On Contamination: Conservation Science in Devilish Landscapes

A view of the top of the mine, on the left.  Fundo El Membrillo is over the hill in the middle ground, to the right. Photo by the author.

By Meredith Root-Bernstein, Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, Grignon, France §

When you first see the gold mine in Alhué you are impressed by how massive the cascade of tailings is—by how many endemic trees, shrubs, bird nests, lizards and tarantulas must be crushed underneath it. When I took photos of the hills I always tried to crop the mine out of them, as if it were going to pollute the images. As a conservation ecologist focusing on agriculture and woodlands, I didn’t come to Alhué to look at mines.

But a gold mine has a weird fascination. It’s deep underground. It undermines your foundations, your assumptions. It is a source of value, it is one of those dirty primary extractive industries of the global economy. What was the global economy doing in my remote field site? This essay traces the complex workings of ecology and economy in this South American landscape, where contamination operates materially and semiotically through toxic tailings, suspicion, and plantation conservation.

I had come to study the beautiful and diverse, Mediterranean-climate endemic tree communities preserved from human destruction by this area’s inaccessibility. My ecologist colleagues and I sought to understand what associations the trees might form with other species and how histories of fire, woodcutting and pasturing may have affected this process. At first I only knew how to get to two sites that had been described to me as interesting: a strange rock formation called the Cementerio de Piedras in Talamí; and a large landholding called Fundo El Membrillo, at the very end of the road, next to the mine.

Cementerio de Piedras (“rock cemetery”), a natural rock formation in Talamí, Alhué. Photo by the author.
A view of the top of the mine, on the left. Fundo El Membrillo is over the hill in the middle ground, to the right. Photo by the author.

Fundo El Membrillo is a former latifundia, known in Chile as a fundo, or colonial-era estate. The fundo was bought by the gold mine Minera Florida as a place in which to do compensation for their mining activity. Most of this compensation takes the form of planting trees. This was the first place we went. One of the things we wanted to find there was palma chilena (Jubaea chilensis), the only palm native to Chile, currently listed as vulnerable to extinction. The palma chilena take 80 years to mature, and can live to be several hundred years old. We had heard that there were around 30, high up in on the hillslopes. To our surprise, we found out that there were also thousands of palma chilena in the flat river valley. These were planted by the mine in a tight grid, as part of their compensation scheme: industrial production of a threatened species.

Palma chilena plantation, Fundo El Membrillo. Photo by the author.

Many people who live in the area are worried, almost paranoid, that another mine is going to open in Alhué. A very large, industrial-quality bridge was built over a very small stream in Pichi, one of the sectors of Alhué, and people think it is for access to a new mine. The existing gold mine uses large amounts of water, which in addition to a drought, has contributed to a scarcity of river and well water. I was told that some of the cows that roam the hills used to give milk but don’t have enough to drink anymore because nearby springs and ephemeral streams have gone dry. Even worse, on the other side of Talamí, there is the Embalse de Relave de Loncha. This is a giant tailings dam for a distant copper mine in the Andes. CODELCO bought the Fundo Loncha in the 1980s, and started dumping tailings slurry on top of the vacated adobe hacienda, the houses of the inquilinos (tenants), the trees, everything. Many of the former inquilinos went to live in Pichi, in Alhué. The tailings dam is now the entire valley. The dam has leached toxic waste into the groundwater supply of a sector of Alhué called La Linea, on the other side of the hills. Some peoples’ cattle and horses crossed the hills, drank water near the embalse, and died. Anita (names have been changed), the librarian of a town on the other side of Loncha, told me that up in the hills near the embalse the people hang the skulls of the dead cattle on posts to show where they died. The embalse is such a noteworthy feature of the landscape that the emblem for the adjoining National Reserve actually includes it, represented as a grey valley-shaped blob.

The emblem of the National Reserve Roblería del Cobre de Loncha, with the tailings dam in grey. Photo by the author.

First the Inca came for the gold here, then the Spaniards, then the international mining companies. In Alhué they say the devil protects the gold.

