Anthropologists expose the side-effects of mining

​Coal for power, iron ore for steel girders, minerals for our smart phones: the mining business is booming. More and more anthropologists are uncovering effects of this development that would otherwise risk falling under the radar.

Rush for coal in Germany: For the Garzweiler mine people from several municipalities had to be moved against their will. Sitting alongside is the Frimmersdorf power plant, one of Europe's ten worst "climate killers." A few days before the Overheating workshop, activists formed a human chain in several cities, to protest the surface mining of coal. Photo: unefunge, flickr

Overheating’s fourth international workshop provided insight into the growing field of anthropology of mining. At the end of april 2015, thirty researchers from three continents came together in a historical building in Oslo’s Botanical Garden to discuss their latest research.

Mining, Overheating’s research director Thomas Hylland Eriksen said, was not a topic he had planned to focus on. But it has turned out that extractive industries are a prominent issue in people’s daily lives in many of the places where Overheating researchers conduct fieldwork, be it in the Australian town of Gladstone or in Lunsar, Sierra Leone.

A hotly debated issue

Even here in Norway mining has been a hotly debated issue. A few days before the workshop, news came out that Norway had approved a mine’s controversial plan to dump its waste into a fjord. On the morning of the conference Thomas Hylland Eriksen was also rung up by a journalist who wanted to talk about the petition he had signed against Norway’s oil drilling plans in the Arctic.

Robert Pijpers: "The new Anthropology of Mining Network is growing fast." Photo Lorenz Khazaleh

Mining has also become a more and more prominent topic in anthropology over the last five to ten years. The Anthropology of Mining Network that Robert Pijpers, the main organizer of the workshop, and Lorenzo D’Angelo set up last year, is growing fast. “Just yesterday we welcomed a new member, today another one,” Pijpers said. One of their aims is to facilitate research collaboration. At the next conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in 2016, the network is going to organize its own panel.

So what is this anthropology of mining about? What new stories about mining are anthropologists able to tell? The anthropology of mining, this workshop showed, deals only to a limited degree with the technical processes of mining itself. It deals instead with “the human factor” of mining — with issues that “risk going under the radar unless people with an ethnographic mind are nearby,” Thomas Hylland Eriksen explained.

Anthropologists at the workshop asked questions like: What happens when a mining company in Sweden decides to move a whole town in order to expand a mine? Why is the unconventional gas industry welcome in one region in Australia, while people in another region oppose it vehemently? Or more generally: How does the mining industry change indigenous and non-indigenous communities in Sierra Leone, Suriname, French Guyana, Australia, Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea? And further: How do mining companies operate and get their business done amid resistance and protests?

"We need to give up on Euro-Christian concepts of objectivity"

Mining is a contested activity with significant consequences for the environment, local communities and the workers. Therefore, several anthropologists stressed the need for engaged research that also takes a stand.

Alex Golub: “We should conceive responsibility as an ongoing duty to make existing structural social processes more just.” Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

“We need to give up on Euro-Christian concepts of ‘objectivity’ and return to the good old classical virtues of judiciousness and prudence,” Alex Golub said. “We should conceive responsibility as an ongoing duty to make existing structural social processes more just.”

Golub has done research at the Porgera Gold Mine in Papua New Guinea for around 15 years. This mine received international attention after environmental disasters and acts of violence were perpetrated on the local population (the Ipili) by the mine’s security forces and by the police working in the mine’s service. Indirect consequences of these mining activities included, as he explains in his paper, “in-migration that threatens to turn Ipili into strangers in their own land, the almost complete retreat of the state, violence, alcoholism, the rise of HIV/AIDS”.

Leviathans at the Gold Mine by Alex Golub: An ethnographic account of the relationship between the Ipili, an indigenous group in Papua New Guinea, and the large international gold mine operating on their land.

“When I first visited Porgera to conduct dissertation research in 1998, its mine seemed like a success story. In the view of the local population, the mine was their achievement: They had courted and seduced a powerful foreign force into settling on their land so that they could exploit it. But today, Porgera looks much more like a failed bet. In this situation, I found myself asking questions like: What has gone wrong? What can be done to fix it? What do I owe the community?”

"If you buy a t-shirt, you are responsible for the workers in the garment factory"

One approach, which according to Golub might be helpful for anthropologists trying to find their way in an overheated world, was developed by philosopher Iris Marion Young. Her social connection model holds people responsible for ongoing social processes based on their connection with them: If you buy a t-shirt, you are responsible for the workers in the garment factory.

“A social connection model,” Golub said, “is especially important in today’s world where we’re increasingly connected.”

Rather than ask only, “Who is guilty for the crimes committed in Porgera?,” we might also ask, “Who is responsible for remedying injustice in Porgera?” he explains. Or: “Who is interested in maintaining or changing the current structures, and who has the ability to change them?” Reflecting on this model, philosopher Jade Schiff argues that we should ask, “Through what processes can we make ourselves, our research communities and our audiences more responsive to injustice?”

