[OUTREACH] Hugo Romero on extractivism in the Norte Grande of Chile: “The mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through the relationship based on negotiation and resistance”

[OUTREACH] Public Policies: Academics from COES are awarded the “Núcleo Milenio” fund for research on social development around health and education with a gender approach

[OUTREACH] Hugo Romero on extractivism in the Norte Grande of Chile: “The mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through the relationship based on negotiation and resistance”

Hugo Romero sobre el extractivismo

In this interview, the sociologist, Ph.D in Human Geography from the University of Manchester, tells us how he came to study extractivism in Chile, the tense relationship between mining companies and indigenous communities, and the difficult insertion of academic work in the design of public policies in Chile.

In 2014, Hugo Romero started his postdoctorate at COES, and today he is a researcher in the Conflict Geography line of research. Here, he has studied the conflicts of the territory in the Norte Grande —the regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá and Antofagasta— and in the indigenous lands of Araucanía. Starting with a Mini COES project —an internal research fund— in cooperation with the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies (CIIR), he began to study socio-environmental conflicts and their relationship with indigenous communities —Aymara, Atacameña or Likan Antai— with regard to the expansion of mining in the Norte Grande. In particular, he studied the access, use, purchase, and contamination of water between the communities and the mining companies.

With these results, he applied to the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (Fondecyt) of Initiation where the project “Analysis of socio-environmental transformations and conflicts of the Norte Grande: Water, Mining, Landscapes, and Aymara Communities (2014-2017)“ was awarded. This project sought to deepen the research carried out in his postdoctoral work. Within the framework of its Fondecyt project, he was able to conduct field campaigns in the expansion area and conduct interviews with community leaders, personnel of the mining companies, and public officials in order to analyze and compare the conflict from the various parties present in the territory.

It should be noted that Hugo Romero studied sociology at the University of the Frontier (Temuco) when he was just starting to operate the Coordinadora Mapuche Arauco Malleco (CAM) organization, known for self-proclaimed fires of trucks, houses, and churches, among others in Araucanía, through the Territorial Resistance Organ. Romero was also part of the first generation of students in the country to obtain Becas Chile -postgraduate scholarships financed by the State to study in the best universities in the world. Thanks to this, he got his doctorate in Human Geographies from the University of Manchester, where he worked with Anthony Bebbington, professor of Environment and Society and Director of the Graduate School of Geography at the University of Manchester. Currently, Romero directs the Regional Observatory of the Universidad Católica de Temuco, where he develops research with a team of three academics, and he is a thesis tutor of six undergraduate students and three graduate students who follow this line of research.

Mining, communities and extractivism 

How did you go from sociology to geography and territory?

Sociology was not giving me answers to the series of phenomena that I was observing; so, I decided to study a master’s degree in Social Research at the University of Concepción, where I began to be interested in forest extractivism. There, I realized that there was a variable that I had not taken into account: the territory. The readings I had in the master’s degree were very neutral and naive about the territory. (…) I knew that there was something that the communities were defending and, at the same time, there was something that the State was not processing or did not want to recognize. At that time, sociology was super caught up in the criticism of modernity and the risk society, at least the one that I was taught, so I started to ask what was happening with the territory and how it could be investigated from the social sciences (…) After the master’s degree, and looking for those answers, I went to Germany for six months to study Political Economy at the Kassel University. While there, I did a Google search on “environmental conflicts in the Andes” and I was introduced to a group with this name at the University of Manchester, where Bebbington was. I wrote to him that I wanted to specialize in that area and he answered that if he got me a scholarship, I could go to study with him, and there I studied in depth the conflicts related to the construction of hydroelectric power plants in Patagonia.

How did you come to study extractivism?

I returned to Chile and applied as a postdoctoral researcher at COES, where they asked me to specialize in the north and in indigenous conflicts. In COES, I have worked on two extractivism projects, one is on mining conflicts and indigenous communities in the Norte Grande, specifically in the Tarapacá region; and the other one is on indigenous lands in Araucanía, where I mainly study the forest expansion and hydroelectric conflicts that have emerged in recent times.

What is meant by extractivism?

The extractivism is an economic strategy promoted by the National States for the exploitation of certain types of resources, mainly for the specialization of certain regions in mono production. When a territory is specialized by a certain resource, it is begun to speak of “mining of Norte Grande”, “fruit sector of the center of the country”, “fishing coast”, among others. It is very interesting because it is a complete specialization in the extraction of raw materials; that is to say, products that do not have greater processing and that are extracted in large volumes, therefore the environmental damage is great, and it is usually associated with the presence of transnational capital, so that its benefits do not remain in the country. And in the case of Latin America, there is a particularity: extractivism has been strongly promoted by right-wing governments and progressive governments (…) It is not associated with a political position, but with a political strategy that seeks to increase social welfare through the extraction of resources. From there come phrases such as “to grow we need to dam the rivers”, “to have more development we need to increase the production of minerals like copper”, etc. Extractivism is, literally, extracting resources (…), going to territories that had not previously been integrated into capitalism, so we see that territories of indigenous communities in the altiplano or in the mountain range begin to be integrated into global dynamics of extraction of means.

How does extractivism work and what the conflict is about?

The process is sustained in the discourse that the resources belong to the State, all the resources, and that they do not belong to local communities. And something quite important is produced there because the Nation-State appears as the owner of the resources in the soil and in the subsoil, even if indigenous communities live on the surface. A series of conflicts is generated here, for example, conflicts between the sovereignties of the territory. Whose territory is it? Of the State or of the communities that existed prior to the existence of the State? Do the communities have any kind of sovereignty over the territory where they live?