Alhué is an agricultural area of central Chile hidden inside a protective semi-circle of hills. The so-called hills in central Chile are really small mountains, reaching over 2000 masl. When you are just halfway up a hill, your ears pop from the altitude change. There is only one way in and out of Alhué by vehicle. Consequently, many people from other regions of Chile have never been there or even heard of it. It is the kind of remote and hard to find place about which people say, using the colloquial expression, “por allí donde el diablo perd su poncho.the people hang the shat people say  they died.  told me that up in the hills near the embalse the people hang the sió su poncho:” over there where the devil lost his poncho. A local beekeeper, Miguel, who gave me horse riding lessons in the hills where his family has lived for generations told me about the origin of the expression. The devil was running away from a war. A friar saw him and started lashing him with his belt. The devil ran away from the friar, in the direction of Pichi, through the area in Fundo Lisboa called Los Leones where there are some palma chilena, and to Talamí. As the devil ran, his poncho caught on the trees and unravelled, until he was left with nothing but the collar. In Talamí the devil met the Angel Gabriel, who killed him and buried him in the rock formation called Cementerio de Piedras. I asked Miguel when this happened and he looked at me like it was the joke of the century—the devil never dies, he explained.

The devil with gold, mural in Villa Alhué. Photo by the author.

The rocks in Alhué are granitic. Granitic rocks are associated with gold deposits but also with a poor soil where palma chilena grow, their seeds dispersed by cattle, or in the past, guanacos. It seems like a good thing that the mine plants this threatened species as compensation in Fundo El Membrillo. On the other hand, it would be better if it didn’t plant them in formations of perfect lines, at a density that seems too high, with a visibly expensive infrastructure of wire, poles, tubing, plastic and irrigation. Though we were happy to find them, they were useless for answering some of the ecological questions we came with. These palma chilena have nothing to tell us about what soil and light conditions they like, what other trees and plants they associate with, where large herbivores roam, where degus and yacas eat their seeds. They are not a forest but a plantation, telling us less about ecology than about power, largesse, and the imperial imagination. Everyone knows that mining compensations are deals with the devil. This truth was not lost on us. Because we went to Fundo El Membrillo early on in our fieldwork, Miguel, among other people, initially suspected that we were working for the mine, gathering data to prove that there is nothing to protect in Alhué. Of course, I was trying to do the opposite.

The other theory for why the giant bridge over the tiny stream in Pichi was built is that it will connect a new road for trucks to pass directly from Rancagua and the Andean mines to the port of San Antonio. Alhué would no longer be isolated. Currently, the only direct way to cross from Alhué to the Rancagua side is on horseback. I asked Gabriela, the lady who runs the local museum, which would be preferable: a road or a mine. She thought a bit and said, “a mine.”  A road would fundamentally change Alhué into a highway transit area, while a mine, she said, although it would pollute the environment, brings money to the local community.

Miguel told me that in the not-so-distant past, not very much cash circulated in Alhué. If you wanted to buy some vegetables from a merchant at a market, you paid in trueque (barter) with a chicken or some fox pelts. With local merchants you had fiado, that is, trust or honour, a tab of credit. If you were an inquilino (tenant) on a fundo, the patrón made you work all the time in exchange for getting to cultivate a plot of your own—that is, if you could manage. The inquilinos often had to buy everything, including their clothes, from the patrón, and often ended up in debt to him. This system ended with the Agrarian Reform of the mid twentieth century. Today, there are two cash machines in Alhué, in front of the police station, and they arrived just two years ago. They were installed so that the miners and the vineyard and fruit plantation workers could be paid by deposit and then withdraw cash. This prevents the fruit workers and the miners from being assaulted and robbed. While trying to get my horse to walk abreast of Miguel’s rather than trailing behind, I told Miguel about David Graeber’s account in Debt: how the transition from a credit system, like what used to operate in Alhué, to a cash system like what the mine has brought with it, is historically always associated with a high flux of strangers, with violence, debt and slavery. That seemed about right to him.

