Structural Transformation in the Countryside

By Bettina Engels and Kristina Dietz

Related to the recent ‘commodity boom’, mining is expanding enormously in almost all parts of the world. The literature on large-scale mining and artisanal and small-scale mining, its social and economic impacts, governance, and related conflicts, is likewise expanding (see Bebbington and Bury 2013; Campbell 2009; Engels and Dietz 2017). The recent mining boom related to the (re-)emergence of resource-led development strategies is conceptualised in terms of ‘extractivism’ or ‘neoextractivism’: a national, growth-orientated development pathway based on rent seeking activities, that involves the large-scale exploitation, production, and exportation of raw materials. Strikingly, the debate on extractivism makes relatively few references to the field of Critical Agrarian Studies.  While Critical Agrarian Studies focuses almost exclusively on the agricultural sector and hardly deals with mining. As a consequence, both debates are pursued in parallel, though both present critical ways of analysing the restructuration of the global countryside.

This blogpost interlinks research on extractivism and the mining boom on the one hand, and Critical Agrarian Studies on the other. Relating these two fields of research proves obvious, as current trends in both agriculture and mining, namely the expansion of agro-industrial production and large-scale mining, are linked to the same overarching context that is the global pervasion of capitalism and related ‘multiple crises’. On the ground, the same population is often engaged in both sectors, and both processes trigger structural transformations of the rural countryside with similar effects.

Many national governments, regional development banks, and international organisations have put forward plans for intensified extraction of raw materials as an important growth and export-orientated development strategy. From the 1990s onwards, national governments in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, in the context of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes, have pushed forward new legislation in order to attract foreign investment: mining activities have been promoted and agrarian policies reformed. The latter have aimed to liberalise land markets, privatise land tenure, and capitalise the agricultural sector.

The increasing economic importance of the resource sector has resulted in many countries in an unprecedented spatial expansion of mining and agro-industrial production into areas hitherto sparsely exposed to capital forces. Against this background, struggles over land in general and mining in particular have increased around the world. A rising number of non-state and state actors have become involved in these struggles. The issues at stake are manifold. In some cases, the idea of extractivism is contested as a whole; in others, the underlying norms and political reforms that sustain extractivism as a development strategy are rejected or concrete projects for mining are opposed. Nevertheless, in many of today’s contestations over mining, the issues of conflict overlap.

This blogpost focuses on conflicts over mining and asks what insights Critical Agrarian Studies can provide us with in their analysis. Conflict is understood as social action that is structured through power and interests, and which is always embedded in overarching social structures (divisions of labour, power distribution, gender, class, and other social relationships). We argue that Critical Agrarian Studies can prove fruitful in the analysis of structural change in the countryside—in which the expansion of the extractive sector is a considerable factor—and in particular in conceiving the impacts of global transformation. From a Critical Agrarian Studies perspective, we are able to understand the origins of the expansion of mining, and to link it to an overarching political-economic context. In particular, Critical Agrarian Studies enables us to bring two core categories into the analysis of mining and related conflicts: labour and class. When it comes to understanding conflicts as social action, however, a firmly structuralist perspective such as that provided by Critical Agrarian Studies is stretched to its limits.

We begin by presenting the core tenets of Critical Agrarian Studies, outlining its theoretical foundations and the main questions for empirical analysis derived from it. Next, the insights that Critical Agrarian Studies provides for the analysis of the recent mining boom and related conflicts are discussed, particularly with regard to labour and class. In the conclusion, the potentials and limitations of Critical Agrarian Studies for understanding conflicts over mining are summarised.

Critical Agrarian Studies

Critical Agrarian Studies represents a field of research that unites critical scholars from various disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Geography, Global History, and Development Economics. Claiming to combine research and activism, ‘Critical Agrarian Studies are […] an institutionalized academic field, and an informal network (or various networks) that links professional intellectuals, agriculturalists, scientific journals and alternative media, and non-governmental development organizations, as well as activists’ (Edelman and Wolford 2017: 4).

