[OUTREACH] Hugo Romero on extractivism in Chile’s Norte Grande: “Mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through a relationship based on negotiation and resistance”

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[OUTREACH] Hugo Romero on extractivism in Chile’s Norte Grande: “Mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through a relationship based on negotiation and resistance”

Hugo Romero sobre el extractivismo

In this interview, the sociologist (PhD in Human Geography, University of Manchester) discusses how he came to study extractivism in Chile, the tense relationship between mining companies and indigenous communities, and the difficult relationship between academic work and policymaking in Chile.

Hugo Romero started his postdoctorate at COES in 2014 and is currently a researcher in Geographies Conflict line of research. Here, he has studied territorial conflicts in the Norte Grande —the regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá, and Antofagasta— and in the indigenous territories of the 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 and Atacameña or Likan Antai— with regard to the expansion of mining in the Norte Grande. In particular, he studied how local communities and mining companies access, use, purchase, and contaminate water.

With these results, he applied to the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (Fondecyt) for Project Initiation and received funding to conduct the project entitled “Analysis of socio-environmental transformations and conflicts of the Norte Grande: Water, Mining, Landscapes, and Aymara Communities (2014-2017)”. With this project, Mr. Romero sought to expand the research carried out in his postdoctoral work. Within the context of this Fondecyt project, he was able to carry out fieldwork in the expansion area and conduct interviews with community leaders, mining company personnel, and public officials in order to analyze and compare the conflict considering the views of all the stakeholders present in the territory.

It should be noted that Hugo Romero studied sociology at the Universidad de La Frontera (Temuco) when the Coordinadora Mapuche Arauco Malleco (CAM) was starting to operate. This organization is known for claiming responsibility for arson attacks on trucks, houses, and churches, among other property in the Araucanía, through its Territorial Resistance Organ. Romero was also part of the first generation of students in the country to be awarded a Becas Chile scholarship, a State-funded grant to pursue postgraduate studies in the world’s best universities. Thanks to this scholarship, he earned 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 conducts research with a team of three academics and he is the thesis advisor for six undergraduate students and three graduate students in this line of research.

Mining, communities, and extractivism 

How did you shift from sociology to geography and territory?

Sociology was not giving me answers to the set of phenomena that I was observing; so, I decided to study a master’s degree in Social Research at the Universidad de Concepción, where I developed an interest in forest extractivism. There, I realized that there was a variable that I had not taken into account: the territory. The texts we read in the master’s were very neutral and naive about the territory (…) I knew there was something the communities were defending and, at the same time, there was something the State was not processing or did not want to acknowledge. Back then, sociology was strongly focused on the criticism of modernity and the risk society, or at least that was the sociology I was being taught, so I started to wonder what was happening with the territory and how it could be investigated within 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 University of Kassel. While there, I googled “environmental conflicts in the Andes” and found 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 I got a scholarship, I could go to study with him, and there I studied in depth the conflicts around the construction of hydroelectric power plants in Patagonia.

How did you come to study extractivism?

I returned to Chile and applied for a postdoctoral research position at COES, where they asked me to specialize in the north and in indigenous conflicts. Here, I have worked on two extractivism projects, one on mining conflicts and indigenous communities in the Norte Grande, specifically in the Tarapacá region, and another on indigenous lands in the Araucanía, where I mainly study the expansion of the lumber industry and hydroelectric conflicts that have emerged in recent times.

What is meant by extractivism?

Extractivism is an economic strategy promoted by National States for the exploitation of specific resources, mainly aimed at the specialization of certain regions in a single product. When a territory becomes specialized in the exploitation of a certain resource, terms such as “the mining Norte Grande”, “the fruit production sector of central Chile”, or “the fishing coast”, start to be used. This is very interesting because it is a complete specialization in the extraction of raw materials; that is to say, products that do not undergo any further processing and are extracted in large volumes; therefore, environmental damage is great. Also, this approach to production is usually associated with transnational capital, which means 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 resource extraction. This mindset originates expressions such as “to grow, we need to dam the rivers” or “to develop further, we need to increase the production of minerals such as copper”, and the like. Extractivism is, literally, extracting resources (…), going to territories that had not previously been integrated into capitalism, so we see that the lands of indigenous communities in the Altiplano or in the Andes begin to be integrated into global dynamics of resource extraction.

How does extractivism work and what is the conflict about?

