Social Explorations of Resource Extraction

Mining, Environments and the role of Anthropologists

By Lorenzo D’Angelo, University of Milano-Bicocca

The continued economic and ecological crises of recent years have again shown how economists and international leaders have overestimated the ability of markets to expand and self-regulate. In a finite world, dominated by a social imaginary of infinite progress and magically generated wealth (Comaroff, Comaroff 2001), the appropriation of resources and control over the commons are the reasons behind an increasing number of conflicts and structural inequalities (Strang, Busse 2011). To escape from the “specter of impoverishment fostered by unlimited growth benefiting only a few” (Nash 2006: 36), we need to critically rethink the relationship between societies and environments. As Melissa Checker (2009) has pointed out, anthropology can offer an important contribution to academic and public debate by inviting and inspiring an in-depth analysis of recent social and environmental changes.

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“The soil in an abandoned mining sites in Kono District, Sierra Leone”. Credit: Lorenzo D’Angelo

The extensive and well-documented repertoire of possible ways of life analysed through the anthropologists’ lens of fieldwork can contribute by enriching a critical understanding of the current ecological and economic crises. This understanding can also inspire practical forms of transformation of the current dominant ways of life. Here, I would like to draw attention to the mining industry and its complex relationship with environmental issues.

In recent decades, the explorative and extractive operations of the large mining companies have expanded into the most remote and inaccessible regions (Ballard, Blanks 2003; Crowson 2011). Although Hodges (1995) calculates that the land affected by large scale mining operations represents less than 1% of the world’s land surface, the environmental impact of the global mining industry should not be underestimated. No other human activity is able to move as much earth as the mining industry (Kirsch 2010: 88). Indeed, some studies estimate that the total amount of earth treated in mines is comparable to that moved by natural or geomorphological processes and is therefore far from irrelevant (Douglas, Lawson 2000 cit. Bridge in 2004: 209). Furthermore, if we keep in mind that the extraction of metals or precious stones entails segregative processes (small amounts of useful material are separated, via special processes, from large amounts of later-discarded materials), we can begin to understand the ecological impact of the wasted material itself (Bridge 2004). To obtain metals such as gold and copper, it is necessary to discard more than 99% of the extracted material (Douglas, Lawson 2000). What is not used can be an environmental threat: sand produced and dispersed by mining excavations becomes dust which pollutes the air; chemical agents added in mining processes like mercury (e.g. Spiegel 2009), and those derived from the oxidation of metals flow into rivers or into the groundwater; even chemically inert rocks, due to their sheer volume, can be disruptive and constitute an environmental problem (Godoy 1985; Bridge 2004).

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“Abandoned mining tailing hill, Kono District, Sierra Leone”. Credit: Lorenzo D’Angelo

However, to consider mining only from a purely technical or engineering point of view does not give insight into the complexity of the relationships established around the mines, nor help us in fully evaluating the social, political and economic impacts of this activity. Extractive processes are neither ecologically nor politically neutral.

It is appropriate to point out that one of the effects of the mining boom has been the turning of mining sites into places of contention in which a heterogeneous variety of institutional and non-institutional actors – such as NGOs, development agencies, associations, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists – compete with and confront each other (Ballard, Banks 2003; Bridge 2004). These disputes often feature the following two opposing positions: on the one hand, the local communities and their representatives – who seek forms of compensation and want to be involved in decisions that affect the distribution of benefits derived from the exploitation of the local resources – and on the other, the mining companies and international corporations that, for their part, emphasise and publicise the economic and social benefits afforded by their mere presence: more employment opportunities for the population, economic benefits for the national governments’ coffers due to tax paid for mining licenses, and so on (Benson, Kirsch 2010). As these “benefits” are, for the most part, vague or unfulfilled promises, it is not surprising that the discontent of the people living in the mining areas may sometimes lead to protests or acts of sabotage against those who are locally perceived (most of the time) as usurpers rather than benefactors.

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“Mining community in the Niger Delta, Nigeria”. Credit: Michele Parodi.

It is clear that in order to analyse the so-called “environmental impact” of mining we cannot only rely on statistics or the mere enumerations of chemicals. What is needed are more extensive and sophisticated units of analysis that go beyond the notion, though extended, of “ecosystem” (Bridge 2004). In this sense, environmental anthropology, with its interdisciplinary vocation (Dove, Carpenter, 2002: 61), and the methodology that best characterizes it, namely field research, can make an important contribution to the detailed analyses of local realities, without neglecting the connections (and disconnections) that exist between these same realities and the global contexts to which they are directly or indirectly related. In this regard the “fair trade gold” movement is an interesting initiative that deserves to be, however, further scrutinised (cf. Hilson 2008).