Critical Agrarian Studies builds upon Peasant Studies, likewise an interdisciplinary field of research that has developed from the early 1970s onwards. Both fields share common theoretical grounds—Marxism, particularly Marxist analyses of the ‘agrarian question’—that engage with the processes, and implications and limitations, of capitalist pervasion of the agricultural sector; i.e. its transformation from subsistence and small-holder to capitalist production, including the separation of labour and the means of production. Critical Agrarian Studies, as opposed to Peasant Studies, shifts the focus towards the global political economy, embedding its analysis and findings in global processes. It starts from a critique of ‘peasant essentialism’ that was widespread, also among critical scholars, in the 1970s and 1980s. Peasants do not form a homogenous class, nor are rural populations limited to peasants. Rather, the livelihoods of people living in the countryside build on animal husbandry and pastoralism, fishery, paid labour in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, both formal and informal, crafts, trading, artisanal mining, and many others, as Henry Bernstein and Terence Byrnes emphasised in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change in 2001. Analyses of agrarian structures and change thus reveal how the peasantry relates to other social classes in terms of property relations, capital–labour relations, and rural–urban relations.

A core assumption of Critical Agrarian Studies is that agrarian and urban societies mutually constitute one another, in particular concerning patterns of production and consumption. Scholars from Critical Agrarian Studies analyse agrarian change by focusing on patterns of accumulation; on processes of production, i.e. the distribution of the means of production, technological changes, and labour commodification; and on how agrarian politics interact with processes of accumulation and production. Henry Bernstein, in his fundamental essay on ‘Class Dynamics and Agrarian Change’ in 2010 summarised this focus through four questions that guide the study of agrarian: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? What do they do with it?

Critical Agrarian Studies basically applies a structuralist perspective, prioritising historical developments at a macro level. At the societal level, analyses starting from the agrarian question investigate the formation and differentiation of rural classes. At the macro level, one important concept for the analysis of agrarian change in general and class structures in particular is the food regime. Food regime analysis aims at an ‘understanding of agriculture and food’s role in capital accumulation across time and space. In specifying patterns of circulation of food in the world economy it underlines the agro-food dimension of geo-politics’ (McMichael 2009: 140).

More generally, from a global history perspective, scholars have demonstrated how capitalism advances by expanding the ‘frontier’ of the exploitation of key commodities (such as sugar, rice, tobacco, cotton) to ever more remote and peripheral rural zones. Frontiers are thereby not to be understood as fixed borderlines, territories, or places, but as ‘socio-ecological relations that unleash a new stream of nature’s bounty to capital: cheap food, cheap energy, cheap raw materials, and cheap labour’ (Moore 2010: 245).

Critical Agrarian Studies, however, due to its tendency to focus narrowly on ‘the’ agrarian question, ‘like the Marxism on which it draws, is not a consensus field’ (Edelman and Wolford 2017: 5). More recent contributions to the field, in contrast to the relatively schematic, world systems theory-led perspective advocated by Jason Moore and others emphasise the importance of ‘local and national dynamics’ (Bush and Martiniello 2017: 200). These studies investigate the respective histories of social struggles related to the economic valuation of agriculture under different systems (colonialism, capitalism, socialism) and the historical production of the social world. They look at the spatial dimensions of structural change in the countryside, and at human–nature and nature–culture relations. And they go beyond rural–urban linkages. They do this by exploring ‘nature in the city’ and similar planning logics in urban and rural settings.

Insights for analysing conflicts over mining

If one applies a narrow definition of ‘land-grabbing’ as restricted to the purpose of agricultural production, then it may seem reasonable to exclude land acquisitions for fossil and mineral extraction. This does not, however, imply that Critical Agrarian Studies is generally limited to such a narrow understanding. Quite the contrary, excluding mining risks losing sight of one of the core drivers of the current structural transformation of the global countryside. Parallels and linkages between agro-industry and large-scale mining are obvious: both are features of capitalism that are increasingly pervading remote rural areas all over the world. The same drivers, notably capital seeking opportunities of investment and profit maximising, and national governments seeking rents for debt reduction and development, advance the expansion of both.

