SDGs and ‘Household’ Governance: The Neglected Cost of Extractive Development

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) place a strong focus on "rule of law" and "good governance" in achieving sustainable development. But in practice these strategies often result in the expansion of degrading socio-ecological development practices.

Bildet kan inneholde: mennesker, barechested, transportmiddel, menneskelig.

People defend their road blockades from the police invasion to enforce the Tiá Maria mine in Peru, March 2015. Photo: Miguel Mejía Castro

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) embody the desire for development, but also the rebranding and exacerbation of (capitalist) sustainable development. In their new article in Sustainability ScienceMary Menton, Carlos Larrea, Sara Latorre, Joan Martinez-Alier, Mike Peck, Leah Temper and Mariana Walter (2020), review and analyze the SDGs in relation to (an expansive reading of) environmental justice. Menton and colleagues give credit to the SDGs where it is due, while highlighting an enormous list of issues to be addressed.

The SDGs promote projects such as hydroelectric dams, wind energy (factories) and conservation areas that have resulted in serious ecosystem degradation and injustice against people, as catalogued by the Environmental Justice Atlas.

The SDGs agenda is derived from the priorities and interests of states and enact measures in the name of vulnerable populations, yet these measures frequently disregard peoples' socio-cultural views, values and, even, human rights.

The SDGs, Menton and colleagues show us, are expanding land, wind, sun and water privatization and are justified based on inaccurate income accounting schemes, which, overall, will not "achieve a 'win win' when the very systems which create poverty, hunger, inequalities, and unstainable development are upheld." Menton and colleagues advocate for "sustainable degrowth," while confronting the largely obvious (gaping) holes in the SDGs. This article does not mention the lifestyles endorsed by the UN's circus of plane flights, meetings and the continuation of business as usual, nor the fact that development itself is a method of governance and market expansion.

Bildet kan inneholde: kart, økoregion, verden.
The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJOLT) maps the multiplicity of environmental conflict around the world. Source:

SDG 16: "Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels" highlights the importance of "good governance" and the "rule of law" in achieving sustainable development. While Menton and colleagues, following McDermott and colleagues, acknowledge that SDG16 "largely bypasses the difficult question of how state definitions of justice inevitably privilege some actors and some conceptions of justice over others" the SDGs fail "to address the power dynamics and structural conditions that impede environmental and social justice."

I argue that not only is this true, but that it continues and solidifies a patriarchal system of extractive governance through "the rule of law." Drawing on Patricia Owens' "household governance," we will look at how Southern Copper Peru's head of Community Relations conceptualizes extractive governance around the Tía Maria mine.

Household Governance

Patricia Owens: Economy of Force

It is well known among conflict and security scholars that "good governance" is a reference to rolling out (population-centric) counterinsurgency programs. However, Patricia Owens (2015) demonstrates in her book Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social how the ideology and structure of "household governance" lie at the core of "Good governance" and counterinsurgency. Originating from the ancient Greek oikos, household space, Owens offers a convincing genealogy of governance related to oikonomia—"household governance"—and how counterinsurgency warfare operates "as a form of oikonomia by other means" to ensure social pacification and domestication.

Household governance remains a leading theory of governance and social control, and is the perspective and relationship reinforced and upheld by the SDGs.

Household governance highlights the issue and reproduction of decentralized governance strategies emblematic of the UN state system. There are a multiplicity of forms of household governance, yet a fetishization of governance itself and "rule of law" in particular—employing liberal myths and neglecting the origins of regulatory institutions—remain the root of household governance. Centralized and "administrative decentralized" governance strategies—expressed through (transnational) statist-corporate institutions— as we all know, like household rule Owens explains, "is always gendered" and operate through "a distinctively modern [statist] and bureaucratic social form."

Administrative decentralization is the construction of hierarchical and centralized strategies through "bottom-up," grassroots and semi-autonomous means, which has been a big part of community development, participation, counterinsurgency strategy and are reproduced implicitly in the SDGs, yet directly by SDG 16. This is exemplified by the language of "good governance" and "rule of law," meanwhile focusing on "corruption," "transparency" and "peace" as opposed to structural institutional economic measures and the need to grant autonomy or cease attacks against ecosystems (with resource extractivism), Indigenous and marginalized populations by direct or covert civil-military means. Peace, and "territorial peace," are often used to advance counterinsurgency pacification and natural resource extractive strategies as Philippe Le Billon, María Cecilia Roa-García and Angelica Rocío López-Granada have recently outlined in Colombia.

Household rule, like biopolitics, are organized around the administration of life necessities. This is the core justification of the SDGs, expanding and spreading life necessities through state sponsored market-mechanisms and enforced by security forces continuing situations of "armed social work."

