Capitalist Accumulation and Socio-Ecological Resilience

Black People in Border Areas of Colombia and Ecuador and the Palm Oil Industry

by Edna Yiced Martinez (Author)
©2018 Thesis 206 Pages


By combining Marxism with feminist political economy and political ecology, this book develops a theoretical frame about the continuity of plundering and looting in the region of Tumaco-San Lorenzo at the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador, as well as the long history of resistance that Black-Afro communities of artisan fishers and small farmers have carried out for more than five centuries. Using the palm oil industry as example, the research shows the features of "primitive or primary accumulation" in these places. From a historical perspective, the author exposes the imperialist character of the palm oil industry. She analyses the connections between policies makers, scientists and businessmen in the development of this agribusiness.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Preliminary Tools
  • I. Black Peoples’ Territories in Colombia and Ecuador: Beyond Capitalist Accumulation and Peripheral Economy
  • Redefining the problem: The Colombo-Ecuadorian Pacific coast within global capitalist accumulation
  • Some reflections on the current issue of “land grabbing”
  • Global capitalist accumulation
  • Core-peripheral structure
  • Primitive accumulation
  • Disassembling capitalo-centrism
  • Taking back the economy: Tumaco-San Lorenzo and diversity economic praxis
  • II. The Long History of the Palm Oil Agribusiness and Development in Tumaco and San Lorenzo
  • The Elaeis guineensis
  • Oil palm expansion: A network of science, money and policy makers
  • History of the oil palm trade since the fifteenth century
  • West Africa
  • South Asia
  • Central and South America
  • Colombia and Ecuador
  • History, development and features of the palm oil industry in Tumaco and San Lorenzo
  • The arrival of the capitalist class, solving the infrastructure leak and the struggle against the “Negros”
  • Arrival and establishment of palm plantations
  • The golden era
  • The bloody era
  • The bloody era continues
  • Inside palm oil plantations
  • Conclusions
  • III. Imperialism, Unequal Exchange and Palm Oil
  • Imperialism and the palm oil agribusiness
  • Imperialism, nature and the labor force
  • Nature in the palm oil business
  • Soil, water, rainfall and sunlight
  • The labor force: Individual and collective production
  • The magic of capital
  • Conclusions
  • IV. Capital Accumulation and Socio-Ecological Resilience
  • Socio-ecological resilience and capitalist accumulation
  • Production of nature
  • Geomorphology, climatology and biota
  • Fauna
  • Production of society
  • Social metabolism and resilience
  • Cycles of spoliation, social resilience and metabolic rift
  • First cycle: Slavery, survival and freedom
  • Second cycle: Manumission, freedom to die and the free market
  • Third cycle: Upsurge of collective and ethnic identity against exclusion
  • Metabolic rift
  • Conclusions
  • V. Afterthoughts
  • Questioning certainties and trends
  • Considering the relations between the past and present from a global perspective
  • New perspectives of classical issues
  • … and a “classical perspective” on “new issues”
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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“Ahora estamos en el tiempo de la palma, como antes fue el tiempo del caucho, del banano, después vino el tiempo de las camaroneras, todo eso vino y se fué”.

Eloisa Boca2

Every living being has the ability to regenerate when part or all of its structure has aged, has stopped working or has been damaged. Even in adverse situations, cells, organs, organisms and complete ecosystems can, during certain periods of time, partially or completely renew their structure. This book aims to tell the recurrent history of harm, destruction and reconstruction of Black-Afro3 communities who live on the Pacific coast, on the border between Colombia and Ecuador, specifically in the rural areas of San Lorenzo and Tumaco.

Since the arrival of European conquerors, both the ecosystem and the population have suffered recurrent processes of destruction, but also reconstruction. For three centuries Spaniards represented the political, economic and cultural elite. In the second decade of the nineteenth century, the colonial period ended. Mining and slavery became expensive, and the Criollos, the descendants of Spaniards born in America, wanted independence from the Crown. The black population grew, and the Palenques, those areas controlled by Negro maroons, were an increasing threat to the dominant ← 15 | 16 → social order (Uribe, 1963; Kalmanovitz, 2008). The scary native groups remained in the region, and the growing black Africans population fought to rebuild their lives and communities in those areas “abandoned” by whites.

But the time to relish freedom proved to be short-lived. After the Spanish colonial power left, new “conquerors” arrived from England, Germany, the United States and Italy, starting a new cycle of exploitation. Today, a new cycle of colonization and exploitation has begun. Even though some conditions and strategies have changed, the motives behind every stage of colonization have remained the same.

This book takes a historical perspective, yet focuses mainly on the newest feature of the process of colonization and spoliation: the palm oil agribusiness. The research analyzes the palm oil agroindustry within the broader history of the dispossession and exploitation suffered by people and nature in this region. It also draws conclusions regarding the conditions that make the repetition of the “primary-primitive” form of capital accumulation possible.

From a longue durée perspective, we see that the socio-economic reality in places like San Lorenzo-Tumaco is much more complex than classical, neoclassical and critical economic analysis generally contends. Through the combination of a historical perspective, critical analysis, sociology and intensive ethnographic work, this book portrays the Tumaco-San Lorenzo region as a place shaped by a variety of relations of production, distribution and consumption.