How do you evaluate your research work?

My work is marked by the absence of a census, and that is serious because the Norte Grande has a series of occupation dynamics where there is a contingent of indigenous populations living in urban areas and a very small number living in the premountain range, in the plateau. I had to read a lot to begin to understand the dynamics of residence in the territory, also considering the complexity of working in the desert (…) The Mini COES served to lay the foundations in order to know which issues were the most powerful.

What are the main results of the Mini COES in the Norte Grande?

The most interesting thing is to know who the Aymaras are, who the Quechuas are, why they were colliding with mining and whether there were open conflicts or the conflict was latent. And it was very interesting because in the end it served to begin to question some theories about conflicts and also ideas about territorialities, about identities, about how conflicts in extractivism are not only destructive in the sense of the destruction of nature and the environment of indigenous communities but can also be destructive in a highly productive process, since they require communities to develop a wide repertoire of creative collective actions, and within those creative resistances, (appears) the resignification of the territory. In my opinion, it has been central, and that is visible mainly with the increase of indigenous self-identification in the north. In the data of the 2017 Census, there are about 150 thousand people who identify themselves as Aymaras. In turn, Quechua self-identification has also grown a lot, reaching more than 33 thousand and this is associated with the territories that had been occupied ancestrally in the North Grande of Chile and now face the threat of mining.

Why are mining companies a threat to communities?

The threat here is mainly translated into the capture of water for mining processes and the possibility of air pollution, dust in suspension, the presence of tailings, and the transformation of what is known to be Andean life. And it is very interesting to see how the communities react to that: a population that lives in urban areas begin to reactivate and to claim their belonging and origin in Andean, premountain and highland towns. And the Andean village becomes the space of resistance and ethnic resignification of the Aymara and the Quechua, and that, in turn, generates that the miners create a series of strategies to deal with the indigenous identity or emergency articulation. However, what it basically shows is that identities are not essential but it generates a strategic essentialism, which is imminently political, as a way to negotiate/resist the presence of mining companies (…) A dialectic began to be generated in the Norte Grande, where mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through negotiation and resistance relations.

And specifically, in what way is the territory co-produced, between the mining companies and the communities?

The mining companies, basically, require a series of professionals to deal with the communities, and the communities require that the mining companies, in the absence of the State, invest in the Andean towns. So, it is very interesting because you see cell phone antennas, television antennas, improvement of the posts, construction of social headquarters; that is to say, you see how the Andean town begins to integrate itself within the dynamics of the mining companies, and you also see the personnel of the mining companies establishing relationships in the communities. So, that’s what I meant when I said that a conflict can be highly productive and creative. For example, there is now the Institute of Quechua Studies in Iquique. It did not exist before but exists now because the Quechuas have had the creative capacity to organize themselves, to resignify spaces, to rediscover themselves through archeology and anthropology. They have been able to reconstruct a historical territory in addition to having an urban presence. None of these things would have been possible unless there had been a conflict with the mining companies.

When you point out that the conflict is productive and creative, what do you mean exactly?

It is creative because one is waiting for the extractivism to destroybecause that is what it has done in many places, but extractivism can also be subverted, and from there a creative process can be born, where together with the environmental change these dynamics of negotiation and resistanceare generated. The communities are not passive but active in answering (…) At the end of the day, the communities have more leadership and are more differentiated, and in many cases, it has allowed specialization within them:they are excellent negotiators, they know the Chilean law, the international laws. It has allowed them to position themselves, to become visible. So, they have fought against extractivism with organization and creativity. Today, the “Inca Trail” clearly appears in some areas, and that is because the miners have hired archaeologists to work with the communities to resignify the spaces. So, once the communities discover what they have within their territory, they begin to pressure the mining company not to destroy it (…) The mining companies to avoid conflict hire archaeologists, anthropologists, historians; but that also generates a new conflict because now people know and value their heritage. So that’s what I mean by saying that they are highly creative. It is creating new alliances and destroying others. There were towns that were practically abandoned and today you go to these towns and their church is in a very good condition, has a new registered office, they have electricity, internet, and they have it because they have had the capacity to enter the conflict. It seems to me that it is a relatively new reading about conflicts.

 How have you been able to approach research in the world of public policies?

It is super difficult to leave the academy and reach the decision makers. People do not want to listen. People who work in decision-making do not want to hear that the territory is not the territory convention which they have because the sovereignty of the country is at stake. So, here we are facing a gigantic conflict, which is the underlying theme of the investigation, that the Nation State with these conflicts begins to enter into crisis because different visions, representations, and political actions that question the sovereignty of the State begin to emerge, mainly from indigenous, environmental, and territorial conflicts.

In the Araucanía, the State refuses to understand that the conflict is over territory. The State believes that the conflict is over land. And land conflict (for the State) is dealt with by the police. So, there is a very serious question, at least what I observe in the south, it is not land, it is not hectares, it is not more liters of water more or fewer liters of water, but it has to do with the deep historical annoyance of the Mapuche with the dispossession process, because they have had the ability to resist, also creatively, reinvent themselves, adapt, and take on new political forces to face the presence of the State. And therefore, today they are reconstructing their traditional ways of positioning themselves in the territory. They are rebuilding traditional leadership, their religion, their language, therefore, it is not something that is going to end because of more or fewer hectares. The State is going to have to learn how other countries are living, the countries that have also faced this serious problem: the State believes that all those who live in the same territory have the same culture.