Mining Capitalism: An Interview with Stuart Kirsch

Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and Their Critics
By Stuart Kirsch, University of Michigan
328 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014 §

Chitra Venkataramani (South Asian Studies, Harvard University) and Chris Hebdon (Anthropology and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) interview Stuart Kirsch about his recent book on the interactions of corporations and social movements.

1923 sketch map of the Ok Tedi River (p. 339). Leo Austen, ‘The Tedi River District of Papua’. The Geographical Journal 62: 335–349.


Part 1:  Stuart Kirsch (SK) and Chris Hebdon (CH)

CH:  Would you give us a picture of the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, which you follow throughout your book, and how it and other mines result in what you call ‘colliding ecologies’?

SK:  Thanks, Chris. My nickname for Tabubil, the mining township adjacent to the Ok Tedi mine, is Mount Olympus, in part because it is usually shrouded in fog. It is one of the wettest places on Earth, with nearly ten meters of rainfall a year. Like the gods on Mount Olympus, the people who live in Tabubil and work at the Ok Tedi mine sometimes wonder how the mortals living down below are faring. It is an appropriate question for them to ask, because the mine has discharged 80,000 metric tons of ground-up rock and earth into local river systems every day since the mid-1980s, altogether more than one billion metric tons of tailings and other waste material.

Mt. Fubilan, the site of the Ok Tedi mine, is part of the Star Mountain range that crosses the border between the militarized Indonesian territory of West Papua to the west and the independent state of Papua New Guinea to the east. Whereas Mt. Fubilan once stood two thousand meters high, today there is only a hole in the ground nearly three kilometers across. The bottom of the pit is currently at sea level. Huge yellow trucks make their way up and down the steep ramps that provide access to the mine pit, their drivers dwarfed by the size of their vehicles. Tony Crook, an anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews who worked in the Star Mountains, once told me how the drivers of those trucks speak to each other through an intercom system. Sometimes, late at night in the fog and the moonlight, the truck drivers, many of whom are from the area, sing the call-and-response verses from the famous men’s cult system that unites the region.

Downstream from the mine, where the Yonggom and their neighbors live, the rivers run thick with grey sludge from the mine. The rivers also flood their banks, killing the surrounding forests. More than two thousand square kilometers of forest has been damaged or destroyed by pollution from the mine, compromising the livelihoods of forty thousand people who used to depend on hunting, fishing, gardening, and harvesting sago from Metroxlyon palms, resources that have been affected by the mine.

While the mining industry promises to provide jobs and improve the local economy, in practice it often jeopardizes rural livelihoods, immiserating the very people it claims to benefit. The incompatibility between large scale mining and indigenous subsistence practices is an example of what I call ‘colliding ecologies’. The Ok Tedi mine is far from unique in this regard; throughout Melanesia, and indeed, in many other parts of the world as well, there have been significant conflicts between mining companies and the people who previously owned and made use of land and resources that have been negatively impacted by mining. It is a global phenomenon.

freeport mine 2006
Freeport Mine, West Papua (Indonesia), 2006. Photo by Stuart Kirsch.

CH:  How have the colliding ecologies you’ve seen through your research helped you think about the localness of the resource curse? What is usually meant by ‘the resource curse’?

SK:  Why do states with valuable petroleum and mineral resources remain poor and underdeveloped? Political scientists and economists have been interested in this paradox for some time. In particular, states dependent on natural resource extraction tend to have slower rates of growth than peer states that lack similar endowments. Their economies are less diversified.

States afflicted by the so-called ‘resource curse’ also tend to be more authoritarian and riven by conflict, in part because their rulers are less concerned about the consent of the governed than revenue from resource extraction.

When we look closely at communities directly affected by mining, there is another form of the resource curse at play, in which mining projects distort the local economy. Higher wages paid by the mining industry, even though these jobs are relatively few and far between, may discourage other people from continuing to engage in traditional forms of subsistence production, or even lower-paid wage labor outside of the mining sector. Pollution from mining can also make it difficult for previously sustainable communities to feed themselves, creating problems of food security. These are examples of what I call the ‘microeconomics of the resource curse’.

port town of Kiunga
Port town of Kiunga, Papua New Guinea. Photo by Stuart Kirsch.

CH:  When it comes to governmental support for mining projects, how did you see that dependency theory played into decision-making?  

SK:  Papua New Guinea followed the conclusion of many postcolonial states that it should acquire an ownership stake in resource development projects. They were responding to the critique of dependency theory among Latin Americanists who saw that the core states of the global north were benefiting economically from raw materials extracted from the peripheral states of the global south. The argument was that acquiring shares in these projects would help to redistribute wealth.

