EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Engaging with treasures of the subsurface between extractivism and spiritualism
Location U6-35
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Florian Stammler (University of Lapland) email
  • Dmitri Funk (Moscow State University) email
  • Vladislava Vladimirova (Uppsala University) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Hugh Beach

Short Abstract

Beyond the anthropology of oil and indigenous peoples, this session explores cultures of relating to the subsurface. Papers analyse the relation of different resource users' engagement with resources, their worldview, their environment and how these relations influence resource extraction

Long Abstract

People's corporeal, spiritual, and cultural engagement with subsurface resources are the subject of this session. Many indigenous people worldwide associate taboos, notions of death, darkness and dangers with the subsurface. On the other hand, human life - including indigenous life is dependent on the extraction of subsurface resources (most notably energy and mining). Underlying these processes is the worldview of extractivism (Acosta 2013), the idea that only through processes of extraction can resources become valuable and acquire meaning for humankind. The meaning of resources in extractivism is being used for the good of humans, whose goal is in turn 'open up' more untapped resources in a "big carbon" approach (Klein 2014). This is in stark contrast to many indigenous and local cosmologies where the underground is a sacred (albeit maybe dangerous) sphere that must be left in peace for the spirits. This session aims to overcome such a dichotomy by inviting papers on extractive industries focusing on the corporeality and spirituality of the resource(s), and on the lived experience of people living on top of subsurface resources. Rather than reifying the distinction between indigenous and incomer-people, or between traditional indigenous economies and extractive industries, we encourage papers to analyse the complex mutual influence between people's cosmologies, their relation to the environment, their way of life and their way of relating to and extracting resources. In doing so, we hope to break new ground in the theoretical positioning of an anthropology of extractive industries and the environment.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Extractivism and stewardship? Ways of engaging with sub-surface resources in the Russian North

Authors: Aytalina Ivanova (North Eastern Federal University)  email
Florian Stammler (University of Lapland)  email

Short Abstract


Long Abstract

This paper analyses relations between people and resources according to two principal logics which we identified during fieldwork in the Russian Arctic and sub-Arctic: the extractivist logic standing for the idea that humans own, control and exploit the land, and the partnership logic

standing for humans living as part of the land in a reciprocal relationship. We investigate the encounter of these two in the Russian industrialised North. In all cases we see people agree that the utilitarian logic prevails. The partnership logic can exist safely only in a narrowly circumscribed niche. State law governs this niche, based on the utilitarian assumption that resources have to be useful for human society. Drawing on data from Kamchatka and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, we identify three scenarios of the encounter between those two logics in people- resource relations: confrontation, coexistence and co-ignorance. We analyse under which conditions this encounter assumes which form. We conclude that a partnership approach to land and resources can only survive as a marginal island in a world dominated by an extractivist mindset, but that indigenous people can preserve a niche for their partnership approach if they internalise the extractivist logic, acknowledge its dominance and learn to play the extractivist game.

Nurturing ores, atomic testing pollution, and buried occult histories: competing interpretations of the subsurface as part of nature conservation in the Russian North

Author: Vladislava Vladimirova (Uppsala University)  email

Short Abstract

How competing interpretations of the subsurface shape nature conservation in Russia? In the context of a National Park project, I look into diverse ideas about the subsurface, ranging from profitable apatite and nepheline ores, to underground atomic testing pollution, to buried traces of occult histories.

Long Abstract

This presentation explores how competing interpretations of the subsurface are shaping nature conservation in the Russian North. I draw examples from the long struggle of environmentalists to establish a national park in the Hibiny Mountains in order to assure its preservation as a nature tourism site and as indigenous heritage. The vortex of interests in relation to the park is analyzed through narratives about the subsoils and underground. For example, environmentalists present the park as a response to increasing destruction of the area through the expanding extraction licenses that the government grants to companies that cannot prove the economic efficiency of the planned production. The companies emphasize that they are not only the main employer in the region but the apatite and nepheline ores are vital components for mineral fertilizers to help Russian agriculture stand on its feet, and thus conceal the fact that most of this production goes for export. One company director points out that it is hardly possible to market nature tourism in an area where the ground is polluted by secret Soviet nuclear weapon testing. Seidozero Lake, an indigenous sacred cite and a part of the future park, has captured the imagination of pilgrims with its occult fame, build on underground cave formations, and 'proved' by the unburied remains of older explorations. This presentation accords with the panel's call to highlight people's lived experiences of subsurface resources and analyze the complex relationship among people's beliefs and environmental politics.

'Subterranean water: notes on the political, industrial, therapeutic and hydromantic uses of underground water in central Serbia

Author: Maja Petrović-Šteger (The Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts)  email

Short Abstract

The paper looks at the modes of attending to water resources in rural Serbia. The analysis will reveal the uses and the values attributed to the underground water - by looking at the subterranean water economy, industry, quality, water mining practices, as well as its alleged hydromantic properties.