To attempt to study those structures of production, distribution and consumption and their relation with the capitalist system, it was necessary to confront and call into question some rigid postulates and categories in the orthodox liberal and even Marxist critical socio-economic analysis, e.g. concepts such as the “economy”, the “worker”, “wage-labor”, “imperialism” and so on. The text questions the assumption of capitalism as the “core of socio-economic life” as well, and attempts to open up a new spectrum in order to think about and discuss the relations between society and economy. This does not mean omitting or underestimating capitalism’s role – quite the contrary! What this research argues is that in the region of Tumaco-San Lorenzo, as probably in many places around the world, different relations of production, circulation and consumption have existed simultaneously, and are to this day, in constant struggle and competition for control over nature and the labor force. ← 16 | 17 →

My research shows that ascribing relevance to structures that mainstream economic research has excluded, and social sciences have analyzed as something exotic or residual also help us to understand not only the dynamics of capital in times of a crisis of accumulation, but also its innermost logic.

This text is a journey. The first stop provides us with tools that invite us to dismantle some ideas, which, as I argue, have in some ways paralyzed socio-economic analysis, as well as others that have distorted our understanding of the relationship between capital accumulation, dispossession of nature and agribusinesses. In the first chapter, the text explores the long history of looting and plundering carried out by national and international companies in Tumaco-San Lorenzo. It is shown that the current palm oil agribusiness is just a new face, a repetition of a process performed centuries ago. Then, in order to understand the character and the continuity of this process, the text discusses ideas on the concept of primitive or primary accumulation, as well as the role that non-capitalist modes of production, structures and relations of production play in the accumulation of capital. This first chapter argues that primary or primitive accumulation is the expropriation of a whole circuit of bio-socio-economic relations, which includes the production of nature and human conditions for existence, in order to generate capital accumulation.

The next stop, the second chapter, analyzes the historical development of the palm oil agribusiness, retracing its main phases of expansion and establishment. It exposes why palm oil was key to the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, its role in the configuration of the global order we now face, exposing the network of scientific advances, business practices and policies involved in the palm oil trade from the early nineteenth century in West Africa, later in Asia and finally in Central and South America. Then it focuses on the socio-political framework around the consolidation of Colombia and Ecuador as the biggest producers in Latin America. The research describes and analyzes the expansion and establishment of the palm oil agribusiness in Tumaco and San Lorenzo, showing how it has implied a deep dislocation of the social and environmental conditions that have supported the existence of the Black-Afro population over centuries. The third chapter reveals the continuity of the imperialist scheme that frames agribusiness, focusing on the unequal exchange of this process. It unfolds how the “magic” of capitalist accumulation works, or, how a tonne of palm oil ← 17 | 18 → means poverty and destruction for many but also riches and capital accumulation for a select few. The research shows how the ability of nature to produce bio-ecological conditions, as well as of Black-Africans to reproduce by themselves the energy spent during the working day, constitute the fountain of profit and capital accumulation. With these facts as a framework, the text argues that unequal exchange is the basis of capitalist accumulation as a whole, either in its primary-primitive form or throughout expanded production. The latter is ascertained by tracking all of the socio-bio-ecological elements (matter and energy) involved in the production of palm oil as a commodity, analyzing where matter and energy flow, who profits from them and what workers as well as nature itself receive in return.

The fraudulent character of this kind of exchange is expressed by two facts. The first is the unequal distribution and appropriation of surplus value for the production of commodities between the core and the periphery of the system, and the second is the unequal distribution and appropriation of the whole structure of production, which involves nature, human bodies and social skills. As a result of a fraudulent exchange, the wealth produced by the many is appropriated by a select few. The fact that palm oil is being controlled by local capitalists introduces new elements for the analysis of how imperialism works today. I argue that the relation core-periphery is more dynamic and less determined by geographical positions than usually claimed. The way imperialism is portrayed today, i.e., with a fixed notion of where the core and the periphery are located, is contrasted by the fact that core and periphery relations are currently being expanded globally and production relations are being peripheralized. These are issues that require further research.

In this section, how unequal exchange is carried out is exposed by uncovering all of the socio-bio-ecological elements involved in the production of a particular commodity: palm oil. My argument here is that capital has two entities: one material (summary of goods and commodities), which is a product of the combination of the expropriation of nature, appropriation of socio-biological elements that support the labor force, and the direct and indirect exploitation of actual labor. The immaterial entity of capital creates and recreates those conditions that allow a particular group to appropriate, accumulate and profit from the whole of socio-bio-ecological production. ← 18 | 19 →

The journey ends with a tour through the territories of Black-Afro communities on the Colombo-Ecuadorian Pacific coast, including the region’s history, its forests, its rivers and mangrove trees. Here we explore some elements of the natural history of this place. The research exposes some environmental features that make it propitious for mining and agribusiness. Then the focus turns to the process of settlement carried out by Black-Africans to “dominate” the region in the midst of the most adverse circumstances. The purpose here is to show how, despite recurring damage, people and nature exhibit again and again their power of resilience.

This work does not seek to compare the Black-Afro populations of Colombia with those of Ecuador; rather, it aims to show that they have common histories and face the same challenges. My work is a small contribution to unifying people and territories split up by nationalist political administrations, a process which has been justified by some academics.4

Preliminary Tools

Since the arrival of Europeans, Latin America has been integrated into the world-economy in a peripheral or semi-peripheral position.5 Since colonial times, this part of the world has played a huge role within capitalist accumulation; it has been a satellite-economy and capitalist forces have consequently marked its history.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Primary accumulation primitive accumulaton Agribusiness Imperialism Ecological Resilience Social Resilience San Lorenzo-Tumaco Black-Afro Population
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 206 pp., 1 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Edna Yiced Martinez (Author)

Edna Yiced Martínez earned her PhD in sociology at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. Her main research interests are political economy, history, feminist and gender studies, Marxism, ethnicities, racism and social movements.


Title: Capitalist Accumulation and Socio-Ecological Resilience
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208 pages