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date: 12 December 2019

Mining and Indigenous Peoples

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Anthropologists have been studying the relationship between mining and the local forms of community that it has created or impacted since at least the 1930s. While the focus of these enquiries has moved with the times, reflecting different political, theoretical, and methodological priorities, much of this work has concentrated on local manifestations of the so-called resource curse or the paradox of plenty. Anthropologists are not the only social scientists who have tried to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic processes that accompany mining and other forms of resource extraction, including oil and gas operations. Geographers, economists, and political scientists are among the many different disciplines involved in this field of research. Nor have anthropologists maintained an exclusive claim over the use of ethnographic methods to study the effects of large or small-scale resource extraction. But anthropologists have generally had a lot more to say about mining and the extractives in general when it has involved people of non-European descent, especially exploited subalterns—peasants, workers, and indigenous peoples.

The relationship between mining and indigenous people has always been complex. At the most basic level, this stems from the conflicting relationships that miners and indigenous people have to the land and resources that are the focus of extractive activities, or what Marx would call the different relations to the means of production. Where miners see ore bodies and development opportunities that render landscapes productive, civilized, and familiar, local indigenous communities see places of ancestral connection and subsistence provision. This simple binary is frequently reinforced—and somewhat overdrawn—in the popular characterization of the relationship between indigenous people and mining companies, where untrammelled capital devastates hapless tribal people, or what has been aptly described as the “Avatar narrative,” after the 2009 film of the same name.

By the early 21st century, a number of anthropologists were producing ethnographic works that sought to debunk these popular narratives, which obscure the more complex sets of relationships that exist between the cast of different actors who are present in contemporary mining encounters, and the range of contradictory interests and identities that these actors may hold at any one point in time. Resource extraction has a way of surfacing the politics of indigeneity, and anthropologists have paid particular attention to a range of identities, entities, and relationships that emerge in response to new economic opportunities, or what can be called the social relations of compensation. That some indigenous communities deliberately court resource developers as a pathway to economic development does not, of course, deny the asymmetries of power inherent to these settings: even when indigenous communities voluntarily agree to resource extraction, they are seldom signing up to absorb the full range of social and ecological costs that extractive companies so frequently externalize. These imposed costs are rarely balanced by the opportunities to share in the wealth created by mineral development; and for most indigenous people, their experience of large-scale resource extraction has been frustrating and often highly destructive. It is for good reason that analogies are regularly drawn between these deals and the vast store of mythology concerning the person who sells their soul to the devil for wealth that is not only fleeting, but also the harbinger of despair, destruction, and death. This is no easy terrain for ethnographers, and engagement is fraught with difficult ethical, methodological, and ontological challenges.

Anthropologists are involved in these encounters in a variety of ways—as engaged or activist anthropologists, applied researchers and consultants, and independent ethnographers. The focus of these engagements includes environmental transformation and social disintegration, questions surrounding sustainable development—or the uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of mining, the making of company-community agreements, corporate forms, and the social responsibilities of corporations (or CSR), labour and livelihoods, conflict and resistance movements, gendered impacts, cultural heritage management, questions of indigeneity, and effects of displacement, to name but a few. These different forms of engagement raise important questions concerning positionality, and how this influences the production of knowledge—an issue that has divided anthropologists working in this contested field. Anthropologists must also grapple with questions concerning good ethnography, or what constitutes a “good enough” account of the relations between indigenous people and the multiple actors assembled in resource extraction contexts.