Key commodities upon whose exploitation the development of the modern capitalist world is built are agrarian as well as fossil and mineral (such as coal, oil, iron, and copper). What is more, they are closely interlinked: cheap energy, raw materials, food, and labour depend on one another. As ?? Moore argued in 2010, cheap inputs are needed to generate high profits; when cheap inputs are difficult to acquire, capitalism risks falling into crisis. Hence the erosion of the ‘four cheaps’ fuels the appropriation of nature, meaning that capital intensifies to flow into commodity markets. This dynamic boosts both the expansion of agro-industry and large-scale mining.

So, what does Critical Agrarian Studies provide us with in the analysis of conflicts over mining? To begin with, it brings us back to the recurrent theme of the ‘agrarian question’: What happens if capital penetrates the countryside?  One answer was provided by David Harvey in 2003: accumulation by exploitation is complemented by accumulation by dispossession. These accumulation processes do not go uncontested but are accompanied by conflicts and social struggles—both in urban and rural settings, and both related to agribusiness and mining. However, Critical Agrarian Studies has also demonstrated the fact that while capital is further taking hold of land and labour in the countryside, this does not mean that the complex forms of social and class differentiation that characterise rural zones in many parts of the world are disappearing. On the contrary, the expansion of capitalist landed property in recent years is associated with a consolidation of poor and middle peasants and the continuation of various forms of labour relations.

The recent boom in mining equally comprises large-scale, as well as artisanal and small-scale mining: though informal artisanal miners are in many cases expelled from territories under large-scale mining concessions, artisanal and small-scale mining is altogether expanding. A Critical Agrarian Studies perspective based on a full reading of the agrarian question, i.e. a perspective that is not exclusively concerned with class relationships in a narrow sense, thus promises to help explain the puzzling persistence of the ‘small’ in mining.

Historical materialist analysis, as advocated by Critical Agrarian Studies, uncovers patterns of accumulation and transformation, and their interrelations with cleavages in social classes. Thus, a major contribution that Critical Agrarian Studies brings to the analysis of mining conflicts is the focus on class formation and differentiation, class domination and subordination, and the roles they play in conflicts and collective action. This draws attention to the social differentiation of the still often romanticised and homogenised ‘local population’.


Existing studies on conflicts over mining mostly focus on the socio-ecological impacts of mining, and on conflicts emerging from environmental damages, loss of farm land and pasture, and the eviction and resettlement of villages. Anthony Bebbington et al. (2008) have argued that mining conflicts were historically characterised by labour struggles and conflicts between trade unions on the one hand and governments and mining companies on the other. The current territorial expansion of industrial mining (for example into indigenous territories and areas with small-scale agriculture and livestock farming) has resulted in both a shift in and an expansion of actor constellations in related conflicts and has widened the range of the subjects of conflict. Conflicts occur when local actors perceive the expansion of large-scale mining as a threat to their fundamental economic activities, or to their territorial, cultural, or political rights. Linked to these dynamics are conflicts over territorial control and access to water and land, over the effects on livelihoods, gender relations, and ecosystems, and over government regulations concerning the conditions for mining activities and the distribution of the profits and tax revenues of extractivism.

Critical Agrarian Studies, in contrast, brings labour into play—a topic that in recent studies of conflicts over mining has received less attention (with some exceptions, e.g. Bryceson and Geenen 2016; Larmer 2017; Rubbers 2010; Verbrugge 2016, 2017b). Referring to Bernstein’s four guiding questions above, an analysis inspired by Critical Agrarian Studies does not simply account for the quantity and quality of jobs created in the respective sector (agro-industry, mining, etc.) but also links these jobs to capital–labour relations and thus to overarching processes of development, both at the societal and the global level. Harvey’s concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ first coined in 2003 is fruitful for this purpose. Harvey refers to the privatisation and commodification of agricultural land and the shift of its control and use from family farmers and collectives to private agribusiness in the course of global processes of neoliberalisation. An equivalent shift can be observed in favour of large-scale mining for which both farm land and land used for artisanal mining is dispossessed.

