Accepted Paper:

"The land has become desert": water pollution, out-migration, and creating community in the Bolivian Highlands  


Clayton Whitt (University of British Columbia)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how farmers facing severe contamination from upstream mines in the Bolivian highlands respond, in part, by engaging in new forms of split rural-urban residency that leads to spatially dispersed, multinodal community building.

Paper long abstract:

While rural-to-urban migration in the Bolivian highlands has many causes, for people living along the Desaguadero River in the Department of Oruro, water pollution presents a severe strain on their livelihoods. Farmers in the region depend on irrigation, but gold and tin mines discharge their wastes directly into the watershed, resulting in toxic levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. As land goes out of production, and livestock are born with birth defects, more people migrate to the nearby city of Oruro. This paper, based on 13 months of Ph.D. dissertation research in the highland village of El Choro, explores how people continue to create and experience community even after so many have moved away. Many migrants have settled in a new neighbourhood in Oruro called Villa Choro, where they build new lives in an urban setting but also regularly shuttle to the village of El Choro for different activities. In this paper I draw on Doreen Massey's conceptualization of places as spatiotemporal events that are constituted by intersecting trajectories to argue that these movements weave together a community of geographically disjoined places. I explore how these new forms of part-time residency emerge and engage with the countryside, which despite extensive contamination remains an important locus for political, social, cultural, and productive activities. By examining how split residents' nevertheless manage to create a spatially dispersed community, I argue that people in El Choro have more choices on how to respond to environmental pressures than may initially appear.

Panel LL-AS05
Poison, movements and communities