ecologically noble savage. Cultural survival quarterly, 15(1), 46-48.

[2] Azevedo, V. R., & Salazar-Soler, C. (2009). El regreso de lo indígena. Retos, problemas y perspectivas.

[3] Harvey, D. (2017). The’new’imperialism: accumulation by dispossession. In Karl Marx (pp. 213-237). Routledge.

[4] Les réserves prouvées de pétrole au Pérou ont chuté de 1 225 millions barils en 2019 à seulement 859 millions de barils en 2021 (EIA, 2023). La rente pétrolière péruvienne était estimée en 2021 à seulement 0,2% du PIB national (World Bank).