Capital–labour conflicts do not, however, become less relevant, nor do large-scale mining ventures seize territories that were previously free from capitalist relations. It could be argued that with the expansion of industrial mining, the potential for labour-related conflicts also increases. Labour is a main argument in disputes over mining and might itself become an issue of conflict. Within and between communities affected by large-scale mining, costs and benefits are allocated disparately: some people—a minority in most cases—benefit from the mining industry in terms of employment and service supply; others at least hope to do so; and still others feel that they do not benefit at all but rather bear the costs. The proponents of industrial mining refer to its potential for employment growth and vocational training. The adversaries, by contrast, claim that the establishment of an industrial mine results in far less employment than people expect; that labour is mainly needed temporarily in the construction phase; that qualified and well-paid jobs are mainly taken by outsiders; and that, at the end of the day, a mine destroys more jobs and opportunities for income than it creates.

Analysing conflicts over mining also reveals that workers and unions are by no means necessarily in favour of industrial mining (at least not unconditionally) but frequently join hands with other segments of the popular classes—peasants, indigenous communities, herders, and artisanal miners among them—in mining-related conflicts. In Colombia, for example, the planned expansion of the Cerrejon Zona Norte coal mine in La Guajira province in the north of the country in 2014 triggered the formation of a multi-sector protest alliance consisting of indigenous women’s groups, a citizens’ initiative from the nearest city, human rights and environmental organisations from Bogotá, and unionists from Sintracarbón, the union of the Cerrejon mine workers. Cerrejon is operated by subsidiaries of the transnational mining companies BHP Billiton, Anglo American, and Glencore. The company justifies the expansion of the mine on the basis of job security and rural development. In reality, the expansion implies the resettlement of indigenous communities and the diversion of important streams of water in a region characterised by drought and poor water supply. The perception of the expansion of the mine as an existential threat to the water supply and thus to the sustainability of rural and urban life in the area has evoked the joint opposition of workers and other segments of the rural and urban popular classes (see for a fuller consideration Dietz 2017; García 2017).

Labour-related struggles can equally occur at artisanal mining sites. Though most artisanal mining is conducted informally and is not subject to formalised capital–labour relations, this certainly does not imply that the means of production are in the hands of those who work with them, that capital does not play a core role in informal artisanal mining, or that relationships of exploitation are absent. Quite the opposite, artisanal mining sites are characterised by complex power relations structured by—though not only—capital and labour. In Burkina Faso, for example, concessions for artisanal mining are in the hands of the local ‘Big Men’. Usually there is an ‘owner’ of the pit, who invests in the equipment and machines. The concessionaire and the pit owners make the biggest profits overall in artisanal gold mining. Nevertheless, informal artisanal mining offers a livelihood to a large number of people, even though it is largely under precarious conditions. The informal artisanal miners are organised into teams and work at their own risk. Furthermore, in addition to the teams who work in or on the pits, numerous others—men and women of all ages, as well as children and youths—are involved in processing the artisanally mined gold (see Chouli 2014: 29; Engels 2017; Luning 2006; Werthmann 2012). Such structural settings and social and economic relations—which are often perceived by external observers as chaotic but are in fact highly organised—characterise artisanal mining sites all over the world.


Class as an analytical category is strikingly absent in recent studies on mining and related conflicts. In contrast, livelihood is quite a prominent concept (see Bebbington et al. 2008; Bury 2004), notably in research and policy debates on artisanal and small-scale mining (see Hilson et al. 2013; Hilson and Banchirigah 2009; Jønsson and Fold 2011; Maconachie and Hilson 2011). As Bridget O’Laughlin  argued in 2002, ‘livelihood’ is overwhelmingly conceptualised in institutionalist terms that focus on the individual and his/her capabilities and entitlements—an approach that consequently loses sight of historically shaped structural causes of poverty. Obviously, rural poverty and everyday life realities are diverse and multi-layered and are ‘shaped both by exploitation and oppression and by resistance to them’ (O’Laughlin 2002: 513). Capturing the dialectic of oppression and resistance by referring to class and class struggle allows for a shift in focus towards (possible) collective action and its relationship to individual action—and thus for the analysis of conflicts.

