Mining, Technology, and the Environment in the Americas (Part 2)

Department: Latin American Studies

Date and Time: October 16, 2020 | 2:00 PM-4:00 PM

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Chair and moderator: Adriana Johnson, UCI Department of Comparative Literature


Juan Rubio, Doctoral Candidate, UCI Department of History

"Underground Water Wars: Tunnel Builders, American Entrepreneurs, and the Copper Bonanza in Cerro de Pasco, 1900 - 1912"

The historiography has presented the late nineteenth-century Peruvian mining elite as a struggling bourgeoisie, heavily impacted by the ravages of the War of the Pacific. This paper argues, by contrast, that mine owners in Cerro de Pasco and capitalists in Lima formed an effective alliance when it came to the business of draining water from the district’s mines. The Empresa Socavonera del Cerro de Pasco, a domestic tunneling enterprise, used a century-old technology combined with modern machinery to advance the interests of a diverse group of investors. In doing so, they clashed with a recently arrived American company, the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company (CPC), over draining rights and fees. The Empresa leveraged its members’ political capital, gained support from government officials, and, ultimately, prevailed over the well-endowed CPC. The Empresa is another instance in which Peru’s entrepreneurial class capitalized on the 1890s mining bonanza by mobilizing political and financial resources, altering the environment, and extracting the country’s natural wealth.

Ruth Goldstein, Assistant Professor, Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"Quicksilver's Tales: Alchemical Histories and Contaminated Legacies"

This short paper gives a brief overview of the intriguing and continuously blurred lines between alchemy and chemistry in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in Peru's Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. I begin with an overview of Incan metallurgical practices and mining technologies to examine the contaminated colonial legacies and alchemical histories that inform the roles that gold miners and chemists play in current extractive rainforest economies. Quicksilver, mercury in its liquid state, has an affinity for gold, making it an essential element for artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM). The miners – (al)chemists of the rainforest – mix quicksilver with gold-flecked earth pulled from the forests subsoil and water sources. The attractive forces between the two metals creates a mercury-gold amalgam, which must be burned to leave pure gold. This process, reminiscent of occult European alchemy, which sought the fantastical Philosopher's Stone to turn base metals into gold, has contributed to an estimated 40 tons of gold a year extracted from Madre de Dios alone. The blow-torch alchemy, which often leaves quicksilver "tailings," with small particles of gold still attached, contributes to the release of 50,000 pounds of mercury annually, or 400 tons of tons of toxic mercury into Madre de Dios' ecosystem between 2000-2013. Now, North American and European environmental researchers and conservationists seek to mitigate, if not eliminate, the use of quicksilver in ASGM. But the lithe silver liquid, without taste or smell, appears harmless if not also beautiful in its mining efficacy. Chemical explanations about the delayed but disastrous effects of mercury contamination on human life strikes many miners as a fabrication, a continuing legacy of colonial efforts to control the flow of natural resources. This paper concludes with questions about how and where (al)chemical considerations can inform environmental and economic justice, re-writing toxic endings to quicksilver's tales.

Stefanie Graeter, Assistant Professor, Latin American Studies, University of Arizona

"Can Environmentalism Care for a Smelter?"

High in the Peruvian Andes, the staggering chimney of a smelter juts forth from barren mountainsides, a stark industrial scene permeated with toxic matter like lead. This view of the metallurgic city of La Oroya imposes an abrupt juxtaposition to Mantaro Valley, an agricultural basin that unfolds downward into the region's lower elevations. Emblematic of the motif Leo Marx explicated in The Machine in the Garden, the city of La Oroya has come to occupy the symbolic and material counterpoint to the pastoral campesino lifeworlds elevated and defended by contemporary political resistance to transnational extractive development. In particular, the Catholic scientific project Mantaro Revive made La Oroya and its diffusing contaminants central to its ethico-epistemic practices of ecological revival and abundant life. People of La Oroya, however, mostly contested the intrusion of environmental health advocacy, defending their right to continue working and living as is. Dismissed as corporate false consciousness, Oroyan's pessimistic predictions have nonetheless come to pass: under pressure by NGOs and financial investors, the state shut down the smelter in 2010, still pending auction, and terrestrial contamination remains. Rather than securing a more abundant life, La Oroyans are now denied both health and work. Drawing from these still-unfolding events, this paper reflects upon exclusionary logics of vital abundance undergirding contemporary environmentalist forms and how they may negate both pragmatic and radical potentials. This paper asks with cautious speculation, can we imagine a paradoxical type of environmental health advocacy that places the care of a smelter at its center, not as counterpoint?

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