Zsofia Johanna Szoke - Preliminary Fieldwork Experiences: The Anthropology of Precious Metal Extraction At One Corner of the Lithium Triangle
The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the planet’s largest salt flat, a cold and terrestrial lunar landscape. Inhospitable and reminiscent of an ancient long forgotten lake, the salt here holds the world’s principal supply of lithium, the metal that promises to transform the storage of electricity for transportation and other uses. For Bolivia, this is a great deal of attention from private foreign investors who are competing to exploit this strategic resource.
The first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, asserts that he is committed to ensuring that the Bolivian people fully earn the benefits of the country’s lithium, and has nationalized ownership of that metal as well as other natural resources. Changes in Bolivia’s political economy under the Morales regime create new theoretical as well as empirical challenges for workers, investors, social movements and for scholars who work to navigate and to understand the unfolding developments. Thus, the Bolivian lithium industry is an ideal lens to explore an emerging energo-politics intertwined with indigeneity, knowledge production and territoriality in relation to a plurinational state and the struggles over Bolivia’s natural resources in a globalized economy.
This project asks the following research questions: What are the ontological underpinnings of extraction and what kinds of vulnerabilities and opportunities can be created by the nationalization of the lithium industry in Bolivia in the 21the century?
The election of Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia in 2005 was both a critical and historic moment of political and cultural transformation in the country in the context of new forms of capital accumulation (Harvey, 2005) and neo-liberal politics. His election brought an end to two decades of neoliberal economic policies that had privatized state industries, increased labor exploitation, deregulated industries, and encouraged foreign investment in natural resource extraction that is embedded in the global world economy (Fabricant et al, 2011). The transformation in the lithium industry’s political economy under Morales is contextualized by long histories of labor exploitation during the colonial period (1545 - c. 1795) and uneven economic development post-independence (1825 – 2000s).
Anthropologist June Nash (1993), in her analysis of dependency and exploitation in Bolivian tin mines, focused upon indigenous miners whose analysis of class, race, and gender-based oppression fueled decades of radicalization and political organizing in the mid-twentieth century. Here, the stratified political and economic system hinges upon a class hierarchy marked by a racialized and racist social system. Alongside a solid contribution to the ethnography of mining communities Nash presents Bolivia as the foremost example of the South American paradox: a country extremely rich in natural resources, which also has one of the lowest indices of per capita income, literacy and life span in the world. Accordingly, in Nash’s Bolivia Spanish colonialism and the 20th-century penetration of foreign capital have produced an exploited indigenous working class with a history of struggles dating back to the 18th century at least.
Taussig (2010) on the other hand, in his Marxist and rather representationalist analysis of indigenous Bolivian tin miners, argues that the complex articulation of the pre-Conquest, pre-capitalist mode of production and social order, and the post-Conquest capitalist modes of production are reflected in everyday practices and signify that contemporary indigenous culture is intertwined with the effects of European colonization. More specifically, Taussig (2010) explores the social significance of the Devil (el Tío) worship in the lives of tin miners around the city of Oruro, where miners conduct rites and participate in gift exchange to the spirit of the underworld ruling over life and death as the owner the mines.
Here, the icon of the Devil is the expression of the pre-colonial power of the mountain, and the mining rituals are an attempt to transcend the proletarianization and modernization of peasants into miners who have a growing sense of this process’ evil destructiveness. Hence, in Taussig’s Bolivia mining rituals crystallize as the “rituals of the oppressed” (Taussig, 2010, p. 155), and the figure of the Devil emerges as an icon of a social group losing control over its means of production.
In my view, natural resource conflicts in Bolivia must be understood both in the context of historical cycles of colonial and neocolonial projects, as well as processes of internal class formation and a political economy based on a system of ethno-racial stratification initiated by the Spanish (Spronk, 2007). Accordingly, contemporary anthropological work must be attentive to the ways in which the agency of workers is expressed in contexts where the struggle against neoliberal markets and over natural resources produce both opportunities and vulnerabilities. On the other hand, I also agree with Pink (2008) drawing on Lee and Ingold (2006) in that it is also important for anthropologists to understand routes, movement and mobilities, as well as place making processes if they want to understand others.