What they didn’t realize was that the policy shift would lead to a consequential conflict of interest: that the state would have to weigh its mandate to protect people and the environment through regulation against its desire to maximize revenue as an investor and tax collector. For Papua New Guinea, this has meant that the state aligns itself with the interests of the mining industry over the rights of its own citizens and the environment, with often-disastrous consequences.

CH:  Before going into some of the other concepts you develop throughout the book, such as the politics of time and the politics of space, I think it would be helpful to talk a bit about the way that your study makes sense of place. On the one hand, Mining Capitalism keeps us always on the Fly River and with the people struggling for environmental justice, whether they are negotiating with the mining company or pursuing lawsuits that have international ramifications. On the other hand, the analyses in the book bear lessons for places beyond Papua New Guinea; it speaks to the complexities of mining issues in many other locales. Could you say a bit about how you thought about the implications of your research, and its relation to broader happenings?

SK:  Yes, the stakes in these conflicts always include specific places and their significance for the people living there. I wanted to write a book that emphasized the very real costs of such developments for people who rely on natural resources for survival. And for whom the transformation of local landscapes has far-reaching consequences for their relationship to other species as well as individual memories and larger collective histories, issues that I emphasized in my earlier work on Reverse Anthropology (2006, Stanford University Press).

When I started working on the Ok Tedi case, I didn’t initially view it as part of my research. I was driven by a sense of obligation to people who had accepted me into their community, taught me their language, shared stories about their history and culture, and so on. At the outset, the politics were primarily local, and I helped call attention to the problems they were facing. But the people affected by the Ok Tedi mine needed international allies to put pressure on the parent company BHP, and their leaders began to meet with NGOs in Australia, Europe, and the Americas. I followed their lead by participating in these meetings as well. Eventually I realized that my involvement in their campaign provided an instructive vantage point from which to think about the larger relationship between corporations and their critics, which became the focus of my research and the book.

As I began to learn more about mining in other parts of the world, and especially the impact of mining on indigenous peoples, I realized there was a much larger story to tell than just what I observed downstream from the Ok Tedi mine. Anthropology also began to feel somewhat narrow or parochial to me – in practice rather than by necessity – in the sense that people writing about mining companies operating in places like Papua New Guinea rarely bothered to learn what these companies were doing in other parts of the world. There is a kind of fetishism of the local in which anthropologists tell a story that privileges what they observed during fieldwork, what Clifford Geertz calls ‘I-witnessing’.

In contrast, I felt that a broader perspective on these questions was needed, albeit without losing sight of the people living on the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers. I also recognized that a comparative perspective on the mining industry helped to make sense of what I observed in PNG, both in terms of continuities and differences. I also began to see larger patterns across corporations and industries that reflect the fundamental dynamics of contemporary capitalism rather than being specific to mining.

One example is the critique of ‘corporate science’ that I present in chapter 4 of the book. It begins by discussing the role of the tobacco industry in countering public perceptions of the harms caused by cigarette smoking, including the promotion of doubt and uncertainty through corporate-sponsored counter-science. We tend to think about the tobacco industry as the outlier and exception, but it really was a pioneer and trend-setter for how corporations respond to critique. For example, if you look at the pharmaceutical industry, as I do in the chapter, you see many of the same corporate strategies at play. This is rather surprising, as we don’t expect an industry focused on human health and well-being to operate like an industry that produces the only commodity that is lethal when used as intended. Similar strategies are employed by the mining industry, which is the main focus of the chapter.

The problems with corporate science are ubiquitous. Consider the recent scandal in which it was revealed that Coca-Cola, concerned about its declining market share in the beverage industry, sponsored medical research that explicitly downplays the relationship between sugar consumption and obesity by focusing on the need for more exercise. In the wake of widespread criticism, the physician responsible for promoting this research at the company has already taken early retirement, although some of the faculty members receiving funding from the company continue to be supported by their universities. Yet another example is the recent revelation that scientists working for Exxon warned the company forty years ago that fossil fuel consumption was contributing to global climate change, but executives at the company suppressed this information and even funded climate change ‘denialists’ in order to protect their bottom line. These strategies are fundamental to contemporary capitalism rather than restricted to particular firms or industries.

Mining projects in Papua New Guinea (2006). PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum.


