Still Burning is a network working against the global hard coal infrastructure.

4 Extractivism and neo-colonialism – the pillars of fossil capitalism

by | 30 Mar, 2021 | Beginning, Sites of Devastation

Valentina Bekrinova, an indigenous Shor woman who lives in Russia, and Narlis Guzmán Angulo, an Afro-Colombian woman from Colombia, told us their stories for this book (see chapter five). The two women come from different countries and continents, and their struggles appear quite unique at first sight. However, if you look more closely, you notice how similar patterns of systematic social and ecological exploitation emerge: in Russia, in Colombia, and in most other mining areas.

In this text, we examine these patterns, and how they are related to fossil capitalism and industrialism. Two concepts are central to this debate: extractivism and colonialism. We aim to understand and critique their mode of operation and underlying logic, and consequently strive for decolonial and solidarity-based ways of organising social and economic life.


Extractivism describes a political and economic model and an ideology based on the extraction of large quantities of natural ‘resources’ – such as the mining of coal, minerals, or gas. Extractivism can also refer to the systematic extraction of fertile lands through industrial agriculture, deforestation, and commercial fishing.

Importantly, the term refers to much more than merely the extraction of resources from the earth. When we speak of extractivism, we refer to the whole economic system and ideology, as well as the social and human-nature relations through which the extraction of natural resources is mediated.

Extraction is usually not geared toward production at the local level but intended for sale on the world market. In so-called enclaves, raw materials are mined at devastating social and ecological costs, and exported without further integration into the local economy, so that benefits accrue to corporations, shareholders, large landowners, and other beneficiaries, rather than local communities. Often, these benefits flow to the Global North, as we demonstrate in chapter six: Shipping injustice – how the coal travels.

Extractivism was first established on a global scale 500 years ago. It was one of the main drivers and purposes of colonialism, and states’ legitimacy has always relied on the provision of large mining and infrastructure projects. Contemporary processes of extractivism are largely driven by trans- national corporations that exploit the natural resources of the Global South – backed by states and governmental organisations, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many so-called development banks. The hierarchical and colonial nature of the state, its reliance on human-nature separation, and its association with ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ – which in turn are grounded in the domination of humans and nature – thus ties it closely to extractivist ideology.

Neo-extractivism in Latin America (and beyond)

In the 2000s, so-called ‘progressive governments’ came to power in Latin America. The administrations of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua continued to exploit raw materials – but with a different goal. In what we call neo-extractivism, the state takes an even more active role. Here, the large-scale extraction of raw materials is justified by the fact that a considerable part of the profit remains with the state.

In many of these countries the revenues are redistributed through social programmes and support the national economies. While this has increased the quality of life for many people in recent years, populations in the mining regions continually suffer the social and ecological consequences. Many Latin American activists and researchers therefore criticise this state-led development model. In addition to the ongoing dependence of national economies on the world market, economic ‘development’ continues to be based on the exploitation of people and nature.


Today, large quantities of fossil fuels and minerals – like coal, gas, oil, silver, gold, ores, and many precious metals – are permanently extracted from the earth. Together, they form the material basis of modern industrial production, and energy provision in particular. The making and expansion of global capitalism have been tightly bound up with colonial relations and the forced extraction of raw materials in the Global South. Such large-scale operations would not have been possible without the transatlantic slave trade, which commodified and enslaved millions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), and paid for infrastructure development – such as railways – and many political and social institutions in Europe. Racist narratives served to justify the brutal exploitation of the Global South by European rulers and traders during the colonial era. Through racist ideologies and colonial hierarchies, Europe invented the idea of ‘modernity’. Colonialism is primarily used to describe the violent political and economic domination of large parts of the world by European countries since the end of the 15th century. In the 20th century, many European colonial regimes were formally ended when colonised countries became politically independent. They gained this independence after centu- ries of resistance against their colonisers. However, the official independence of former colonies did not necessarily translate into economic autonomy. With imperialism – countries extending their authority over other regions through military, economic, or political control – economic dependence continues in many places, and white supremacy and structural racism still dominate the world.

Colonialism and imperialism are, therefore, far from being merely phenomena in our history books, as colonial power structures, dependencies, and ideas continue to shape our political and economic relations today.

Colonial legacies

Centuries of colonial rule have created highly unequal global structures. There are great disparities between the Global North and Global South in terms of financial wealth. The capitalist economic system and its global supply chains continue to reproduce colonial forms of exploitation. Since these structures have never been fundamentally changed, colonial power relations continue to maintain or even increase global inequalities. Due to such colonial legacies, formerly colonised areas have a significantly disadvantaged starting position for competing on the global world market. Colonialism and racism have changed where coal is sourced for European markets. As labour conditions and environmental standards in Western Europe have improved, coal has increasingly been sourced from further afield. This transition is visible in the UK, for instance: as British coal mines started closing down in the 1980s, local coal was initially replaced with coal from Poland, and today with coal from Russia, Colombia, and the USA.