Further, as Ingold (2007) highlights it is also time to reverse the emphasis in current studies of material culture, and the “materiality of objects” as against the properties of specific materials. In this regard it is significant that studies of so-called “material culture” have focused overwhelmingly on processes of consumption rather than production, hence materials seem to vanish, and absorbed into the very objects to which they have given birth. Therefore, I agree with Ingold (2007) in that anthropologists need to redirect their attention from “materiality” to the properties of materials. However, in my view we must also find new, inventive, meaningful and rigorous ways to talk about these materials. In the meantime, anthropologists also need to finally start to take their local interlocutors indeed a little bit “more seriously” (Viveiros de Castro, 2014). Hence, rather than hypothesizing about what the Devil might represent in the mines, researchers should finally talk about what it means that the Devil is in the mines if his or her interlocutors say so.
Preparation and Goals
To orient myself to this research topic and to prepare myself for conducting this research project I took a course at UNM entitled “Chemistry in our Community” which introduced me to the science of global warming, nuclear energy, and environmental resource extractions and how they can affect communities. In 2015, I conducted research in a material science laboratory focusing on how silica is utilized. This gave me experience conducting research with scientific experts in professional settings. Further, my previous academic experiences in the US and in Spain equipped me to conduct research both in English and in Spanish. Because of these research experiences, along with my theoretical and methodological training at the University of New Mexico I was prepared to make the most of this research opportunity.
The primary purpose of my preliminary research trip was to create the foundation for my object oriented multi-sited dissertation project in Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni region. Additional goals were to establish contacts and experience the field with its extreme conditions to decide whether conducting further research was feasible. To this end, after obtaining the Field Research Grant from the LAII and the Student Research Grant from the GPSA at UNM, I visited and conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the capital La Paz, the Salar de Uyuni and in Potosí between May 27th and July 10th, 2017. In each site I turned my attention to the history and current context of each area. Furthermore, at each location I visited museums where I observed official representations and narratives of mining and resource extraction.
For this preliminary research trip, I proposed to spend four weeks conducting multi-sited ethnographic research in southwestern Bolivia, splitting time between La Paz, Potosí, the City of Uyuni, Oruro, and the Salar de Uyuni. During this exploratory research, the objective was to visit each site and turn my attention to the history and current context of each area. At each location, the plan was to visit museums, and to establish contacts. In the various museums, I suggested to observe narratives of mining and resource extraction during three epochs in Bolivian history: the Silver/Potosí era, the Tin/Oruro era, and the Lithium/Uyuni era.
At the Salar de Uyuni, the most important site of my research, my objective was to start to explore what the nationalization of the lithium industry means for local communities. Accordingly, one of the main goals was to visit cooperatively owned salt mining facilities extracting salt from the Salar de Uyuni. I hoped that attending these small salt processing plants would give me the opportunity to speak with salt miners about how they relate to the recent shifts in the salt flat’s political economy. In addition, I hoped that visiting these sites would provide an important opportunity to establish contacts with individuals directly affected by the local lithium mining industry and to interview willing participants.
This study draws on several bodies of literature including philosophy, anthropological literature, and science and technology studies. In the future, with a focus on lithium as a specific material this project will also be ontological and heuristic in its approach. By shifting my attention from questions of epistemology (theory of knowledge) to questions of ontology (theory of being), I hope to further problematize recent writings associated with anthropology’s “ontological turn” working to transform the familiar trope of ethnography as a mode of translation. While I do not think that questions of epistemology can be fully separated from questions of ontology, I also think that the exclusive interrogation of epistemological access easily triggers a “many cultures” vs. “one unified (Western) nature” account which, and here I am on board with Latour (1993), must be avoided.
Hence, in order to de-theorize lithium and render it a pure ethnographic form I will try to free it from any ontological determination and ethnographic prejudice whatsoever. In order to placate the dangers of metaphysical prejudice I will aim at letting lithium to become an empirical source of conceptualization. As a methodological intervention, I will treat lithium as “heuristic means” i.e. identify it as an ethnographic object of study while not allowing my language to prejudice my analysis what it might be. Therefore, I will consider it as a mode of defining instead of being a representation of a single unified Western reality in order to try to avoid re-producing the hegemonic one nature/many cultures divide. Instead of treating the metal as a mute object that is being signified or derived meaning from, I will do my best to take my interlocutors and their concepts about what lithium is “seriously” (Viveiros de Castro, 2014; Holbraad, 2017) and empty it out from all a priori metaphysical content accordingly.
