Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, part 2: Limits to sub-imperial autonomy

Brazilian agribusiness’s fervour for Soybean cultivation has manifested itself domestically as much, if not more so, than externally, with deforestation accelerating as plantations abound with similar velocity in both the Brazilian Amazon and the Paraguayan Chaco. The domestic intensification of Soybean cultivation can, in large part, be attributed to growing demand from China, the world’s primary soybean consumer (Song et al, 2009). China is the largest market for both Paraguayan and Brazilian soy, with both nations essentially relying on continued Chinese imports to balance their trade deficits (Giraudo, 2020). Accordingly, the impact of Chinese demand on Brazilian agriculture, and on other resource sectors across the region (Ganchev, 2020; Oviedo, 2015), replicates many of the dynamics previously mentioned with regards to Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’ in Paraguay.

As soybeans are typically exported with minimal processing, and monocrop agriculture generates comparatively little employment (Giraudo, 2020), few of the benefits of the soybean supply-chain are appropriated within Brazil. Meanwhile, cheap Brazilian soybeans indirectly support the Chinese labour system by lowering the price of staple foods, especially pork, allowing Chinese manufacturers to keep wages low, thereby maintaining the competitiveness of Chinese exports (Wise & Veltmeyer, 2018). With Chinese demand likely to remain high, it seems inconceivable that either the Brazilian or the Paraguayan economies will wean themselves off of soy and will instead remain conditioned by, and dependent on, the whims of the Chinese industrial system

Furthermore, this integration of soybeans into the Chinese industrial economy exacerbates the existing China-Brazil trade imbalance. 98.4% of Chinese exports to Brazil are manufactures, whilst the majority of Brazilian exports to China are primary-resources, with soybeans representing the single most valuable export-commodity (Jenkins, 2012). Low-price Brazilian commodities thereby fuel an industrial system which exports value-added goods back to Brazil, creating a trade-deficit which entrenches the nation’s dependence on the industrialised core, reproducing the fundamental dynamics observed by dependency theorists in the mid-twentieth century (Frank; 1966; Prebisch, 1962).

Frank (1966) described South American nations as ‘satellites’ of western industry given their primary economic function as sites of resource extraction for industrial demand. For Frank (1966), ‘satellization’ is not merely a status, but an ongoing process in which the economic primacy afforded to resource-extraction in peripheral economies effects the stagnation of domestic industrial-development, further entrenching dependence on the industrial core (Alschuler, 1976). From 1999-2009, as Chinese demand for soy exploded, Brazil’s exports of primary goods grew by 525% whilst the production of manufactured goods slowed, increasing the relative imbalance between the two sectors (Cooney, 2016). The growing dependence of the Brazilian economy on the export of raw materials, among which soy is a key factor, has left the country ever more vulnerable to fluctuations in international demand, whilst its underdeveloped manufacturing sector has been further weakened by the increased flow of capital into extractivist enterprises (Prebisch, 1962). Accordingly, Giraudo (2020: 60) claims that Brazilian trade with China “reproduces core-periphery dynamics identified by dependency theory scholars”. It is clear then that this relation has fundamentally eroded Brazil’s autonomy, given that the largest national economy in Latin America is now significantly ‘conditioned’ by Chinese demand, at least with regards to agriculture and other extractive industries.

This dependence has ossified further as a result of Chinese investment in infrastructural developments which facilitate agricultural extractivism, such as highways into the Amazon which open up novel agricultural frontiers and new port facilities which expedite the export of soybeans (Mckay et al, 2016). Whilst Chinese infrastructural loans often feature below-market interest rates and flexible repayment schedules, their apparent benignity belies the manner in which they materially entrench extractivist economies and thereby constrain Brazil’s “capacity to autonomously determine its development path” (Giraudo, 2020: 61). A highway into the Amazon, for instance, locks in extractivist agriculture as the region’s principal growth sector by creating a literal avenue for capital accumulation which, given consistent Chinese demand for Brazilian soybeans, provides much more secure and lucrative returns on investment than financing of Brazil’s underdeveloped industrial sector. The construction of an extractivist infrastructural network marks, therefore, not merely the latest step in the continuous capitalist colonization of underexploited peripheries which has characterised Latin America since the late 15th century, but the material entrenchment of this dynamic, that is, the striation of the national space for the purpose of capital accumulation. Given the reality of Brazilian dependence, a highway into the Amazon becomes an outlet for the dispersion of Chinese, and additionally European and North American, imperial power, allowing for the reshaping and disassembling of Brazilian ecology in accordance with the demands of global industry. Chinese-funded infrastructure in Brazil, in so far as it facilitates extractive economies, can be understood as the material inscription of extractivism into the Brazilian landscape, forging chains of dependency that the nation is unlikely to break. From a global perspective, we may therefore view Brazilian national autonomy as illusory given that the shape of the Brazilian economy is ultimately determined by the demands of Chinese industry, among others, rather than the autonomous direction of the Brazilian state.

