Indigenous struggles in the context of neo-extractivism
A comparative analysis of Mexico and Bolivia

Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes University. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College. Chris has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017) which has been shortlisted for the 2018 International Political Economy Group book prize.

His ISRF project seeks to conduct a comparative analysis of indigenous movements in Latin America in relation to their contestation of neo-extractivist development. Specifically, his project will compare indigenous movements in Mexico (the country in Latin America with the highest number of defined indigenous inhabitants) and Bolivia (the country in Latin America with the highest proportion of indigenous inhabitants as a percentage of the total population). The research will explore indigenous strategies to defend land, territory and human rights at a time when the chosen development strategy of their respective states has often imperilled these. The research will be guided by the notion of ‘political class formation’ which moves beyond a conception of class that only explores productive relations to also encompass broader contextual political issues including state intervention, regional culture and varieties of leadership.


This research will conduct an analysis of indigenous struggles in Latin America and their evolving positionalities with regards to the state, in the context of neo-extractivist development (a development strategy focused on natural resource extraction with the state working in tandem with private capital). Specifically this project will undertake a comparison between indigenous movements in Mexico (the country in Latin America with the highest number of indigenous inhabitants) and Bolivia (the country in Latin America with the highest proportion of indigenous inhabitants as a percentage of the total population). Indigenous subjectivities have often been regarded as an anachronism in Latin America that would be absorbed through the twin processes of mestization (racial assimilation) and/or proletarianisation (conversion into wage workers). Yet indigenous movements are now the leading social force of popular mobilisation in the region. The demands articulated by indigenous groups raise important questions with regards to issues such as how multi-culturalism is conceived, pluri-ethnic conceptions of nationhood practiced and post-liberal citizenship enacted, concerns relevant in and beyond the region. The proposed research will explore processes of political class formation linked to place-based indigenous social movements, locating them within the wider dynamics uneven development in and beyond Latin America. I seek to investigate this within an inter-disciplinary approach of historical-geographical sociology (Hesketh 2017; Hesketh and Morton 2014), that also draws explicitly from Michael Burawoy’s (1998) extended case method to conduct a multi-scalar analysis, synthesizing both macro-level global structures with the everyday, micro-situations of lived experience. It fulfils the goals of the ISRF by contributing to a new innovative theorization of indigenous struggles that draws upon diverse disciplinary perspectives that often talk past each other. It uses such interdisciplinary expertise to address a real world problem of social exclusion and violent displacement currently taking place in the name of development.

The Research Idea

The research will provide the first in-depth comparative analysis of indigenous movements’ resistance strategies in the context of the political economy of neo-extractivism. Specifically it seeks to examine indigenous strategies in Bolivia and Mexico to achieve social justice, inclusion and environmentally sustainable development in the context of seemingly differentiated processes of state formation (with Bolivia often cited as an example of a post-neoliberal state and Mexico as an archetypal neoliberal one). In recent decades (and in particular since the quincentennial remembrance of Spanish conquest), indigenous resistance has risen to prominence throughout Latin America (Postero 2004; Yashar 2005). Indigenous movements are now a leading social force of popular mobilization in Latin America, providing a cosmovision often in direct antagonism to capitalist social relations of production (Hesketh 2017; Robinson 2008). Subsequently, many of the long-held assumptions of traditional leftist thought, such as the centrality of the state and the working class (defined in terms of a fixed sociological category) as the agent of political transformation, have been challenged. Among a number of new trends that are observable in Latin America is the manner in which social movements have become more territorially rooted while frequently, but not exclusively, seeking autonomy from the state and political parties (Zibechi 2012). The research will be conducted using the theoretical toolkit of ‘political class formation’ developed by Otero (1999). This moves beyond approaches to class that simply look at productive relations to additionally explore broader contextual political issues including state intervention, regional culture and varieties of leadership.


The first research reference point is the political economy of development in Latin America. Robinson (2008) has provided key research on the regional transition from inward-looking development to export-oriented production and the emergence of non-traditional agricultural exports. Giving additional nuance to this transition is the literature focusing on neo-extractivism as an emergent developmental strategy in Latin America. This refers to the extraction of natural resources often in tandem with limited state redistribution. It also highlights the contradictions that flow from this, including the role of indigenous subjects as the primary victims of such a development strategy (Gudynas 2009; Veltmeyer 2012). Whilst contextualising the structure of the new political economy these studies lack adequate discussion of place-specific resistance movements. A second strand of literature focuses on the importance of place and social struggles over territory for thinking about resistance and political transformation (Dirlik 1999; Escobar 2012; Hesketh 2013). However, whilst opening up possibilities for reconceiving development, they lack empirical investigation into contemporary political strategies for scaling-up localised alternative practices into vehicles for wider political transformation. A third skein of literature discusses the key role of indigenous subjectivities in Latin America vis-a-vis neoliberal development (Hale 2004; Radcliffe and Westwood 1996; Yashar 2005). This project will seek to build on some of these broad insights but through a specifically comparative analysis of indigenous movements evolving positionalities regarding the state, it will draw from those works that understand indigenous contestation within a wider class analysis (Hesketh 2016; Hesketh and Morton 2014; Webber 2014).