My anthropological and ethnographic methods are essentially ontology driven, interpretative and based on participant observation conducted across multiple-sites. Keeping multiple methodologies in mind, I will also aim at simultaneously immersing in the local while keeping in mind the importance of understanding of global frictions and interactions as they play out across multiple sites (Marcus, 1995, Tsing, 2005). Rather than perceiving the field fixed geographically, I will recognize communities as being embedded in a complex contemporary context that is characterized by mobility, entanglement, and friction.
During my preliminary research trip, in La Paz I visited the Museum of Precious Metals, the Coca Museum, the National Ethnography and Folklore Museum and the National Revolution Museum where I had the opportunity to engage in conversations pointing to further contacts about the 1952 revolt of armed miners that resulted in the nationalization of Bolivian mining interests. Most importantly I managed to visit and organize a meeting with the head of the Evaporation Department at the National Mining Corporation (COMIBOL) who not only assured me about the possibility of visiting Bolivia’ s first state owned lithium production pilot plant but also about the prospect of working with them in the plant as an anthropologist.
In Potosí I visited the National Mint of Bolivia where I learned about mint production and mining narratives during one of the most important epochs in Bolivian history: the Silver/Potosí era (1545- c. 1795). Further, I visited the mines of Cerro Rico also known as the “Mountain that Eats Men” famous for providing vast quantities of silver for Spain during the period of the New World Spanish Empire. Entering the dark sublunary world of the mine suffocated in the role of what Zoellner calls a “dark ecotourist” (2014), I met the Devil (el Tío) and I was able to ask miners about their views on their working conditions and on the lithium industry.
Figure 4. Cerro Rico also known as the “Mountain that Eats Men” Bolivia, Bolivia June 2017
Finally, at the Salar de Uyuni I visited the salt flat together with other tourists on a two days’ tour and a cooperatively owned salt mining facility in my original role as a researcher in Colchani. With the help of my local interlocutor, I had the chance to speak with salt miners about how they relate to the recent shifts in the salt flat’s political economy. Hence, at the Salar I successfully began to explore what it means for local communities that the lithium industry has been nationalized. Moreover, attending these sites provided an important opportunity to establish contacts with individuals directly impacted by the local lithium mining industry.
This preliminary field trip is laying the foundations for an independent research project, and the data gathered is currently being analyzed based on qualitative data i.e. my notes, my observations and my personal photographs. While I did not conduct any interviews during this preliminary phase, initial contacts were made via e-mail, via phone and via direct approach in public situations. I also made contacts with future participants through snowball sampling who were identified based on their involvement in the Bolivian lithium industry. As for the future, data will be collected through semi-structured interviews that may be tape recorded if permission is granted to do so. Apart from interviews, I will further collect data by attending public events, taking field notes and digital photographs, while also conducting participant observation.
A Preliminary Sensory Analysis:
Forced Perspective a.k.a Engaging Open Space
at the Salar de Uyuni
Concerning space and place, as anthropologist Tim Ingold (2008) highlights philosophical attempts to characterize “the open” lead to a paradox. The term “dwelling” for Heidegger refers to an indoor space and it captures the distinctive way Dasein is in the world. In the Kantian cosmology, creatures do not live within the world but up on its outer surface hence, life is played out upon a stage. Whereas Heidegger opens the world to occupation by imagining the horizon as a boundary of enclosure, for Kant horizons are not enclosed. Yet, Kant allows beings into the open only by expelling them from the world. As Ingold (2008) further contends, Kant’s Copernican Revolution also dominates the project of modern science envisioning a world of nature that is set over against the mind of the knowing subject situated in a material world as an “exhabitant” as opposed to an “inhabitant”. In this context:
The global topology of the earth's surface then comes to stand for the fundamental idea, which the mind is said to bring to experience, of the unity, completeness, and continuity of nature. It is at this surface conceived as an interface not just between the solid substance of the earth and its gaseous atmosphere but between matter and mind, and between sensation and cognition that all knowledge is constituted (Ingold, 2008, p. 1797).