More than ever, anthropologists now have the opportunity to extend the boundaries of their discipline and undertake fieldwork that explores possible forms of integration with other disciplines (Godoy, 1985) as well as cooperating with social actors that are not necessarily linked to the academy (Ballard, Banks 2003). Overall, they can continue to experiment with new forms of civic engagement and advocacy in support of the communities being studied (e.g. Coumans 2011).

By re-orientating the purposes and methods of the discipline, anthropologists have the opportunity to offer critical and analytical tools capable of subverting the “politics of resignation” (Benson, Kirsch 2010) that large scale mining companies promote in order to attempt to make acceptable and taken for granted the suffering, risks and environmental damages they themselves produce.


A slightly different version has been published on Allegra Laboratory:


Ballard, C., Banks, G. (2003), “Resource Wars: The anthropology of mining”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 32: 287-313.

Benson, P., Kirsch, S. (2010), “Capitalism and the politics of resignation”, Current Anthropology, 51, 4: 459-486.

Bridge, G. (2004), “Contested terrain: Mining and the environment”, Annual Review Resources, 29: 205-259.

Checker, M. (2009), “Anthropology in the public sphere, 2008: Emerging Trends and Significant Impacts”, American Anthropologist, 111, (2): 162-169.

Coumans, C. (2011), “Occupying spaces created by conflict. Anthropologists, development NGOs, responsible investment, and mining”, Current Anthropology, 52, S3: S29-S43.

Crowson, P. C. F. (2011), “Mineral reserves and future minerals availability”, Mineral Economy, 24 (1): 1-6.

Dove, M. R., C. Carpenter (eds.) (2002), Environmental Anthropology. A Historical Reader, Blackwell.

Godoy, R. (1985), “Mining: Anthropological perspectives”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 14: 199-217.

Hilson, G. (2008), “ ‘Fair trade gold’: Antecedents, prospects and challenges”, Geoforum, 39: 386-400.

Hodges, C. A. (1995), “Mineral resources, environmental issues and land use”, Science, 268, 5215: 1305-12.

Kirsch, S. (2010), “Sustainable mining”, Dialectical Anthropology, 34: 87-93.

Nash, J. C. (2006), Practicing Ethnography in a Globalizing World. An Anthropological Odyssey, Lanham – Boulder – New York – Toronto – Plymouth, UK, Altamira Press.

Spiegel, S. J. (2009), “Socioeconomic dimensions of mercury pollution abatement: Engaging artisanal mining communities in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Ecological Economics, 68 (12): 3072-3083.

Strang, V., Busse, M. (eds.) (2011), Ownership and Appropriation, Oxford – New York, Berg.



  1. Thanks for the succinct overview and great concluding paragraphs.

    On “[T]hey can continue to experiment with new forms of civic engagement and advocacy in support of the communities being studied”, I would be interested in some examples of this and also in the other direction – communities/civil society reaching out specifically to anthropologists for collaboration, partnership, research or some other form of relationship.

    • Lorenzo D'Angelo

      November 20, 2016 at 8:42 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Rachel. Catherine Coumans and Stuart Kirsch’s works provide interesting case studies for thinking about how anthropologists may engage in supporting mining communities. Kirsch has dealt mainly with the Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea. In “Anthropology and Advocacy”, he considers activism as a “logical extension of the commitment to reciprocity that underlies the practice of anthropology” (2002, p. 178). For a different view, see, for example, Filer (1996; 1999) quoted in Kirsch (2002). Catherine Coumans (2011) examines the ambiguous role played by anthropologists hired by mining companies as “problem solvers”. Her focus is on the gold mines located in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
      I am not aware of any specific case studies on mining communities hiring anthropologists for defending their causes (on anthropology and consultancy, see Stewart, Strathern (2005)).
      I invite you (and all interested readers) to extend this short bibliography by adding other references:

      Coumans, C. 2011. “Occupying Spaces Created by Conflict. Anthropologists, Development NGOs, Responsible Investment, and Mining”, Current Anthropology, 52 (3), pp. 29-43.

      Filer, C. 1996. “Global Alliances and Local Mediation”, Anthropology Today, 12 (5), p. 26.

      Filer, C. 1999. “The Dialectics of Negation and Negotiation in the Anthropology of Mineral Resource Development in Papua New Guinea”, in Cheater, A. (ed.) The Anthropology of Power, London, Routledge, pp. 88-102.

      Kirsch, S. 2002. “Anthropology and Advocacy. A Case Study of the Campaign against the Ok Tedi Mine”, Critique of Anthropology, 22 (2), pp. 175-200.

      Stewart, P. J., Strathern, A. (eds.) Anthropology and Consultancy. Issues and Debates, New York, Berghahn.

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