Analysing conflict and collective action through the lens of class struggles does not necessarily imply a confusion of mass movements with formal organisation. Neither does the absence of identifiable movements imply that class is obsolete. One advantage of class as an analytical category is that it enables us to differentiate between protests that challenge the essential structures of authority and exploitation, and those that allow people to come to terms with these structures. In conflicts over mining, both forms occur frequently. Social actors mobilise in order to hamper or stop a mining project, or for the conditions to be changed (for example regarding compensation, resettlement, job creation, etc.). Implicitly in many cases, explicitly in at least some, such project-related claims are linked to more fundamental ones, challenging the basics of political authority and economic structures: the understanding of ‘development’, political and cultural rights, the recognition of rights to territorial self-determination and autonomy. A class-based analysis links struggles and claims to fundamental structures of society and the political economy, and thus helps us not only to differentiate and systematise actors and their claims, but also to reveal the transformative power of conflicts.

A class-based perspective, moreover, affords the opportunity to understand the configuration of actors in social struggles. Class-based analysis should therefore not be limited to the working class in a narrow sense (those selling their labour in the formal or informal sector) but should include the whole range of poor people. As E. P. Thompson (1991) demonstrated, rather than a fixed economic category, class is a social relationship, and as such, historically specific and context-dependent. For the purpose of the empirical analysis of social struggles in the global countryside, it is neither helpful to construe working and rural classes as opposed to one another, nor to simply give up on the concept of class in favour of other, allegedly immaterial categories such as ethnicity, indigeneity, and nationality. This is not to say that these categories are not central to the construction of collective identity, to social relationships of power and authority, and to the mobilisation of protest and other forms of collective action. However, focusing (solely) on cultural categories in the analysis of social conflicts and struggles poses the risk of losing sight of material inequalities and the political-economic structures in which they are rooted.

Protests and resistance do not take place in free, deliberative spaces but within social and political contexts that are structured by unequal material conditions. This being said, in-depth empirical research at the micro level of collective action in social conflicts, and analysis of the political-economic structures at the macro level, are by no means mutually exclusive but rather go perfectly hand-in-hand. David Seddon and Leo Zeilig proposed in 2005 the term ‘popular classes’: students, employees, small-scale farmers, self-employed from the informal sectors, petty traders, and the like. The concept can be deployed instructively, not only in the analysis of conflicts over mining, but also in struggles related to agrarian change in general. As O’Laughlin argued recently, focusing on class formation within the peasantry risks limiting our understanding of class alliances to the politics of anti-capitalist struggles.


To sum up, examining conflicts over mining through the lens of Critical Agrarian Studies offers analytical potential for the investigation of further dimensions of structural transformation in the countryside beyond the agrarian sector. Critical Agrarian Studies enables us to put the analysis of mining and related conflicts in a broader global historical context of commodity exploitation and frontier expansion. Notably, it sheds light on, and provides us with tools with which to conceive of, capital–labour relations and class formation and differentiation. Enlarging the concepts of capital–labour relations and class beyond a narrow focus on formal, wage-related labour proves particularly illuminating. It allows one, for instance, to systematically unfold social structures at artisanal mining sites without falling into cultural essentialism. It renders the diversity within and among the actors engaged in struggles over mining visible, and at the same time opens up the view on class alliances. In addition, by embedding conflicts over mining in an overarching context of structural transformation, an analysis inspired by Critical Agrarian Studies eschews the trap of making categorical differentiations between struggles over exploitation and struggles over dispossession, and instead highlights how they are in fact two sides of the same coin.