Part 2:  Stuart Kirsch and Chitra Venkataramani (VC)

VC:  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read the book and follow up with the second half of this interview. My favorite part of the book was the detailed description of the mining process and that I really got a sense of the physical and chemical actions at work in the ecological degradation process and the ways in which it intertwines with a parallel legal narrative of the case. I went through the first half of the interview and I have four questions that build on it. I felt that you were heading towards talking about the politics of space at work in the Ok Tedi Mines and I am going to start there.

VC:  There are different politics of space at work here. The first being the transnational networks that the leaders of the community have to activate in order to resist the actions of the corporation. The second is the diffuse space of the corporation itself which does harm at a distance– almost making itself invisible in the process. The third — which I will get to again in a different way in the next question– is the politics of making legal claims across national borders in order to mitigate harm. I was wondering if you could speak to the ways in which the politics these different spatial frameworks intersect in the context of the Ok Tedi mine.

SK:  Thanks, Chitra. That’s a very interesting question, to first think about the space of capital and how the corporation is not only able to move quickly to take advantage of economic opportunities, but also uses its mobility to evade its responsibilities when problems emerge. In the case of the mining industry, when the environmental liabilities of a project exceed the remaining value of an ore body, the corporation may try to withdraw, transferring those costs to other parties. One of the mines that I write about briefly in the book is the Gold Ridge Mine in Solomon Islands. The tailings dam has completely filled up, and without intervention it is likely to overflow or collapse, with potentially devastating impacts downstream. Caught in a political struggle with the state about how to manage the problem, the mining company sold the enterprise to a local land-owning group for a few hundred dollars. The new owners of the project lack both the expertise and the resources to address the problem. The example illustrates how the mobility of capital can be exploited to bail out corporations when things go awry.

Then if we think about legal claims against corporations, it is possible to see them as a kind of counter-movement that seek to reign in the harmful impacts of capital by holding corporations accountable for their actions. So the transnational legal actions I write about in the book are meant to address these concerns. The third aspect of your question refers to the activity of transnational action networks, which take advantage of the geographic distribution of capital by putting pressure on corporations wherever they operate. One of the questions motivating the book was how to understand the relationship between capital and social movements. By this I mean: What are the dynamics of these interactions, which modes of resistance and opposition are more effective, and how can social movements challenge assumptions and practices that lead to negative outcomes? Thinking about these three movements across space was my way of answering that question.

Ok Tedi scanned images 051
Brochure, Ok Tedi Mining Limited.

VC: Yes, and I think that your ethnography shows the ways and extents to which a corporation exists as an invisible entity operating over a great distance. And one of the things that political action does is to make it visible. So the ‘two’ politics of space here are not just parallel, but one has to act on the other.

SK: Yes, the two examples of the politics of space are closely related and sometimes threaten to cancel each other out. But what I also learned in the process of conducting the research for this book is that there are other strategies through which activists try to avoid the resulting deadlock. These actions seek to take advantage of what I call the ‘politics of time’, which involves taking action earlier in the process of development, before the negative impacts occur. An example of this is the referenda movement (consultas) in Latin America, in which communities vote to endorse or oppose proposed mining or hydroelectric projects. Most popular votes have rejected these developments, and in a number of cases, they have been successful in preventing the projects from going forward.

Ore ship on Fly River
An ore ship on the Fly River. Photo by Stuart Kirsch.

VC: This brings me to a related question on the work of language and expertise, both of which work almost paradoxically: for instance, neither can the Yonggom community articulate harm in the way they see it and experience it, nor can the idea of property in the Yonggom community be translated or made sensible in terms of the corporation and in terms of restitution. How do these tensions play out in the legal process and in the process of claiming restitution?

SK:  The lawyers for BHP argued that because the court case focused on damage to subsistence production, which is largely external to the monetary economy, and legal claims for damages are ordinarily based on economic loss, that the claims should not be heard by the Australian courts. However, the lawyers for the people living downstream from the mine argued that the losses experienced by subsistence agriculturalists were akin to those suffered by participants in a monetary economy, thus establishing an important legal precedent. So there is a way in which local circumstances can be used to broaden the scope of the law.

A common view of the law is that it privileges the interests of elites. You can see this in the critique from subaltern studies that forcing people to make claims in the legal system of the colonizer is the ultimate form of hegemony, as well as in the work of the Comaroffs and their students on ‘lawfare’ in the postcolony. But the transnational legal claims examined in the book suggest that the law can be a valuable ‘weapon of the weak’ in challenging corporate capital. These legal challenges can also be seen as an experiment in establishing bridges between two worlds in which there is a possibility that the different parties will come to understand each other a little bit better. Even though the legal system is far from a perfect remedy, it can challenge and sometimes change the status quo by making corporate responsibilities more visible.

