Unearthing Conflict

A specter haunts Latin America—the specter of mining. As multinational mining corporations have spread across the continent, their grasp has been tightest in the Peruvian Andes where they have sparked dozens of anti-mining protests. Fabiana Li, an anthropologist at the University of Manitoba, provides a timely study of mining conflicts in Peru in her new book Unearthing Conflict.

Li considers three mining conflicts: the smelter in the town of La Oroya in Peru’s Central Highlands, which has operated from 1922 to the present; the Yanacocha mine near the northern city of Cajamarca, which began operations in the early 1990s; and the Minas Congas expansion project, near the Yanacocha site, which was set to start production in 2014.

The title describes how mining generates new conflicts around places and things—pollution, diverted water, heavy metals, and mountains—which are mobilized and contested in different ways. Unearthing Conflict contributes to the growing ethnographic accounts of mining,[1] and the recent work on the relationships between people and other-than-human elements on the landscape which they live,[2] with an ethnographic account of conflicts between mining corporations, their protestors, and their supporters.

Mining conflicts revolve around what Li dubs the “logic of equivalence.” This idea draws on the literature on audit culture, environmental management, and accountability. Li shows how mining conflicts are contestations over science and pollution, monitoring and water, and changing landscapes. Regulations, standards, compensation, environmental impact assessments, and expert scientific knowledge are all deployed to render commensurable air, water, mountains, and the changing landscape. The mining conflicts that emerge through Li’s account hinge on the attempts of corporations and governments to offer technical fixes that make commensurable what many see as incommensurable. The promise and perils of extractivism are well documented in the anthropology of resource extraction, what Li does is bring in how diverse actors understand changes to the environment. Li’s focus on these ontological conflicts[3] shows how actors enact not just discursive conflicts, but conflicts over the meaning of the world itself. What Li’s “logic of equivalence” demonstrates is that mining conflicts are more than merely political and economic clashes, but are also contestations over meaning: The politics of comparison are central to conflicts over mining.

Li begins by drawing on speeches from politicians and newspaper accounts to describe the popular narratives of mining conflict in Peru since colonial times. She then turns to how pollution came to matter in the town of La Oroya. A smelter in the town has spewed toxins into the air for a hundred years. Commentators often describe the area as a paradigmatic example of the negative environmental consequences of Peru’s mining industry: La Oroya has the reputation as one of the most polluted towns in the world. Li frames her account with stories of local activists who oppose the smelter and others activists who support it. The logic of equivalence comes to the fore, for example, through her discussion of a company program that busses children with high levels of lead in their blood to a distant kindergarten: The corporate logic here is that hours spent away from polluted air is equivalent to improving air quality.

Li then turns the bulk of the book to the Yanacocha mine, a massive open-pit gold mine in the northern Andes in the highlands near the city of Cajamarca. All-too-familiar images of a water source destroyed by mining become central to a chapter on water conflicts between peasants and farmers over an irrigation canal. The conflict is again one of equivalence. Water pumped into the irrigation canal from a mine treatment plant becomes, in the view of company engineers, the same as the water that used to flow from a lagoon. For engineers, the treated water matches government standards for quality, content, and flow. For many users of the canal, however, the new water is a stark contrast from what had been there before.

Li follows two critical moments of opposition to proposed Yanacocha mine expansions. The first was a moment of opposition in 2004 when 10,000 peasants successfully protested a mine expansion that would have turned the mountain of Cerro Quilish into an open pit mine. Li frames this discussion in terms of the politics of landscape. State bureaucrats, company officials, urban activists, and peasant leaders each portrayed the mountain in radically different ways: as minerals, as an aquifer, as a sacred place, and as a sentient being. A visit to the mine on a company tour, stories of a mountain spirits, and vignettes from interviews with leaders of each of these groups of stakeholders all add color and make for a compelling read. Nevertheless, it is often discursive sources—newspaper accounts, NGO reports, and interviews—that drive Li’s story.

Li draws on her fieldwork and on activist literature, company studies, scientific research, news reports, and taped environmental impact assessment presentations. Li brings out the voices of community leaders, activists, engineers, company representatives, researchers, journalists, and NGO workers, yet what is missing in Li’s compelling account is the practical and everyday relationships of people to mines, to smoke, to water, and to mountains. Also absent are the gritty, intensely local politics the go into both successful and unsuccessful attempts at political organizing. By relying on interviews and textual sources, Li gives the impression that the questions of equivalence are divergent truth claims rather than different ways of being in the world embedded in practices. Although for example, Li describes how various people portray the mountain as a nonhuman actor, she never quite shows how this might actually be the case. As a mountain enters into politics, the impression is that it is a vestige of a disappearing traditional Andean cosmology used strategically to prevent a mine expansion. Li skips over decades of ethnographic work in the Andes on the ways that peasants, mountains, and states come into dialogue with each other through practices.[4] How does this current politicization of space fit within a longer history of relationships between people and the land in the Andes? How are place-based spirits different in the northern Andes around Cajamarca, versus the central and the southern Andes? How do people interact with the mountain and other sacred places? Li recounts different visions of Cerro Quilish by describing a book written by a priest involved in anti-mining organizations and the stories of a peasant leader, yet she spends little time on the practical ways people relate to the mountain itself.

Li turns to a second moment of opposition to a new Yanacocha mine expansion through a discussion of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Protests over a public presentation of an EIA show how company and state officials deploy scientific and technical language to quell opposition. Mining companies and state agencies used expert knowledge to produce an image of the proposed mine expansion in conflict with visions of the protestors. When activists attempted to develop their technical expertise, they found limits to the progress they could make.

Li concludes with a final chapter on 2012 protests over the Minas Conga extension in Yanacocha, where activists turned to science in a failed attempt to prevent the expansion. Li describes how some protesters moved beyond the use of scientific knowledge by organizing a march; Unearthing Conflict would have been stronger if Li had done the same in her retelling, that is if she had moved from what people write and say in opposition to mining, to how they organized and engaged in the politics of opposition.

 Unearthing Conflict is an excellent ethnographic treatment of mining corporations, their local and state supporters, and the activists who contest them. By complicating standard narratives of community opposition to mining with the perspective of contestations about equivalences, the book would enrich senior undergraduate and graduate courses about Latin America, resource extraction, expert knowledge, and human and non-human actors.

Daniel Tubb, Yale University

Li, Fabiana.  Unearthing Conflict. Duke University Press. 2015. Read more at Duke University Press. 


[1] Anthony Bebbington and Jeffrey Bury, Subterranean Struggles (Texas, 2013); Alex Golub, Leviathans at the Gold Mine (Duke, 2014); Stuart Kirsch, Mining Capitalism (University of California, 2014); Marina Welker, Enacting the Corporation (University of California, 2014).

[2] Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? (University of British Columbia, 2005); Jake Kosek, Understories (Duke, 2006); Hugh Raffles, In Amazonia (Princeton, 2002).

[3] Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference (Duke, 2008). Mario Blaser, “The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program,” American Anthropologist, 2009, 111, no 1:10–20; Marisol de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond Politics,” Cultural Anthropology, 2010, 25, no 2:334–70).

[4] Thomas Abercrombie, Pathways of Memory and Power (University of Wisconsin, 1998). Catherine Allen. The Hold Life Has (2002, Smithsonian Books); Peter Gose, Deathly Waters and Hungry Mountains (University of Toronto, 1994); Olivia Harris, To Make the Earth Bear Fruit (Institute of Latin American Studies, 2000).

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