Long Abstract

There are over 1000 cold and warm mineral water springs in Serbia, and a great wealth of natural mineral gases and medicinal mud. Thermal resorts are regularly promoted and visited for healing and recovering purposes. On the other hand, country's water infrastructure and wastewater management have been gravely neglected over the last 25 years. Because surface water is often of poor quality, many use the groundwater for supply, irrigation and farming. The paper will look at the modes of attending to the water resources in rural, central Serbia; specifically to the subterranean and spring water. It will portray a particular economy of water in an environmental setting that is marked by heavy droughts, pollution, floods, deforestation, unregulated urban growth and huge industrial demands. The analysis will trace a host of arguments that surround the question of the use and the value attributed to the underground water - its politics, economy, industry, quality, notion of social responsibility, public control, neglect, and water mining practices. These concepts will be further complicated by looking at the practices and narratives that reveal understanding of the subterranean water both as a threatened and threatening, pure and impure, healing and poisonous, protective as well as a hydromantic substance.

'Ancestors, prophets and gold': an exploration of the role of the occult in artisanal mining activities in central Zimbabwe

Author: Grasian Mkodzongi (African Institute for Agrarian Studies)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of the occult in artisanal mining in central Zimbabwe.. The paper is based on ethnographic data gathered with artisanal miners in central Zimbabwe.

Long Abstract

One of the major outcomes of Zimbabwe's fast track land reforms, implemented in 2000, is the way it opened up access to natural resources that were formerly enclosed and enjoyed by a few whites under the bi-modal agrarian structure inherited from colonialism. Post the land reforms, Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) have dramatically increased across the countryside. However, ASM activities locally known as chikorokoza is a dangerous activity, miners often face mine collapse which in some places lead to fatal accidents. Additionally, miners live in constant fear of being violently robbed or murdered by criminal gangs that operate around mine sites. As a result, miners often have to consult spirit mediums, traditional healers or religious prophets before they engage in mining. This is believed to offer protection against potential hazards that can be encountered underground and to boost their chances of finding gold. This paper examines the role of the occult in artisanal mining activities. The paper argues that due to the hazards faced by artisanal miners and the difficulties in finding gold, miners are increasingly resorting to the occult to seek protection against accidents and to boost their chances of finding gold. The paper is based on ethnographic data gathered with artisanal miners in central Zimbabwe.

Culture, politics of pollution and risk: ethnological lessons from Andean mining conflicts

Author: Vladimir Gil Ramón (Catholic University (PUCP) & EICES - Columbia University )  email

Short Abstract

The study assesses Andean mining conflict cases, departing from the analysis of the politics of pollution and risk perception, in order to understand the causes of struggles from the perspectives and valuation of the social actors involved in nature engagement.

Long Abstract

The recent expansion of the mining frontier around the world, mostly fueled by the urbanization of China, has created new conflicts between governments and companies against remote and marginalized populations. Although mining is presented by states as beneficial for national development, the number of conflicts have grown world-wide. Nevertheless, there is insufficient empirical data explaining the causes of sub-national conflicts and demands, considering populations surrounding new mining operations and their perceptions of the environmental impacts and unfulfilled expectations of development.

The research is based on long-term multi-sited ethnographic field work comparing transnational Andean mining cases, unveiling the causes of social conflicts. Politics about animated entities related to mining resources, pollution monitoring and perception of environmental risks have become a key variables for understanding conflictive encounters. The research covers findings on mythological explanations of struggles surrounding natural resources as well as cultural relations with animals and plants. Agriculturalists had to assume extra costs of time and energy when they felt forced to search for new water sources for their animals and plants, due to the distrust of rivers that looked and smelled different, due to mining residuals. The ethnographic analysis shows a critique to cost-benefit analysis of externalities, when it ignores local perceptions and the cultural relationship with their animals and plants.

The research presents a particularized version of events that are unfolding globally, in an era when national governments concede spheres of their sovereignty to corporate networks and NGOs, with an unexpected outcome: the possibility of vulnerable populations to find superior ways for improving their articulation and participation in the nation, while contesting national institutions and re-appropriating discourses of development and environmental impact.

Southern Siberia (Russia) indigenous peoples vs mining companies: land-use conflicts and standoff discourse in context of resource curse

Author: Vladimir Poddubikov (Kemerovo State University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper considers the social and cultural aspects of land-based conflicts arising between the Southern Siberia indigenous peoples and extractive companies. Author notes that such conflict situations in some cases make the basis for tension of inter-ethnic relations.

Long Abstract

This paper considers land-based conflicts in the areas of Siberian indigenous peoples traditional residence. Author demonstrates various conflict situations arising between local communities of shors, teleuts, tozhu-tuvans and extractive companies mining subsurface mineral resources on the indigenous peoples' ethnic territories. Obviously, land-base conflicts are the factors hampering the indigenous peoples' sustainable development both in context of their cultural practices and with regards to small-numerous ethnic groups identity. Especially paper focuses on the study of how land-use conflicts determine the features of interethnic relations in areas densely populated by indigenous peoples.