“Critical reflexivity instead of neutrality"

Stuart Kirsch agreed with Golub. Kirsch has spent two decades studying the mining industry and also took part in an indigenous movement opposed to the Ok Tedi Mine.

In Mining Capitalism, Stuart Kirsch examines the strategies through which corporations manage their relationships with these critics and adversaries.

In his most recent book Mining Capitalism he shows, among other things, how the mining industry uses and manipulates science to silence opposing voices. Currently, he is writing a book called Anthropology Beyond the Text: The Politics of Engaged Research.

“I had hoped we had gotten rid of the idea of neutrality by recognizing the fact that we’re all deeply positioned in the work that we do,” he said at the workshop.

He criticized the tendency to label researchers who take a stand on political issues as biased, while consultants who make their money doing uncritical social impact studies for the mining industry are seen as objective.

“The one who reveals his or her commitments becomes the one who is biased, whereas the ones who conceal their commitments are labeled objective. I think this is a false dichotomy. Instead of assumptions about objectivity, we need more critical reflexivity,” he stressed.

"Anthropological mining research does not inform policy"

Gavin Hilson, an ethnographically working scientist, also sees the need for more engaged anthropology.

He thinks anthropologists must do a better job at communicating their knowledge to the outside world. Despite the growing amount of anthropological research on mining, it does not seem to have any impact on policy. This at least is his impression from his work among miners in West Africa.

Gavin Hilson: Anthropologists must do a better job at communicating their knowledge to the outside world. Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

“Rather sadly, much of the good anthropological mining research does not inform policy. In my view this is quite problematic; it is a missed opportunity,” he said.

Hilson has, for more than 15 years, studied the social and environmental dynamics of small scale mining in Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Malawi, Suriname and Guyana. He not only talks to operators, but also works to reshape the policy agenda for small-scale mining, a grassroots industry that provides livelihoods to more than 30 million people worldwide.

Current mining laws, however, tend to favor large-scale mining companies.

"You have to fight to be heard"

“How to approach policymakers, how to communicate with them? This is extremely difficult. What I do is to show up at meetings. Often they kick me out. You have to fight to be heard. No bilateral and multilateral agency is going to invite me — well one did a couple of weeks ago, but that was because I’ve made noise.”

Robert Pijpers shares his view. However, shortly after the workshop, Pijpers received the opportunity to engage with policy makers. He was invited to discuss his research during a seminar at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organized by the Nordic Africa Institute and Norad, the Norwegian development agency. Representatives from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) were also present. “That was an event that could potentially contribute to better-informed approaches to policy,” he said.

Influencing policy is just one way to express responsibility. Writing well is another one.

“I guess we should all strive to do what we are best at,” says Thomas Hylland Eriksen. “Those who choose to do academic research may not be as good at policy advice. On the other hand, we could all make an effort to write better. In that way, even non-policy oriented people can have a greater impact.”

How to make anthropological knowledge accessible for the public?

But one problem remains: How to access anthropological knowledge? How to have an impact as long as a large part of anthropological research is hidden in journals or books that are hard to access without an affiliation with a well-equipped university?

 Catherine Coumans: “It is a huge problem that people don’t have access to anthropological publications." Photo: Lorenz Khazaleh

The presentations of this workshop are supposed to be published as an anthology. But how? Is the conventional paper book the best option?

Several workshop participants argued for the need to publish in freely accessible formats online — eventually in addition to the planned paper book.

One of them is anthropologist and MiningWatch Canada founder Catherine Coumans. “It is a huge problem that people don’t have access to such publications. I strongly suggest we go for an open access solution,” she said. “I’ve just been through a meeting at another workshop. We decided not to make a book but to publish all papers in a special edition journal that is open and freely accessible for anyone.”

Alex Golub has been engaged in making anthropological knowledge accessible for the public since he started his own blog 14 years ago and co-founded the popular anthropology blog Savage Minds in 2005.

“The current situation requires anthropologists of mining to expand their sense of audience and genre. Anthropologists of mining must embrace open-access scholarship and even social media. We must become multimodal in our scholarship.”

Thomas Hylland Eriksen agrees: “We should definitely be moving towards open access, although the option of printed books should also be available.” Already ten years ago he encouraged anthropologists to make their work available online: “The symbolic capital associated with the Internet and Internet publishing is fairly low. It should be a political cause for academics to heighten it, both through using the Internet for one’s own publications and by increasing the prestige of the Internet by using it actively.”

No decision has been made yet, though. “We are currently exploring the alternatives,” said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who is looking forward to the planned publication. “It was a good workshop where the papers — and, luckily, the people also — spoke really well to each other. It bodes well for a forthcoming publication, which we believe will bring something original to the field.”

At the end of the workshop an excursion to the Kongsberg silver mines that were in continuous operation for more than 330 years until 1958. Photo: Irene Svarteng

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published May 22, 2015 7:09 PM - Last modified Nov. 11, 2020 9:24 AM