Dynamics of extraction


Mining, forestry and other resource extraction projects bring opportunities, pressures and potential threats for Indigenous communities. A public forum at UQ this month will discuss how best to help achieve sustainable outcomes.

“The most isolated corner of Chile,” Doña Renata says to me, as though she is quoting someone else. El rincón más aislado de Chile.

We sit on the edge of her fields, guarding the entrance to a winter garden where her small flock of sheep eat the cut corn stalks, pull on weeds, and add their droppings to the soil for next season’s crop. Our shoulders are to the garden, water runs in the irrigation ditch beside us, and we look out over the southern end of the Salar de Atacama stretched below. Doña Renata (not her real name) is pensive. She asks me to tell her again how I have come to be sitting in this remote place with her. 

Tending to the sheep

Tending to the sheep

As I have before, I tell her that I am interested in writing about the mining companies from Australia that operate in Chile, and what their relations with the people of the indigenous communities in whose territories they operate are like.

BHP, the company known as ‘the Big Australian’, operates the highest-producing copper mine in the world just to the south. It extracts thousands of litres of water every second from the salar’s underground aquifers for processing, and has a legal agreement with Renata’s community for what are termed development benefits.

On the salar – or salt pan – in front of us, lithium extraction plants reflect the sun and send up plumes of dust. I tell Renata that what interests me most are her experiences of this extraction industry and how her community is connected to other parts of the world through it.

As she has before, Renata tells me about how, in the early 1960s, before there was a road, her school teacher had said that wealth would come to the community because of the riches in the salar and the mountains. Renata says many of her neighbours were already looking forward to such times. The best thing was that young people wouldn’t have to leave their community to find work. The lithium mine opened nearby in the 80s and many who had left returned. Others moved in from neighbouring communities, and together they were able to improve domestic water supply and material prosperity.

But as the town has grown, Renata says, so has ‘jealousy and individualism’, taking the place of the spirit of former times in agricultural and community pursuits and cultural practice relating to the earth. These nostalgic ways of thinking are tempered by a celebration of modern life. Renata’s adult children and grandchildren are connected with one another (and me) via social media and have jobs in modern industries, while also keeping the family garden plots planted with corn.

From one of the water sources in the community’s territory, looking down to the Salar and Lithium mines in the distance.

From one of the water sources in the community’s territory, looking down to the Salar and Lithium mines in the distance.

For about a decade, I’ve been visiting the north of Chile once or twice a year. As an anthropologist, one of my interests is in how global politics are manifested in the social and cultural lives and experiences of indigenous peoples. The dynamics of relations between communities and the extraction industry are different across the world. But, while indigenous peoples do speak about territory as a resource, they may also say that the water, mountains and other features of landscape are relatives - non-human kin. With these considerations in mind, the debate about the benefits of extraction over other kinds of industry that is prominent in our news, social media and discussions in our cities, can take on intimate dimensions.

A few years ago, Renata’s community, along with others around the Salar de Atacama, finalised financial and infrastructure benefits agreements, previously unprecedented in Chile, with one of the lithium operators. As the company was seeking to expand its operations, this agreement helped it project a positive image to the government and broader society. With this agreement, in addition to another with a copper miner, the community might be expected to have few worries about future generations.

But managing the funds received from such packages has been stymied by a combination of external expectations, regulations and internal conflicts. Community leaders seek to have their views respected in these situations, but may not have the power to achieve their aims. I have participated in meetings of the mining companies and communities where environmental and social impact concerns are debated, and I’ve also taken long bus journeys to the city with community members when they decided to raise their voices in street protests appealing to government regulators.

Protest of indigenous communities of the Salar de Atacama in the regional capital of Antofagasta, November 2017. The banner reads “No more exploitation of the Salar. The Salar is life and says, no more!”

Protest of indigenous communities of the Salar de Atacama in the regional capital of Antofagasta, November 2017. The banner reads “No more exploitation of the Salar. The Salar is life and says, no more!”

The 21st century has seen the extraction industry grow in intensity and scale all over the world, with water use by the industry a principal concern in the Salar de Atacama and many other regions. At the same time, both in Australia and other parts of the world, the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples by governments has become a public issue. The growth of the industry has seen a parallel growth of indigenous people’s fears about the extent and impact of extraction and, while some gains are achieved through recognition of indigenous rights, many social and environmental injustices remain.

Renata’s adult children and grandchildren are involved in the mining industry as well as in movements to protect their water, environment, community life, and the entities they see related to them and their territories. As indigenous peoples in ‘the most isolated corner of Chile’, they speak from one of the hundreds of local frontiers in the global industry of extraction.

Their ideas and experiences will be among those discussed by indigenous community thinkers from Chile and Australia, as well as academics and independent researchers, at a UQ event: ‘Extraction, Development and Indigenous Community Sustainability’, on Friday 11 May.  Places are limited, so please RSVP.

The event has been supported by UQ Global Engagement, the HASS faculty, Professor Paul Memmott’s Indigenous Design Place, the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining and the School of Social Science. Traditional Owners from Stradbroke Island are hosting the group in the days before our public symposium for a field trip and cultural exchange. The Chilean Centre for Intercultural and Indigenous Research and the Northern Catholic University have also made contributions by supporting researchers’travel and attendance. We acknowledge contributions to the event by Dr Sutton, a UQ alumnus, whose company Virtus Heritage is flying collaborators from Mapoon, as well as North Queensland Land Council, who are assisting a member of their traditional owner board to participate.

An evaporation pool in the Lithium mine

An evaporation pool in the Lithium mine