It is noted that the most common factor of the land-use conflicts is that the extractive companies have to withdraw a part of indigenous communities land-use areas. Actually this trend in many cases forms the basis for not only land-use but also ethnic conflicts as an indigenous peoples loosing a significant part of their ethnic territory and sensing in this regard the worsening of their social and economic status, are frequently prefer to interpret these negative changes as an influence going from the dominant society or ethnic majority groups. This is often why indigenous minority may feel slighted in the rights to preserve their of original habitat, way of life and cultural practices.

The conflicts arising from this basis is so difficult to solve. However there are few effective methods some of which are being illustrated in this research paper on example of Southern Siberia region.

Shamanic and mining practices of dealing with the world(s) of spirits: a South Siberian case

Author: Dmitri Funk (Moscow State University)  email

Short Abstract

The study reveals main differences and similarities in dealing with the world(s) of spirits in shamanic cosmologies and by mining companies, and shows how different cultural interpretations are used, forgotten, or invented, and how they interact under apparently unequal social conditions.

Long Abstract

Spiritual/shamanic worlds as perceived by the Turkic-speaking groups in South Siberia consist of up to five worlds with not very detailed picture of only one of those worlds, of the lower one. In ritual texts and people's explanations this world is shown as the land of the deceased, even though there are known "practices" of entering the underworld / a mountain world by a leaving person who, eventually, brings something valuable underneath. This "gift" is not of a big value, because his or her contemporaries are normally dead by the time he/she returns to the middle world. One of the shaman's tasks was a search for a lost person in a hope to regulate a temporarily broken social order.

Mining practices in the soviet and postsoviet times show different approaches to subsurface treasures. Official ideology and superstitions of mineworkers, among whom often were representatives of the local indigenous groups as well, varied significantly.

The pressure of mining industries that changed practically all social, cultural and ecological landscapes of indigenous societies brought about a shamanic revival as the last way to resist it.

The study reveals main differences and similarities in dealing with the world(s) of spirits in shamanic cosmologies and by mining companies, and shows how different cultural interpretations are used, forgotten, or invented in order to either defend the ancestral land, or get at least small benefits from losing it, or get super profit, and how these strategies interact under apparently unequal social conditions of the main stakeholders.

The main concepts and issues of "anthropology of oil"

Author: Elena Miskova (Moscow State University )  email

Short Abstract

The purpose of the presentation is to discuss the most recent conceptualizations of social relations connected with extracting resources, meanings and symbols from subsurface terrains.

Long Abstract

In my presentation I'm going to address to the broad issues of "subterranean estates" - to borrow the title of one of the last collections of articles - by observing latest approaches and theories in social studies of oil and gas. Researches in this expanding domain take advantage of such concepts as biopolitics, deep oil and deep culture, crude domination and etc. This allows them to move the issue to the broader context of obtaining vital resources in modern societies and ordering the social relations, which is connected and structured by this process. The infrustructure as discussed as specific culture of planning and organizing of Soviet social spaces. The modes of dominations appear as regimes of culturally structured desire to resist or to access to resource. All these theoretical framing work to redefine not only the conceptual but disciplinary research boundaries. The old distinctions between human agency and longer-run structures are blurred in such diverse contexts.

The analogy between the subsurface depths and the depths of culturally organized understanding by the people of boundaries and meanings of their lives returns us to anthropology as an exciting analysis of social imagination.

And of course I hope to pay attention and discuss some turning points and controversial issues of theory theorization in this domain.

Representations of petroleum in Chad between blessing and curse

Author: Yorbana Seign-Goura (University of Neuchatel)  email

Short Abstract

This ethnographical study reveals the representations of local workers and oil producing area populations in Chad which vary between extractivism and spiritualism.

Long Abstract

This article highlights the thoughts around the oil in Chad and is based on the speech of a category of actors including local oil workers and populations of the petroleum producing zone. Thus, it appears that a decade of oil exploitation in Chad was enough to form a collective imagination of these players in its implicit and explicit effects. The mixed record in terms of local development from the expectations of the extractive sector has caused feelings, beliefs or sometimes paradoxical representations on oil. The sense of God's gift and the promise for the fight against poverty by oil extraction, turned into the disillusionment of oil for development effect and oil curse theory. To this end, the metaphors related to fire, earth, diseases, animals, money cursed are mobilized to translate the harsh realities of the mining industry in the country. Myths, representations and discourses revealed by this ethnographical study in the oil sector in Chad are the purpose of this article. They translate and explain the thesis of the resource curse, or at least make oil exploitation wobbles between curse and blessing, at best between extractivism and spiritualism.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.