The process is backed by the discourse that resources belong to the State, without exception, not to local communities. And this has major implications, because the Nation-State is regarded as the owner of the resources in the soil and the subsoil, even if indigenous communities live on the surface this results in a series of conflicts, for example, conflicts between territorial sovereignties. Whose territory is it? Is it owned by the State or by 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 a serious problem because the Norte Grande has a number of occupation dynamics, with a group of indigenous populations living in urban areas and a very small number living in the foothills of the Andes, in the plateau. I had to read a lot to begin to understand the dynamics of residence in this area, also considering the complexity of working in the desert (…) The Mini COES project helped me identify the most relevant issues.

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

The most interesting thing was to learn who the Aymara are, who the Quechua are, why they were colliding with mining companies, and whether there were other open or latent conflicts. And it was very interesting because in the end it challenged some theories about conflicts and also certain ideas about territorialities, about identities… The project also revealed that extractivism conflicts are not only destructive in the sense of the destruction of nature and the environment of indigenous communities, but that they can also be destructive in a highly productive way, since they require communities to develop a wide repertoire of creative collective actions, and within those creative resistances, the territory is resignified. In my opinion, this resignification has been central, and it is mainly expressed through the increase in indigenous self-identification in the north. According to the 2017 Census, there are about 150 thousand people who self-identify as Aymara. Quechua self-identification has also grown a lot, reaching more than 33 thousand people, and this reaction is associated with territories that had been ancestrally inhabited in Chile’s Norte Grande and that now face the threat of mining.

Why are mining companies a threat to communities?

The threat here mainly translates into the capture of water for mining processes and the possibility of airborne pollution. And it is very interesting to see how communities react to that: a population living in urban areas begins to reactivate and to reassert its affiliations and origins –they come from villages located in the Andes, its foothills, and its highlands. The Andean village becomes the space of resistance and ethnic resignification of the Aymara and the Quechua, and that leads mining companies to create a series of strategies to deal with the articulation or emergence of indigenous identity. What this situation basically shows is that identities are not essential but that a strategic essentialism is generated, an essentialism that is eminently political, a way to negotiate/resist the presence of mining companies (…) A dialectic began to develop in the Norte Grande, where mining companies and communities co-produce a territory through through relationships of negotiation and resistance.

Specifically, in what way is the territory co-produced by mining companies and local communities?

Mining companies, basically, require a number of professionals to deal with local communities, and communities require that mining companies, given the absence of the State, invest in Andean villages. So, it is very interesting because you see cell phone towers, television towers, improved health care centers, new community centers; in other words, you see how the Andean village begins to integrate within the dynamics of the mining companies, and you also see mining company personnel establishing relationships with 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 an Institute of Quechua Studies in Iquique. It did not exist before, but now it does because the Quechua 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 without 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 expects extractivism to destroy, because that is what it has done in many places, but extractivism can also be subverted, and a creative process can be born out of it, where these dynamics of negotiation and resistance are generated together with environmental change. Communities respond not passively but actively (…) At the end of the day, communities have more leadership and are more differentiated from one another, and in many cases, this has allowed specialization to appear within them: they have excellent negotiators, who know Chilean and international law. This has allowed them to position themselves, to become visible. So, they have fought against extractivism with organization and creativity. Today, the “Inca Trail” has clearly appeared in some areas, and that is because mining companies have hired archaeologists to work with local communities to resignify the relevant spaces. So, once communities discover what they have within their territory, they begin to pressure mining companies not to destroy it (…) Mining companies, to avoid conflict, hire archaeologists, anthropologists, historians; but that also generates a new conflicts because now people know and value their heritage. So that’s what I mean when I say that conflicts are highly creative. They create new alliances and destroy others. There were villages that were practically abandoned and today you go there and the church is in a very good condition, there’s a new community centers, they have electricity, internet, and they have all that because they have had the capacity to engage with the conflict. It seems to me that this is a relatively new reading of conflicts.

How have you managed to bring research closer to the public policy domain?

It is really difficult to leave academia and reach 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 same as their conventional notion of territory because the sovereignty of the country is at stake. So, here we are faced with a gigantic conflict, which is the underlying theme of the research project: that the Nation State goes into crisis mode with these conflicts because multiple visions, representations, and political actions that question the sovereignty of the State begin to emerge, stemming mainly from indigenous, environmental, and territorial issues.

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 problem, at least what I observe in the south: it is not about land, it is not about hectares, it is not about a few more liters of water; it has to do with the deep-seated historical anger of the Mapuche with the dispossession process, because they have had the ability to resist, also creatively, reinvent themselves, adapt, and develop 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 their traditional leadership, their religion, their language; therefore, this is not something that is going to end because a few more hectares. The State is going to have to learn how other countries are coping, countries that have also dealt with this serious problem: the State believes that all those who live in the same territory have the same culture.