The Dynamic Potential of Natural Resources: Opportunities and Challenges for Development Strategy

The current debate around development is attempting to overcome the longstanding binary opposition between primary sectors and manufacturing. For years, the prevailing idea in such discussions in Latin America was that primary activities are not dynamic enough to contribute to a structural transformation of the economy. In recent years, however, a consensus emerged around the idea that these activities can indeed strengthen production and innovation capacities, and thus may be an opportunity to leverage development. This consensus has since been consolidated. This discussion is especially important for Argentina: the country’s role in international trade is strongly oriented toward renewable resources and their derivatives, and it also has significant potential in mining and nonconventional hydrocarbons.

There are at least two versions of the idea that natural resources could play a key role in development in Latin America, particularly Argentina. The first—which we described in an earlier study as “the static vision of outward development” (Bril Mascarenhas et al., 2020)—proposes that countries specialize in the activities in which they have static comparative advantages due to production factor endowment. The objective of promoting export agriculture through the extensive liberalization of foreign trade falls within this approach. However, this strategy does not factor in other objectives, such as creating quality employment, diversifying the production structure, and building technological capabilities. Ultimately, there are serious limits to its possibilities for articulating a broad social and political coalition that would be capable of sustaining it over time.

The second approach is the emerging consensus mentioned in the first paragraph, which attempts to identify the best strategy for using the endowment of renewable and nonrenewable resources that are typical of most Latin American economies—or their export basket, at least—as a lever for promoting innovation, building productive linkages, and creating technological capabilities. In other words, the goal of this strategy is to promote greater diversification of the economy toward knowledge-intensive activities with higher value-added.

This is an optimistic yet cautious view of the potential that natural resources have for leveraging development. The approach is based on the understanding that, given the current conditions of the international economy and technological change, generating productive linkages and capacities around both renewable and nonrenewable resources is a real possibility, and it openly promotes this. At the same time, for these positive results to materialize, there needs to be active intervention by the State and well-designed public policies that take the local context and stakeholders’ perspectives into account. This development strategy poses major social and environmental challenges, which raises questions around the possible transition toward more sustainable technologies and forms of production. This paper examines the core aspects of this second perspective, which constitutes an essential step in the process of mapping the theoretical terrain of a work agenda based on natural resource-based production linkages while also factoring in the challenge of sustainability.

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