Meanwhile, despite official attempts of the SDGs to close poverty gaps and minimize inequality, the dire situation is intensified by enforcing capitalist growth-oriented approaches criticized by Menton and colleagues. Household governance proliferates at various scales - the UN and SDGs at the macro-scale - yet it trickles down into the local or micro scale, which we see enacted with copper mining in Peru.

A Car Ride Around the Mind: Conceptualizing Resource Extraction

The SDGs' "good governance" and "rule of law" remind me of an interview with "Tía Maria's Social Relations Manager" in the Tambo Valley, Peru. At that moment, the Tía Maria copper mine, in southern Peru, has been ardently resisted for ten years. The resistance has confronted multiple police and military sieges; witnessed seven deaths of compañeros; experienced widespread beatings and injuries; and, still after 12 years, continue to resist the mine.

Going through a mine security checkpoint, driving up the windy roads, a friend and I interviewed Tía Maria's Social Relations Manager. He tells us about the distance of the mine, how Dutch sociologist have been instrumental for their development interventions and how, contrary to everyone else interviewed, that there would be no negative environmental impacts from the mine. Standing on the top of the mountain, I placed more pressure on him about the level of resistance against the mine, revealing his outlook:

The thing is that sociologically speaking, the human being as a part of a community they have to learn to understand and accept the rules of the game—the 'rule of law' (Estado de Derecho). Under the rule of law, there are rules that we like, and there are rules that we do not like—it is like a home. The parents make the rules of the game, there are some thing’s that the children do not like and others do like, but the father makes the rules of the game. But when the parents make the rules of the game and the kids get out of line with these rules of the game, so anarchy begins in the home. What is the purpose of the father if they do whatever they want? Something exactly similar to this is the rule of law… Peru has a constitution, this is the law of law, the mother of all laws for civic life and the constitution speaks very clearly about citizens’ rights….One of our duties as citizens of Peru, the United States or wherever, is to respect the laws (emphasis added).

While there are many lessons and counter-lessons to be drawn from this outlook, the concern here refers to the people violating the rule of law by blockading roads and preventing the operations of the Tía Maria mine—they violate the father's household rule that favored the company's operations. Violating the rule of law, disregarding the father's rule, constitutes nothing less than anarchy for our Community Relations Manager. The coercive violence perpetrated by the Peruvian National Police (PNP), at the request of Southern Copper Peru, to support copper extraction—maybe for so-called "renewable energy" infrastructure—exemplifies the "peace" and rule of law propagated by the SDGs.  

Household governance, here, forms a justification for the brutality and murder visited upon Tambo Valley residents defending their river, agrarian culture and land from extractive development. "[W]e actually said: 'We are really sorry that happened, we never looked for that,"' explains Carlos Aranda—Southern Copper's national head of public relations—but "the police decided that they should not block roads, they wanted to do that, they attacked police and the police retaliated. Whether right or wrong, that is what happened." Southern Copper Peru were ardent advocates of adhering to the rule of law and human rights, yet the structural relationship remains unchallenged and extractive violence perpetrated against people, legal.

Household authority—the state— are blind to clear cases of extractive injustice. In 2011 a popular consultation obtained a 93.4% rejection rate of the Tía Maria mine, people maintained blockades for extended periods of time (confronting death at the hands of police) and were fueled by a desire to protect their valley. The land defenders, in the eyes of the state, prevent progress, profit, violate the rule of law and challenge the modus operandi of the state: resource control and acquisition. The message is clear: "The resources must be extracted."

SDG household governance will "privilege some actors and some conceptions of justice over others" and "fails to address the power dynamics and structural conditions that impede environmental and social justice."

What does this mean for SDGs?

This is one example, one direct connection through the language of the household, yet is this uncommon? The answer is: "no." Menton and colleagues, among others, identify this extractive development as a serious—and disingenuous, if not murderous—process supported both directly and indirectly by the governance framework and the ideological ethos representative of sustainable development goals.

Academics and liberal policy rejoice in the idea of sustainable development, but few want to acknowledge what this actually entails in practice: land control, habitat destruction, resource extraction, mineral processing factories, manufacturing facilities, transportation logistics and more to maintain the current capitalist mode of industrial production and consumption.

This ecologically destructive copper mine might very well be dedicated to providing copper for energy infrastructure or so-called renewable energy or fossil fuel+ projects. The specific use of the copper does not matter, as much as the necessity for continuous resource extraction for a conventional or green economy managed by an international governance regime of household rule supported, if not advanced, by the SDGs. Now, as always, is the time to rethink development and push towards sustainable and decolonial degrowth, which promotes a multiplicity of trajectories associated with post-development animated by food and energy autonomy.

Av Alexander Dunlap
Publisert 6. mai 2020 14:26 - Sist endret 4. juni 2020 10:46
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This blog disseminates activities and research rendering visible ideas, conflicts, frictions and movements taking place in so-called “rural areas” of the world. The blog is produced by the research group Rural transformations in the new century. Read more about our blog here.