VC: Yes, and this reminds me of a moment in your writing where you refer to a law that was passed to hold pirates accountable for their acts in high seas, and the way in which it becomes a precedent, and was brought back to hold a transnational corporation accountable. So it is really interesting the ways in which the history of conflict or of claiming restitution resides in relation to the interpretation of law, which is necessarily open, and this is what I think you’re pointing towards. This brings me to my question on the politics of time. One of the points your ethnography emphasizes is that there are several processes running parallelly that ought to be understood as coupled. For instance while it may be a positive sign that the communities living along the Ok Tedi river managed to initiate political action, one cannot discount the fact that this action takes time time during which environmental harm continues to take place. Can you speak to the need to pay attention to these different processes and the temporality of action?

SK: The first part of your question about political action taking time was something the participants in the campaign against the Ok Tedi mine learned the hard way – the time required to build coalitions on the ground, attract and enroll international allies, and experiment with different strategies to find out what works and what doesn’t. All of these things took time and meanwhile the environmental damage was accumulating in the background.

In fact, if you look at the history of environmental conflicts, they tend to play out over long periods of time. An example of this is the contribution of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to the environmental movement, because much of what she was saying about DDT and its impacts on the environment and human health was already well-established in the scientific literature. But in order to bring about political change, she had to present this material to the public in a compelling way. It was also a favorable historical moment, as people were already becoming concerned about the unchecked powers of the corporation and the steady accumulation of environmental problems that were slowly becoming visible and intolerable. All of these elements have to occur together and it may take an unacceptable amount of time to address the problem.

That’s why environmental movements increasingly attempt to accelerate this process by moving resistance to an earlier moment in time. This requires us to become aware of potential environmental problems in advance rather than address them after the fact, and it also encourages us to think about the kinds of choices we have to make in order to avoid their eventuality. So even though it’s not a straightforward process, it’s a necessary process to prevent situations like the Ok Tedi mine and its disastrous impacts from happening again.

Map showing the extent of deforestation caused by the Ok Tedi Mine in 2004 and estimated future impacts. Ok Tedi Mining Limited, 2005.

VC: This brings me to my last question. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to your work, which is then what is the role of anthropology in activism and when does anthropology begin its work. Or put in a different way: when does the ethnographer speak? I ask this because, as we know ethnography is premised on a long engagement and the ‘speaking’ really comes after. So what would it mean to engage in the sense of the activism you are proposing?

SK:  My current writing project is on engaged anthropology. I’m working on a book called ‘Anthropology beyond the Text’, which refers to the ways anthropologists become involved in political struggles, whether by working with communities, taking part in public debates, or by contributing to legal actions, in addition to the writing of texts, which is what we ordinarily do. One of the arguments I make is that engaged anthropology should build on existing ethnographic knowledge. My personal starting point is the work I did on the Ok Tedi case. But now that I’ve put in my time on that project, I can apply what I’ve learned to similar problems elsewhere in the world. Consequently, most of my work as an engaged anthropologist has addressed environmental conflicts and indigenous land rights.

For example, this past summer I worked on a project in El Salvador, which offers a great example of the ‘politics of time’ as I write about it in Mining Capitalism. The state decided to stop issuing new permits to mining projects because of their potential impacts on the already precarious national water supply. Ironically, the country is now being sued by a mining company in the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which operates under the aegis of the World Bank Group. The company is seeking compensation for its investments in developing a potential gold mine in the northeastern part of the country and the loss of potential earnings. I was in El Salvador to examine the role of a foundation set up by the mining company, which is trying to increase community support for the controversial mining project – at the risk of rekindling social conflict and violence, including the murder of several anti-mining activists in 2009 and 2011.

My experience working on mining conflicts in the Pacific provided me with the ability to make an intervention in a part of the world that was entirely new to me. Traditional ethnography is a time-consuming process and sometimes we feel that we have to wait until we write up the results of our research before we have anything of value to contribute. But I think anthropologists can also mobilize ethnographic knowledge from one fieldwork location to address pressing social and environmental concerns elsewhere in the world, which is another version of the ‘politics of time’.

VC: Just to respond to what you said about waiting and writing — I guess you’re speaking about ways to think about one of the problems of our time which is climate change and ecological damage. And if I understand correctly, what you’re saying is that despite the fact that this harm is taking place over a long period of time (or rather, because of it) there is a necessity to make them relevant to the present moment and give them a certain sense of urgency because there is the need to act.