When it comes to the analysis of conflicts, the focus on overarching structures of the global political economy is at the same time a strength and a constraint of Critical Agrarian Studies. As long as we do not comprehend any contradiction that is inherent to capitalism as a conflict, but rather conceptualise conflicts as social action (that is, obviously, always integrated into overarching social structures), a rigorous structuralist approach, as is prevalent in Critical Agrarian Studies, has its limits. It fits perfectly for the unveiling of structural contradictions but fails to assist in understanding how social actors perceive, interpret, and evaluate them, and thus in tracing how structural contradictions become meaningful and relevant for individual and collective action. ‘Marxists see exploitation and oppression as inherently laden with conflict’ write O’Laughlin in 2002, ‘Thus, resistance does not have to be explained […] rather it is the ways in which it is expressed, confronted or suppressed that are of interest’ (O’Laughlin 2002: 515). But not every contradiction and grievance perceived by an actor necessarily results (immediately) in action; for example, due to power relations, actors do not necessarily have the means available—and which they consider appropriate—for such action. The range of options and means for action available to actors depends on their position in the social field, which is structured in terms of power.

Critical Agrarian Studies is considerably heterogeneous, it also includes less rigorous macro-structuralist approaches that build upon conceptual and research strategies from, among others, Anthropology, Radical Geography, and Political Ecology. In combining these strategies with thorough qualitative empirical research at the micro level, it thereby succeeds in analytically linking social action to overarching structures.

This blogpost builds upon debate during the workshop Critical Agrarian Studies held by the research group ‘Global Change—Local Conflicts?’ at Freie Universität Berlin on 12 May, 2017. We deeply indebted to the contributions and the vibrant and inspiring debates by all participants, in particular Haroon Akram-Lodhi, Ray Bush, Deborah Johnston, Robin Thiers, and Henry Veltmeyer.

Bettina Engels is political scientist at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Freie Universität Berlin. Kristina Dietz is Director of the Research Group ‘Global change – local conflicts? Land conflicts in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa in the context of interdependent transformation processes’ (with Bettina Engels), at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Featured Photograph: A mine in Kailo in the Congo where they mine wolframite and casserite. Children work with their parents, helping with panning for the ore, carrying and selling goods to the workers (31 October, 2007).

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  1. It is very good to see this effective ‘incorporation’ of mining and extractive activities into the consideration of what I would call ‘the political economy of rural transformation’.

    As I embark with two colleagues on a systematic re-consideration of Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the 20th Century, I am struck by the restrictions imposed by his focus on ‘peasants’ (referring to those who work on the land as farmers) to the virtual exclusion of others whose livelihoods, while possibly involving farming among other activities, are also active in many other domains, including artisan production, petty trading, and the extractive industries).

    I am also not entirely happy with the use of the term ‘agrarian studies’ – critical agrarian studies’ included – for much the same reason: it largely implies a focus on agriculture and related activities. Most people living and working in the rural areas multi-task and are involved in a variety of economic activities; the precise ‘mix’ has implications for other aspects of their lives, including forms of ‘class consciousness’ and political action.

    Similarly, and in agreement with the authors, I regard the use of ‘livelihoods’ as an analytical framework far too bound by the assumptions of classical and neo-liberal economics regarding the ‘individual’ as an economic construct, although it has been useful in drawing attention to the kind of ‘multi-tasking’ I refer to above as characteristic of most rural households and even individuals, and to the strategies (including ‘coping strategies’) adopted in the context of the changing rural political economy.

    Finally, I am aware that in referring to ‘rural areas’, I run the risk of underplaying the complex linkages between ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ and indeed the debatable nature of these two terms – which tend to imply a clear distinction between them, as if there were not constant movement and interplay between those who live in the countryside and the town, and indeed often no clear distinction physically, economically, socially or politically between them,

    What is clear, however, is that a wholistic and integrated perspective is required, whatever one calls it, and one that is able to combine the more ‘structuralist’ ‘political economy’ approach with a recognition of the importance of social and cultural dynamics – I have always found the work of E P Thompson, especially in The Making of the English Working Class exemplary, even if I disagree with his distinction between ‘history’ and ‘sociology’.


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