The impact and scale of coal mining in Russia, for example, is far beyond what would be acceptable in hard coal mining regions in Europe. Yet, this is attractive to Western power companies as the lower standards and wages mean cheaper coal despite greater transportation costs.

Imperial mode of living

In many European countries, the current way of life is enabled to a large extent through the conversion of imported hard coal (and sometimes local lignite) into electricity. This can be described as the imperial mode of living, particularly when it includes the socially

and ecologically destructive extraction and exploitation of resources more broadly. It is ‘imperial’ because it is only made possible at the expense of distant people and nature. As shown above, local communities in the mining regions bear the immediate costs of coal extraction. Furthermore, the long-term impacts of the climate crisis are felt most strongly by those who least caused it and live with far less material wealth in the Global South. Thus, the lack of concern about coal combustion itself must be understood as a colonial act. Rising sea levels and the worst effects of extreme weather events are disproportionately experienced by people with less political power on a global level, while increased economic prosperity is prioritised by those in the Global North. In addition to extraction from abroad, Europe’s coal use is reliant on waste dumping and lack of restoration of sites on Indigenous communities’ and other marginalised people’s land. However, it is not only the extractivist economic model that represents a continuity of the colonial flow of goods from the Americas, Africa, and Asia to Europe. With colonialism, Western ideologies of ‘development’, ‘progress’, and ‘modernity’ – including certain ideas of human-nature relationships – were also spread across the world – by force and violence. And, of course, the very idea of ‘states’, ‘state power’, and borders are colonial inventions that have been imposed across the world through brute force.

Colonising the mind

The physical and practical ways in which colonisation affects different groups of people are better understood than the manners by which these ideologies colonise the minds of people across the world. The mindset of Western superiority means that Europeans (or people from the Global North) often view their understanding of the world as the only correct one, and other people’s as myth. This is institutionalised in NGO programmes or projects led by governmental or international institutions.

By this reasoning, the unique cultural concerns of people living close to coal mining and coal infrastructures are dismissed. For instance, to the Wayuu indigenous people liv- ing next to Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia, dreaming is the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. It’s where the spirits of the land and water, as well as the ancestors, communicate with the Wayuu. Dreams are instructive and help them find solutions to problems as individuals, a family, a community, and a wider culture.

Many Wayuu report dreaming less since the mine started operating. This is often attributed to the spirits turning their backs on the Wayuu for failing to protect the land and water from the impacts of mining. Others, nearer the railway line, say they simply can’t achieve a deep enough sleep because of the coal trains passing. This means that the Wayuu elders, who used to have more insights from their dreams, cannot be so effective in identifying and agreeing ways forward for the Wayuu. It impacts on their spirituality and sense of belonging, their ways of organising and resisting, as well as their political strategy and coherence.

The Shor also have spiritual problems due to mining in the Kuzbass. They know that the river, the mountain, and the air all have souls, as Valentina describes in chapter five. As such, you should be quiet in the forest to avoid offending the soul of the forest. Yet, coal mining is noisy and destructive, and the Shor mourn the loss of the soul of the forest, even where the forest itself remains intact, due to the unnatural disturbance caused by mining coal for foreign fuel.

Decolonial resistance

In the context of neo-colonial extractivism, resistance and self-determination by local communities constitute acts of decolonisation. The artist, theorist, and writer Grada Kilomba states: “decolonisation refers to the undoing of colonialism. Politically, the term describes the achievement of autonomy by those who have been colonised and therefore involves the realization of both independence and self-determination”.

A well-known example of such a challenge to Western hegemonic concepts is an indigenous philosophy from the Andean region, the so-called Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien (the good life). This idea is based on indigenous conceptions of the relationship between humans and nature. According to the Buen Vivir movement, humans are part of nature and must respect nature in order to respect themselves and each other. Ownership of nature is impossible. Nature cannot be priced and, therefore, cannot be sold as a commodity. Buen Vivir is based on the radically democratic idea of living together. People take decisions collectively and in the interest of all, including the non-human(s). Social development is not measured in economic growth, since overproduction is regarded to bring about destruction and therefore cannot provide a desirable form of development.

In order to decolonise our definition of the good life, we have to learn from decolonial concepts that put forward alternative, transformative ideas of how society, natural conditions, and the economy can, and should, work and interact.

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1 Preface

1 Preface

By the time a lump of coal arrives in a European coal-fired power station it has travelled a long way.

5 Sites of devastation – where the coal is mined

5 Sites of devastation – where the coal is mined

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5.1 Black snow – coal from Russia

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No other country exports more coal to central Europe than Russia. Russia has only recently turned into a hard coal exporter. But the pace at which it has done so is frightening. Within ten years, the country has become the third largest exporter worldwide and...

5.2 Tearing down mountains – coal from the USA

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European coal also comes from the USA, where coal is mined in the Appalachian Mountains, in the West, and the Mid-West of the country. One particularly destructive form of coal mining practised in the USA is Mountaintop removal (MTR). MTR involves the blasting away –...

5.3 Draining rivers – coal from Colombia

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5.4 On stolen land – coal from Australia

5.4 On stolen land – coal from Australia

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