Ecological Dependence

The previous discussion conjures an image of a hierarchical chain of dependence which runs from China to Brazil and on to Paraguay, with autonomy diminishing and dependency intensifying as one descends its interlocking links. When examining these relations between states it is analytically unhelpful, however, to neglect the manner in which dependence functions within states. As Frank (1971: 34) explains, dependency “runs through the entire world capitalist system in a chain-like fashion from its uppermost metropolitan world centre, through each of the various national, regional, local and enterprise centres”. As this quote suggests, at its core, dependency is not defined by international relations, but by the flows of commodities and resources which exist both within and beyond the nation-state. In this regard we should not necessarily understand the interrelation between Paraguay, Brazil, and China as a hierarchy of dependency, but as the aggregate of multiple and overlapping ties of dependence which cumulatively interweave the productivity of Paraguayan soils with the output of Chinese manufacturing. It is precisely this integration of extractive industries into global supply chains which, Arboleda (2020: 15) claims, “yields a new territoriality of extraction whose immanent content cannot be fully elucidated by the loci classici of state-centric concepts of political economy”. This is to say that the structure and function of the mine or the plantation, and their integration in international industrial supply chains, are incomprehensible from a purely national viewpoint, given that these structures prove subversive to the nation state on both a material and analytical level.

The proliferation of soy plantations across the Latin American landscape provides an example of this dynamic. In the Paraguayan context, Soy has been described as “simultaneously a product and engine of the neoliberalization of nature” (Correia, 2019: 319) given the manner in which soybean monoculture enacts a capitalist reterritorialization of Paraguayan ecology by entirely reengineering the nation’s resources to service the demands of capital. The ongoing transformation of the Paraguayan Chaco into cropland, for instance, represents the conversion of an organic, complex, and uncommodifiable environment into one which is dominated by neat rows of soybeans, genetically modified to grow in a rational and easily commodifiable fashion, in other words, the striation of a non-capitalist environment for the purposes of capital accumulation (Altieri & Pengue, 2005; Deleuze & Guattari, 2005). In the case of soy this ecological reterritorialization assumes even a cellular dimension, given the transgenic nature of soybeans genetically modified to better suit market requirements and the rhythms and techniques of industrialized agriculture (Cooney, 2016). Hence from the cellular organization of its crops to the distribution of its arable land, Paraguay and its ecology have been fundamentally remade in accordance with the designs of global industrial capital.

In this sense, land which is colonized by soy is no longer Paraguayan, Brazilian, or even Chinese, but rather belongs to “a single, unified ’Soybean Republic’” governed by the demands of extractive capital rather than states (Turzi, 2011: 59). As ‘Nature-Exporting Societies’ (Coronil, 1997), forever dependent on resource rents to finance basic state functions, states such as Paraguay are thereby dissolved as sovereign units into an undefined reservoir of natural resource wealth from whence the global industrial system draws required inputs. Hence the ecological reality of peripheral regions is more so dictated by the direction of, say, Chinese manufacturing than it is the prerogative of national governments. To repurpose dos Santos’ (1970) definition of dependence, given the centrality of resource extraction in contemporary South American economies, we might well say that ‘dependence is a situation in which the ecology of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of an economy to which the former is subjected’. Hence dependence can be tracked through the creep of soy plantations into untouched ecologies, reasserting “technological mastery over nature” (Tilley, 2020: 70) and the subjugation of South American ecology to the industrialised core (Alimonda, 2020).