The Focus

This research engages with two major intersecting real-life problems: namely social inclusivity for indigenous subjectivities and respect for their rights, alongside environmentally sustainable development. These clearly constitute a major political issue harking back to the colonisation of Latin America. However, the current urgency of this problem has new referents, distinguishing it from previous eras. These include the global integration of the economy and the shrinking possibilities for subsistence production, as land has become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands (Nash 1994). These factors have helped to propel indigenous actors to the forefront of the political scene in Latin America. In response, many states have been keen to buttress their credentials as supporters of indigenous rights. Limited territorial recognition has become a crucial element of neoliberal governance as long as such territorial concessions do not threaten the wider matrix of power or state development projects (Bryan 2012; Hale 2004, 2005). Nevertheless the United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz has recently drawn attention to the continuing abuse of indigenous rights when they seek to defend their land from natural resource extraction. Furthermore, a recent report by Global Witness (2016) documented that that record numbers of environmental activists were killed in such struggles. A lack of consultation and democratic consent are highlighted as crucial causes of such conflicts (Hesketh 2017). This research will explore how such affected groups are contesting and attempting to traverse such difficulties, highlighting the key issue of class formation that is often underplayed in analyses of alternative developmental praxis.

Theoretical Novelty

The novelty of this project lies in the application of political class formation to understanding resistance to neo-extractivism. Despite the major impact of colonisation and then global capitalism, Mariátegui (1984) argued that distinct spaces of economic activity, characterised by diverse social relations of production remained in Latin America. Moreover, Mariátegui asserted that the survival of certain elements of indiegnous communities could provide the basis for revolutionary transformation owing to the existence of ‘practical socialism’. Recent scholarship has emphasised the continuing importance of non-capitalist social relations in Latin America (Hesketh 2016) or more broadly has argued that diverse socio-economic topographies can be the springboard for transformative political action (Gibson-Graham 2006). Drawing on this contention, I will utilise Otero’s (1999) notion of political class formation to examine how forms of state intervention, cultural contexts and leadership strategies intersect with relations of production, marked most especially in this case by territorial claims of indigenous groups that conflict with state-led developmental projects. In Mexico this relates most clearly to resistance to mining concessions in the southern states, whereas in Bolivia this is most starkly seen in opposition to the proposed superhighway that will cut through the Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure. Using the political class formation approach alongside the extended case method allows us to empirically explore the possibilities and limitations of ‘militant particularism’. As theorized by Harvey (1996) militant particularism refers to the generalizing of affirmative experiences of solidarity generated in a place-based setting to become a wider model of societal transformation.


The project will draw from Michael Burawoy’s (1998) ‘extended case method’. The purpose of the extended case method is to draw links between the unique and the general, and to incorporate micro to macro scales of analysis. More precisely, the research will develop further a framework that I call historical-geographical sociology (Hesketh 2017). All three components can be justified as follows. With regards to geography, David Harvey (2006) famously argued that historical materialism cannot exist without a solid appreciation of the dialectics of spatio-temporality, hence the agenda-setting advancement of what he called ‘historical-geographical materialism’. Nevertheless, within historical sociology, despite major spatial-temporal claims, it often fails to deliver spatial analysis of one its major terms, uneven and combined development (e.g. Rosenberg 2013, Teschke 2003). This project seeks to correct for this with a clear spatial focus. The detailed historical emphasis meanwhile is justified for two interrelated reasons. First, historical investigation helps not only to denaturalize the present by showing how it has grown out of past conditions, but also in examining what past and present conditions could inform future trajectories. Second, it allows us to focus on the production of the agents of resistance and transformation, contextualizing these subjectivities and explaining why they arise in specific places and times.  In relation to the sociological component, Beverley Silver (2003) has argued that a key intellectual task is to identify subaltern responses to capitalist development, emphasizing that the recomposition of capital on a global scale also leads to the recomposition of labour.

Work Plan

As I will be conducting fieldwork in Mexico this year, the focus of the ISRF project will relate exclusively to data collection for Bolivia. The first four months of the project will be used to conduct an extensive review of the literature related to Bolivia’s indigenous political movements, as well as collating data on socio-economic indices linked to resource extraction. The second section of the plan will be to conduct fieldwork with affected indigenous groups in Bolivia for a period of two months. The final six months will involve the writing up of the key research findings. With regards to academic impact, two separate journal articles are planned. The first of these will be targeted to the top-ranked journal for the region, Journal of Latin American Studies, and will concern itself with demonstrating the comparative modalities of extractivism and contestation in the two countries. The second article will be submitted to a major journal from the discipline of geography (such as Political Geography or Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) and will focus more on the everyday spatial transformations and contestations involved in the indigenous resistance. This will be more deeply grounded in qualitative material derived from interviews. With regards to non-academic impact, research findings will be disseminated in short, accessible pieces for The Conversation, and The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section.  Diffusion of the research findings will also take place through the premier international conference associated with the region which is the Latin American Studies Association annual conference.


Two major long-term outcomes are envisaged. The first of these is to convene a series of panels at the Latin American Studies Association annual conference regarding indigenous movements in Latin America in the 21st century. Following this I would facilitate an international conference on this theme at Oxford Brookes University, using both my established network of key scholars as well as wider participants beyond academia, (including NGOs and social movement representatives from the region). I would apply for British Academy Conference funds to facilitate this. The outstanding papers from the conference would form the basis of an edited volume that I will propose to either the University of Texas Presses Inter America book series or the University of Minnesota Presses Indigenous Americas series. 

The second long-term planned outcome is to use the research findings as a springboard for a larger research project grant. To achieve this, further funding would be required for a three-year period with an attached doctoral researcher. This would be necessary to access a number of key policy documents and carry out more extensive fieldwork (for a period of six to eight months in each country.) Based on a successful application to the ISRF that would establish my new research agenda, I would apply to the ESRC’s ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ in 2020 for such a project. This future grant bid would help address the decline of UK-trained doctoral students in the Latin American region and simultaneously provide an important stage of my own personal career development.