SK: Yes, that’s right, especially thinking about the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this coming week, as well as interdisciplinary debates about the Anthropocene. If you read that literature, you can’t help but think about the ghosts of anthropologists past – Leslie White’s pioneering work on energy capture and social evolution, Eric Wolf’s early framing of political ecology, and Roy Rappaport’s prescient attention to maladaptation and entropy at the outset of his career and his subsequent call for an ‘anthropology of trouble’. Although Mining Capitalism doesn’t specifically engage with the literature on the Anthropocene, it provides a model for thinking about the threats posed by capitalism and industrialization to the planet, especially what I call ‘slow-motion disasters’, including global climate change, and provides suggestions for moving in an alternative direction.

But I would add that anthropologists have the opportunity to contribute to many other pressing social problems as well. I think all anthropologists can look to their work and think about ways to address the problems they find, or at least make the issues and different points of view clearer. The discipline has a great deal to offer in response to contemporary problems, including concerns about the environment.


Postscript: Stuart Kirsch and Chitra Venkataramani  

VC:  Since this interview was completed, a tailings dam at a Brazilian mine jointly operated by BHP Billiton Ltd, the corporation responsible for the Ok Tedi disaster, and Vale SA, the world’s largest iron ore miner, collapsed. Sixty million cubic meters of mud and mine waste destroyed a village, killing 19 people (note: amended from 13 to 19), and polluted a major river valley. Reports indicate that dangerous levels of arsenic and mercury are present in the tailings, which contaminated the water supply used by 250,000 people. The problem was rapidly and widely addressed by the media. The Environment Minister recently told reporters that the federal and state governments plan to sue the owners of the Samaraco project for 20 billion reais (US$5.2 billion). What differences do you see in the response to this accident as compared to the Ok Tedi case?

SK:  The immediate response to the collapse of the tailings dam in Brazil, and especially the demand that BHP-Billiton and Vale be held responsible for its clean-up, links up to several important points made in Mining Capitalism. First, that the archetype for environmental disaster is a rapid event like the collapse of a tailings dam, a nuclear meltdown, or the explosion of a chemical plant. We react more swiftly and decisively to sudden events. Yet we also need to think more carefully about what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’, or what I refer to as ‘slow-motion disasters’, the kinds of problems caused by the Ok Tedi mine or global climate change. This requires new attention to the temporality of environmental impacts.

The accident in Brazil also suggests that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may have shifted the paradigm for how we assess corporate responsibility for environmental impacts. In that case, BP agreed relatively quickly to pay tens of billions of dollars to clean up the oil spill. Of course, it mattered that the oil spill occurred in the United States and received constant media scrutiny. Nonetheless, the response to the Brazilian disaster suggests that the default assumption now seems to be that corporations are responsible for their environmental impacts, at least when they are caused by sudden events. This is very different than the way BHP dragged its feet for more than a decade after the problems downstream from the Ok Tedi mine became well-known. As Ulrich Beck has noted, environmental catastrophes can be enabling; perhaps the disaster in Brazil will have a similar effect on the mining industry.

Update, March 15, 2016. 
SK:  As predicted, BHP Billiton and Vale have moved to settle their outstanding financial obligations associated with the disastrous Samarco tailings dam collapse in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, which killed 19 people, left several thousand homeless, and polluted the river corridor all the way to the ocean.
On March 1st, Samarco and its owners reached an agreement with the Brazilian government to pay an estimated 20 billion Brazilian reals (US$5.1 billion) in compensation over the next 15 years. These funds will be used to dredge the river, replant trees, upgrade local infrastructure, and compensate the families affected by the disaster.
The agreement was reached in response to widespread criticism and the proliferation of legal claims against the mining company, including potential criminal charges that sought to “pierce the veil” of corporate immunity by holding company officials directly accountable for the loss of life and environmental devastation caused by the collapse of the tailings dam. It extinguishes the public civil action brought against the companies, but other civil and criminal complaints are still possible and even likely, including shareholder actions brought against BHP Billiton in the U.S. courts.
The companies have also reached an agreement with the state to resume production of iron ore by the end of the year, although this accord is being actively contested by civil society organizations.
The comparison between the sudden catastrophe in the Samarco case and the slow-motion environmental disaster downstream from the Ok Tedi mine raises important questions about the relationship between the temporality of disaster and political mobilization that I hope to take up in the near future, working collaboratively with colleagues in Brazil.