Gibson’s (1979) ecological approach to perception offers an alternative. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, to inhabit the open is not to be stuck on the outer surface of the earth but to be caught up in the fluxes of the weather-world. For Gibson an open environment is seldom or never realized since ordinary environments on the surface of the Earth are “cluttered” with things and objects. The environment is furnished, and this is what makes the Earth a liveable place. In a completely level earth, under a cloudless sky extending in all directions to the horizon without any obstruction i.e. out in the “open” life would be impossible. One could stand up in it, walk, and breathe but not do many other things. As Gibson (1979) puts it:
It would be a desolate place indeed! ... It would not be quite as lifeless as geometrical space…but almost (Gibson 1978 in Ingold 2008, p. 1800).
Fig.6. The world sphere according to (a) Kant and (b) Gibson in Ingold, T. (2008). Bindings against Boundaries: Entanglements of Life in an Open World. Environment and Planning A, 40(8), 1796-1810.
There are four main activities or “modes of engagement” with the Earth that I have encountered and know of so far at the Salar de Uyuni in Southwestern Bolivia so far. These are (a) lithium extraction, (b) salt mining, and (c) tourism, and (d) satellite calibration. While my primarily interests involve metal extraction, my first encounter with the Salar took place as a tourist. Analyzing this experience my research question is informed by Ingold (2008):
Do we encounter “the open” as an enclosed space cleared from within following Heidegger, or Kant and conventional science in placing the open all around on the outside? In this analysis, I argue that something else happens.
As demonstrated above, during this preliminary field trip my primary goal was (1) to contextualize lithium extraction and industry, (2) visit other important mining locations, (3) to create the foundation for my multi-sited dissertation project in Bolivia (4) and to further develop research questions. During my first encounter with the Salar however, I could only visit the Salar and engage in participant observation as a tourist on a two days’ tour with a group of five people. To analyze data to answer this analytic research question I examined photographs taken by other tourists I found on the Internet and photographs taken by our own tour guide with my Samsung Galaxy J3 6 cell phone at the Salar de Uyuni.
The exceptional flatness of the Earth’s surface makes the Salar not only an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites, but it is also a tourist attraction. As a tourist participating on a two days’ tour, I spent 2-3 hours at the Salar following a very strict agenda. Since there was no electricity and there was a sudden drop in temperature we had to leave the salt flat by sunset. Overall, activities were geared towards having “fun”. Above all, I was expected to participate in so called “forced perspective” photo shoots as the main attraction in a very controlled way amidst what I perceived as constant noise pollution.
Figure 7. and Figure 8. Forced Perspective and Godzilla Attack at The Salar de Uyuni in Southwestern Bolivia, Bolivia June 2017 Photo Credit © Red Planet Tours
As a tourist I argue, I was expected to treat the “the open” following neither Kant, nor Heidegger but something else happened in a very specific way. The forced perspective photo shoots involved a technique employed by our tour guide using optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it is. Because there was a lack of visual reference point in the horizon, our eyes were tricked and our point of view conjointly with our positionality were skewed. Thus, engagement with the Earth involved the manipulation of light and human visual perception using scaled objects i.e. me and my fellow group members and other objects such as a Godzilla. Active participation in the process of creating the optical illusion also involved the manipulation of the correlation between Us vs other objects and the vantage point of the spectator or the camera.
Figure 9. and Figure 10. Dinosaur attack and Coca-Cola at The Salar de Uyuni in Southwestern Bolivia, Bolivia June 2017 Photo Credit © https://aworldextraordinary.wordpress.com/tag/salar-de-uyuni and Red Planet Tours
The result was looking at ourselves positioned in a digital photograph on the screens of our cell phones mediating a caricatured reality that is weird, trippy, funny, ridiculous, and has a comic and grotesque effect. The visual-comedy effect was achieved by upsetting what we perceived as objective reality amidst what I would say was a very specific and controlled engagement. Scientifically speaking one could argue that we were fooled through the manipulation of our 3D depth perception caused by our visual system interpreting the open environment by means of light in the visible spectrum reflected by objects where the objects turn out to be ourselves.
