Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mining History: Mobilizing the Past in Struggles over Mineral Extraction in Peru

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mining History: Mobilizing the Past in Struggles over Mineral Extraction in Peru

Article excerpt

In his book In Search of an Inca, acclaimed Peruvian historian Alberto Flores Galindo traces how the people of Peru's Andean region have historically invoked idealized notions of the Inca Empire, and the myth of a return of the Incas, to draw attention to--and think beyond--the injustices of colonial and postcolonial Peruvian society (Flores Galindo 2010). According to Flores Galindo, following the Spanish Conquest and its devastating effects, "the Inca became an organizing idea or principle" for Andean people (2010, 27). Imagined as a kingdom free from hunger, disease, and exploitation--what Flores Galindo refers to as the "Andean utopia"--the Inca Empire came to represent "a sort of inverted image of Peruvian reality" (Flores Galindo 2010, 7). Over the ensuing centuries, the idea of the Andean utopia not only reappeared in a variety of Andean popular cultural forms; it also served as an organizing principle for social movements and rebellions in the region.

I reference Flores Galindo's work here because it resonates with research in the field of political ecology that has investigated how memories and narratives of the past animate and shape the contours of environmental politics (Moore 1993, 1998; Neumann 1998; Davis 2007; Perreault and Valdivia 2010). Drawing on a variety of theoretical currents--including Foucauldian discourse theory, