Imagining development alternatives from the heart of the extractivist monster

by Aug 28, 2023Local Struggles, Mining

Anti-extractivist movements, campaigns and networks such as the Right to Say NO in Southern Africa not only provide powerful critiques of extractivism and the growth-focused development model. They also have radical political potential. They are imagining just and sustainable futures – towards and moving beyond the “No to extractivism and mining”, in particular. Extractivism is at the very core of the current development model, exploitating people and the planet. In the same way, spaces of resistance may be central for envisioning alternative pathways.

Acts of resistance tell stories of community vs. capital. This is an important illustration of the power of civil society, asserting autonomy through alternative community projects that challenge dominant narratives. Creating platforms for dialogue on alternatives and utopias can fuel collective processes of re-imagination. They can unite opponents of extractivism, working people and the International Left in the fight against neoliberal capitalism and exploitation.

The Right to Say NO to extractivism and corporate power is a campaign, network and philosophy for action in Southern Africa. It has been gaining momentum and traction among community activists, environmentalists and anti-capitalists as a powerful toolbox for stopping corporations from doing their dirty business.

This article is based on research carried out for a Master’s thesis written as part of the Human Ecology programme at Lund University, Sweden and in close collaboration with AIDC, Amadiba Crisis Committee, the South African Green Revolutionary Council (SAGRC) and WoMin. The project asked community members in three South African provinces about what development means to them, and how it must be changed to benefit those marginalised by the current system. Though this article will give a more detailed overview of ideas and visions for development alternatives, one thing came out clearly: post-extractivist futures and just development alternatives must be created for and by the working people and those affected.

Spotlight on development alternatives in practice: research results

While space for discussing alternatives and community projects has often been limited within the Right to Say No, a lot of members of the struggle have already built small utopias and sustainable alternatives of their own. One of the development alternatives to mining and extractivism that was mentioned by almost all research participants and activists is that of (sustainable) farming, and agroecology. While in Amadiba, communities have been farming sustainably for centuries, the South African Green Revolutionary Council’s farm in eMalahleni is a project that shows us that the impossible can be done. Growing vegetables organically, almost self-sufficiently and complying to the principles of agroecology in the heart of South Africa’s coal belt is a radical and successful pilot project in an area with depleted soils and bad air quality. (Non-industrial) Farming is seen to not only provide more local employment than mining, but also can increase food security and contribute to food sovereignty. In Amadiba, agriculture has been a main source of livelihood and activists defend that ‘this is right for us’, as opposed to mining projects on their land. In fact, someone stated that ‘this [community] land is very rich. It is more wealth than to take your bag and look for a job outside’.

This statement is nothing less than questioning prescribed development narratives based on growth-imperatives. In envisioning development alternatives, we as the working class starts by reclaiming the concept of development (if that is still possible), and equipping it with our own meaning of what it means to live a good life. These meanings may value traditional and traditionally sustainable means of livelihood creation over formal employment (and exploitation). In entering these discussions, we can politicise and de-legitimise the dominant narratives of neoliberal development.

Image 1 Youth activists in Amadiba map visions for traditional farming futures, as opposed to titanium mining on their lands. The dotted line symbolizes a grazing line for cattle along the coast.

Other alternatives practised by activists revolve around ideas such as eco-tourism and workers’ cooperatives. For instance, in Amadiba a group of fishermen has applied for funding to start up a fishing cooperative where profits are shared fairly and fish caught sustainably. In the middle of the notoriously impoverished and polluted Coronation township in eMalahleni, another activist dreams of starting up a small poultry farm to generate income and provide the community with chicken: ‘We as South Africans, or as the working class, we need to start producing instead of depending on what comes from the outside, because we can’. In Phola, activists successfully ran a recycling cooperative, cleaning the streets while providing local employment.

Thinking about the future of energy generation, another narrative employed by activists, is that of community- or socially-owned renewable energies. Debates surrounding just energy futures beyond coal were particularly present in Cape Town and Mpumalanga, where energy racism is a visible problem. For a truly just transition, communities and the working class must be ‘in control of the process’78, referring both to decision-making about future development or energy trajectories, and the production and installation of needed technology. A truly just transition requires communities and the working class to play a significant role in the production of solar panels and wind turbines as otherwise ‘we are marketing for the capitalist’, since currently the manufacturing, expertise and profits for renewables are located in China and the Global North exclusively.

This list of alternatives is certainly not exhaustive and just a glimpse of what activists envision and practice in antagonism to the horrors of extractivism. Yet, all alternatives seem to share a common set of values, that is a focus on self-determination, independence and democracy, helping to unite in the fight against extractivism. In that sense, they prefigure the futures that we strive for in the here and now, in a world ruled by capital.

Thinking about and implementing ideas and projects that instead of profit only are motivated by the needs of the communities and environments will be more sustainable in the long term. A philosophy cited by some is that of eco-feminism, aiming to find new relations between humans and nature and base the societal model on values of equality, care and the departure from the growth-imperative. What is to highlight as well is the role of women in envisioning and practicing alternatives for better futures.

For these visions to be able to unfold their strategic potential, however, they need more space in our movements to be discussed, refined and shared. Working towards shared definitions of concepts and exchanging knowledge among activists in targeted ways can be key. All activists stressed the importance of putting alternatives into practice. And for that, we need resources or funding. Now, how a to get that? What kind of funding is desirable? Can there be funding without dependency? These are all difficult questions to answer, yet important to ask.

Going forward from here

There lies great knowledge within the R2SN and anti-extractivist struggles to dismantle the ways in which capitalism, neo-colonialism, racism and the patriarchy work against the working class and the environment on a global scale, as extractivism itself is situated at the nexus of all these injustices. Tapping into that wisdom can work to strengthen the movement and our collective understanding of needed and self-determined transformations.

At the AIDC School of Extractivism in October 2022, activists and community members discussed the research and pooled some the knowledge from across the country. What came out strongly was, on the one hand, the wealth of knowledge that activists hold on topics such as agroecology and cooperatives. Yet realising these is often bound up with the question of land ownership and resources. On the other hand stood the difficulties that come with trying to start up cooperatives, such as chairpeople being co-opted or corrupted and the challenge of keeping common visions. What can these experiences teach us about establishing horizontal structures of decision-making and holding each other accountable? Thinking about and imagining alternatives can be difficult because most of us have not been allowed to think outside the box.  But thinking forward, thinking big and thinking in ways that are utopian can bring the struggle forward collectively.

Anti-extractivist groups are often labelled anti-development. Yet, as one activist from Amadiba put it: “we want development, just not this development you have with mining that is said to create a lot of jobs, build schools. All of this is mentioned in their promises, but this is empty promises”.  Hence, development must be self-determined. The community must not only give their consent but in fact be part of the planning and implementing. Regaining control, independence and a say about peoples lives is what is at stake.


The full thesis can be found here:


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