Miguel, like many people in Alhué, has several cattle and horses that he pastures in the hills. He and his relatives kill one about once a year and share the meat amongst the family. People here rarely sell cattle. They keep cattle because it’s a way of life, a form of prestige, a thing a certain sort of person does. The PRODESAL, a government agency that provides outreach and technical support to smallholders, wants to encourage the smallholders in Alhué to have fewer cattle in the hills, to prevent degradation of the forest. PRODESAL wants the smallholders to invest more in each of their cows and then sell them for a profit, in an entrepreneurial spirit. I told Miguel I was worried that an entrepreneurial approach to livestock raising was not exactly such a great thing. It seemed to me that forest was in good condition, recovering rather well from more severe disturbances, like fires and woodcutting. Profit motivation could change everything. Alhuino practices suggest that they might not want to engage in a beef production industry anyway. Miguel looked at me slyly like I had found out one of the local secrets, and agreed. I asked, “What is the point?”  He told me that’s where the devil comes into it.

Miguel charges me a very small amount of money per hour for horse rides, and a higher rate—25000 pesos (40 USD) per day—to take me and my colleagues out in his pickup truck to show us where to find particular trees in the hills and to explain the history of each place. He knows where all the palma chilena are and the lingue, canelo, arrayán and roble, about the yacas and cows that eat palma chilena seeds, the names of the flowers and where they like to grow, the places where the devil passed by, where beans and corn were sown, where there is an indigenous cemetery, where there is water, where there is a path, a cave, an abandoned 19th century mine, snow; where there used to be monitos del monte and pumas and different kinds of green parrot. I thought I was some kind of expert in ecology and conservation, but the richness of his understanding about that place is something I will never have. I don’t even know all the things I should ask him about.

Miguel showing us palma chilena. Photo by the author.

One morning we had arranged to rent his wife’s four-wheel drive pickup truck for a day to go to the National Reserve next to the Embalse de Loncha, without fixing a price with them beforehand. My colleagues and I discussed how much to offer to pay. If a pickup plus Miguel cost 25000 pesos, then a pickup minus Miguel couldn’t possibly cost more than 5000 pesos, which however was ridiculous. Equally we figured a reasonable price for the pickup was minimum 20000 pesos, but this implied that the value of Miguel’s knowledge of the landscape was only worth 5000 pesos. This was simply impossible, frankly offensive.

Ecologists, and even conservationists, like to think that the economy is outside our field of expertise, that it is someone else’s business to think about, that it is an immutable given, that the devil never dies. This was the moment I began to realize that the economy is part of ecology, and that if I want to conserve palma chilena, monitos del monte, and landscapes, I can’t just count on someone else to work out an alternative way of organizing how people raise their livestock, how they harvest forest products, and on what basis they exchange things. The economy, like the mine, was there whether we liked it or not, contaminating not only the water but also the purification of disciplines, and every exchange and interaction. The Minera Florida is owned by the Canadian company Yamana Gold, the CEO of which notes that their gold and silver mines “produce value.” But this doesn’t just mean they turn traces of gold into profit. The mine is much bigger than tunnels and tailings: it seeps into everything in the hills of Alhué and reduces it, like a chemical reaction, to a single form of value. What the mine refines is the commensuration of everything that Miguel knows, everything he and I care about, plus a pickup truck, to 25000 pesos a day.

When we brought back the pickup, Miguel proposed 30000 pesos, so that was what we paid. I was relieved to pay him more than we had estimated was right, but I still don’t understand what it means that his incalculable richness of experience is worth negative 5000 pesos. The only way to figure this out, I think, is to un-unravel the devil’s poncho, to trace the yarn back, to unhook it thorn by thorn, twig by twig, through the valleys and the hills, to the source, and to make another poncho, start again.

Meredith Root-Bernstein is an interdisciplinary conservation scientist with a growing interest in environmental anthropology and ethnobiology. She is currently a Marie-Curie FP7 COFUND Agreenskills Post Doctoral Fellow at the National Institute of Agronomical Reseach in Paris, France, as well as an associated researcher at the Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad in Santiago, Chile. She has researched conservation issues in central Chile since 2008.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.