Bodies of Flesh and Ore: Geosocial Formation of Miners and Metal in Highland Bolivia

Industrial ruins: slag and rust from a century's worth of tin mining. Llallagua, Potosí, Bolivia. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Andrea Marston, University of California at Berkeley §

Industrial ruins: slag and rust from a century’s worth of tin mining. Llallagua, Potosí, Bolivia. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research as well as interviews with earth scientists and policymakers, this paper explores what I call the “geosocial formation” of small-scale mining collectives operating in an abandoned industrial tin mine inside the Juan del Valle mountain, in highland Bolivia. I argue that the mineralogical and metallurgical properties of tin ore, its association with 20th century with masculine and mestizo nation-building projects, and the asymptotic exhaustion of its deposits have shaped miners’ bodies, internal hierarchies, and political agendas as surely as miners use tools, chemicals, and their physical strength to shape the ore into a commodity. My analysis centers labor as a crucial site of political formation, but it is an analysis that both draws on and departs from historical materialist approaches to labor by reimagining “matter” as itself historied and productive in its own right. I thus make the case that the raced, classed, and gendered striations within the small-scale mining collectives have geological substance; ore bodies, fleshy bodies, and body politics are all mutually constitutive. Together, these exhausted bodies of flesh and ore constitute a geosocial formation whose contours are defining Bolivia’s extractive political economy.

I am on my hands and knees in a tunnel that is too narrow to turn my helmet sideways. It was blasted open last night, and freshly dislodged rocks slice into my kneecaps. I am accompanying a group of three small-scale tin miners in their daily labors inside the Juan del Valle mountain, in highland Bolivia. Our task for the morning is to separate the recently fallen rocks into two piles: those that contain tin ore, and those that do not.

Igberto, the 52-year-old leader of the work gang, reaches around my leg to show me what to look for. “This is a good one,” he says, dropping the rock into my hand. It is surprisingly heavy and has a visibly thick line of black ore on one side. “It’s at least 55 or 60% tin,” Igberto says approvingly. “But this one” – he shows me another rock for comparison – “is less than 30% tin – it’s k’ara,” he says, chuckling a little.

K’ara is the Quechua word for peeled, but it is also a derogatory term for non-Indigenous Bolivians, whose paler skin and proximity to foreign powers have left them culturally “peeled”. In the k’ara rock, the black streak is lighter, with an almost orange-red hue. It’s stannite, a tin sulfide that makes the water inside the mine run orange. Igberto and his compañeros avoid this kind of low-grade rock underground as much as they might avoid a k’ara Bolivian on the surface.

Crawling through a barely human-sized mine shaft. Llallagua, Potosí, Bolivia. Photo by author.

This brief exchange captures the central dynamic that I explore in “Bodies of Flesh and Ore: Geosocial Formation of Miners and Metal in Highland Bolivia.” In this paper, I argue that small-scale miners, known in Bolivia as “mining cooperatives,” are formed in and through their labors in the vertical depths of the subterranean.

I use the concept “geosocial formation,” borrowed from Clark and Yusoff (2017), to describe the processes through which mining cooperatives emerge as internally stratified collectives in relation to tin as a material and deeply meaningful substance. I am particularly concerned with how notions of race and gender adhere in the rocks. Social striations emerge as vertically patterned differences underground, corresponding with the uneven socio-geological history of the mountain.

“Bodies of Flesh and Ore” is part of a larger project that, at its core, speaks to a key paradox haunting the Latin American left: How and why have so many progressive administrations across the region expanded resource extraction since gaining power, despite sworn commitments to prioritizing the environment and Indigenous territorial rights? It would seem that the political paths charted by Indigenous social movements in the 1990s and early 2000s have been obstructed by extractive economics and “resource nationalisms” rooted in colonial and republican pasts.

Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research with small-scale tin miners, interviews with earth scientists, policymakers, environmental activists, and trade unionists, and extensive work in public and private archives, I show how resource nationalism is (re)produced in Bolivia by elucidating connections between national development and the subterranean worlds brought into being through rock, labor, and science.

In many ways, cooperative miners embody the tensions between Indigenous politics and extractivist economics. Most cooperative miners in the Juan del Valle mountain identify as agro-mineros (agricultural miners), and many are members of either peasant unions or Indigenous territorial communities known as ayllus. Yet they also hold significant power within the Bolivian state, from where they advocate for more mining with lower taxes and relaxed environmental and labor standards.

A cooperative miner prepares dynamite at the start of a work day. Llallagua, Potosí, Bolivia. Photo by author.

The title of my dissertation, Thieves of Patria: Vertical Politics in Plurinational Bolivia, draws its names from the way Bolivians commonly frame cooperative miners as “thieves” of national natural resource wealth. By focusing on the labors of such deeply unpopular and contradictory collectives, I am redirecting attention away from dramatic socioenvironmental conflicts and towards the everyday practices of people who quietly advocate for resource extraction, despite also receiving the brunt of environmental and social destruction. This is an important area of study, not only in Latin America.

Around the world, there has been a resurgence of nationalism, often characterized by racist and masculinist forms of exclusion. These virulent nationalisms depend on revived 20th century modernity stories that are fundamentally tied to particular representations of people and nature. It is no coincidence that many of these nationalisms are rooted in traditional mining sites – think of West Virginia and northern England – where exhausted geological natures continue to remind people of past possible futures.

Such nationalisms, predicated on histories of industrial extraction, also offer a new entrance into the Anthropocene debates. By and large, these debates have tended to privilege planetary scales of analysis and nearly always identify consumers of fossil fuels in the global north as the primary agents of geological change. Yet it is at sites of production, both historical and contemporary, that geological matter weighs the heaviest, and where it whispers promises of wealth and progress that echo across generations. These are the places where environmental anthropologists stand to complicate Manichean political narratives and develop more relational appreciations of nature, nation, and social difference.

Andrea Marston is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Her current research focuses on labor in the subterranean worlds of post-industrial tin mines in highland Bolivia, where she explores vertical entanglements of geological matter, 20th century nostalgia, and the production of social difference along lines of gender, race, and class. Her work has appeared in journals such as Latin American Perspectives, Environment and Planning A, Geoforum, and Water Alternatives, and her research has been funded by a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholarship, a SSHRC doctoral scholarship, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Twitter: @geographiti

This post is part of our series, 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.