If we accept such a definition of dependence as an economic conditioning of ecology, then its impacts are observable even within China, the supposed head of our hierarchical chain, where the state is currently endeavouring to massively boost soybean production in Heilongjiang Province (Wang, 2022), creating an effective chain of dependency between this peripheral rural province and the coastal cities where the beans will be processed and consumed. The degree to which Heilongjiang’s ecologies will be transformed, its smallholders dispossessed, and its economy adjusted toward an agricultural export model will ultimately be dictated less by any local authority than by the requirements of the greater Chinese industrial system, based primarily in the country’s coastal metropolises. Seeing as similar relations can be observed within Brazil or Paraguay, there is no apparent reason why our analysis should privilege relations of dependence between nations over those that exist within national units. To merely examine the relation of dependency between Shenzhen and Amazonas without analysing that which exists between Amazonas and Sao Paulo, or even Sao Paulo and the Paraguayan Chaco, is to obscure the interlock of sub and transnational ties of ecological dependence which are ignored in nation-state centric analyses.

The question of dependency, therefore, is not merely one of how industrial nations relate to extractivist economies, but of which ecologies are inducted into techno-capital’s standing reserve’ (Heidegger, 1954). Dependency advances not from to country by country, but with the progressive transformation of the Earth’s surface (and its subsurface) into a standing reserve of potential value (Tilley, 2020), as national borders are subsumed into the frontiers of the ‘Planetary Mine/Plantation’ (Arboleda, 2020). In this context “there is a growing tendency for States to act as facilitators of global capital” (Neiman & Blanco, 2020: 541), abetting its march into hitherto undercapitalised environments, thereby signalling an existential surrender of state autonomy to the whims of capital.

Dependence may not, therefore, necessarily cohere to national borders, a fact that contemporary analyses should acknowledge, rather dependence is produced organically through the myriad connections between nodes of autonomy (industrial or metropolitan centres) and capitalist frontiers which exist both within and between nation-states. This understanding highlights both a decline in state-sovereignty and the ineffectiveness of state-centred analytic methods. The use of the nation-state as an analytic unit obscures the internal tensions inherent to any capitalist economy (Cueva, 2007). As Ebenau (2015: 108) explains “there is no such thing as a genuine ‘national interest’, but rather a conflictual relationship between classes, to which the state apparatuses are constitutively connected”. This class-centred critique is well-suited to an industry in which smallholders are systematically dispossessed for the material benefit of agribusiness executives who are nevertheless often unified under the same nationality. Yet Ebanau’s (2015) logic may also be repurposed for the ecological critique offered above to suggest that an exploitative extractivist relationship between rural-peripheral and industrialised-metropolitan regions within the same polity renders the nation-state methodologically inappropriate as an analytical-unit for those interested in dependence in the contemporary global economy.

To conclude

It is imprudent and imprecise, therefore, for a researcher to question whether a certain nation is dependent on another, or to what extent it is able to wield national autonomy, without examining the interrelations of autonomy and dependence which exist within national units whilst charting their coherence to an extractivist regime of ecological reterritorialization. Whilst the dependency of different nations may be compared on a relative basis, as this blog does with Paraguay, Brazil, and China, such an analysis can only result in a hierarchical ranking of nations from most dependent to most autonomous. In this framework, it is arguable that South American states may achieve limited autonomy through ‘Subimperialist’ expansion, but this autonomy is directly proportional to dependency elsewhere in the region, as with Brazil and Paraguay. Meanwhile the fact that South American economies as a whole are conditioned by the demands of foreign capital compromises national autonomy by producing an overarching economic dependence, as is the case between Brazil and China. Such analysis is not without merit, as it demonstrates how governments and national bourgeoisies function as loci of autonomy within a broader network of dependence. However, the precise contours of the dependency network are impossible to outline through a state-centred methodological approach alone given the myriad dependent relations which exist between and within nation states. Instead, I claim, an ecological accounting of the demands that industrial capital places on the natural world provides a more accurate depiction of the exact function of dependency which, at its core, is conditional on the extraction of primary resources. That is to say that one might achieve a better understanding of dependence in South America by tracking the expansion of the “green ocean of soybeans” (Turzi, 2011: 66) across its landscape than by calculating the exact proportions of the China-Brazil trade deficit, as the former is a direct manifestation of dependency’s ecological underpinning, that is the capitalist reterritorialization of the natural world. In other words, the fundamental dependent relationship is that which subordinates nature to the accumulation of capital through the proliferation of extractivist structures, of which plantations serve as a quintessential example.


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George Shepherd is a politics PhD student at the University of York currently researching lithium extraction in Latin America in an attempt to understand the ecological implications of a ‘green’ energy transition predicated on intensified resource extraction in the periphery. He tweets at @_GeorgeShepherd.

Photo: SentinelHub.

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