For Wiesing (2016) the myth of the mediate, is the myth of being-in-the-world as a “mediated being-in-the-world" (Wiesing, 2016, p. 3). The myth of the mediate is widespread in philosophy in various forms in the thoughts of Hegelians, Kantians, pragmatists, deconstructivists and ever so popular amongst analytic philosophers of various types. Its causes are to be found in the overwhelming focusing on how perception comes about. This is erroneous and, in fact, all philosophy that attempts to build third-personal models, in a similar fashion to how science builds models engages in a rather questionable and dubious enterprise.
Wiesing (2016) in his The Philosophy of Perception further argues that perception requires us to be embodied, to be visible, and to continually participate in the public and physical world we perceive. Only in looking at images can we achieve a break in participation from perception's continuous demands, hence the question shifts from how perception comes about to what perception obliges us to be and do. Meanwhile, as Ingold (2008) highlights, while Heidegger conceives of place in terms of limit, Kant describes the Earth as a flat surface where the horizon is circular. As he is always in the center, the circle around him moves as he moves and positions his body.
As Ingold (2208) contends:
Thus, while he is always at the center of his circular field of vision, that field is
nowhere. He cannot position it. Were he dependent on his senses alone, he could
position himself only in relation to his own body, as if to say “I am where I am”, and
not in relation to the world which appears to spread without limit in all directions (Ingold, 2008, p. 1797)
Figure 11. and Figure 12. Forced Perspective and the Anthropologist Emerging as a “Weird” Object at The Salar de Uyuni in Southwestern Bolivia, Bolivia June 2017 Photo Credit © Red Planet Tours
As opposed to this, at the Salar during the forced perspective photo shoots our engagement with the Earth is primarily controlled, dominated and mediated amongst others by our tour guide and our own lithium powered cellphone technology. The anthropologist becomes the weirdly-positioned object of perceptive delusion where size gets defined by the surroundings. Represented by the local tour guide or rather the skilled local artist, as “I” the anthropologist become the odd object of an optical illusion, my being in the world is dispositioned from the Kantian center and emerges as the imitation of a preposterous character in a caricatured, rectangular and irrational space instead of what we might perceive as objective reality.
Hence, the Salar is not an ordinary space as Gibson (1979) would have it. Extending in all directions to the horizon without any obstruction, engagement with the Earth as a tourist involves the manipulation of human visual perception and the senses. Here, instead of treating the “open” following Kant or Heidegger I argue that sense is made from an “open” and “empty” space through the controlled upsetting of what we might perceive as objective reality resulting in a comic effect involving the reversal of anthropological translation and a “weird” positionality. The anthropologist becomes an uncanny object of attraction in a distorted and unsound space profoundly challenging metaphysical theorizing about the nature of space, place and our very notion of “world” and reality.
One of the most important lessons I learned during this preliminary research trip is that under extreme environmental conditions one has to be brave, creative and flexible since things will not necessarily go exactly according to the itinerary. At the beginning of my trip I had to overcome both diarrhea and altitude sickness. I was sick for nearly twelve days hence, from Potosí (13,420 ft) I had to descend to Sucre (9,214 ft) which was originally not in my schedule. I had to be able to make quick and creative decisions so as to make the most of the situation. In Sucre for example, where with the generous help of locals I got better from my altitude sickness, I visited the Treasure Museum where I learned about Bolivia’ s gems and precious metals. The visit was very interesting and informative, and I could not have done it without being creative, ambitious and sturdy.
Transitioning from place to place in Bolivia’ s extreme altitudes was not only challenging but turned out to be not always feasible without prior experience. I had to be courageous, bold and smart to accept that I am an anthropologist but I also have a body, and that at such extreme altitudes I am not necessary always in charge. Yet, not giving up and with the aid of my local interlocutors I managed to make the most of this opportunity and to return with very rich data about what is possible in the future. Moreover, I gained invaluable lessons on how to work effectively under extreme conditions. All in all, I fulfilled all my main objectives, thus thanks to the GPSA and the LAII this preliminary ethnographic research trip will provide a necessary foundation from which to construct a multi-sited dissertation project.
As for this project’s primary significance, research about lithium mining represents a new chapter in the scholarship of Bolivia’s mining history. Additionally, the study of the 21st century lithium industry is also a study of struggle against neoliberalism, new forms of “resource nationalism”, the changing role of the state and the continued importance of mining in the era of intensive globalization. The special case of lithium, embedded in the changing dynamics of a global economy, may also demonstrate the shift towards a new, sustainable energy regime in the current century.
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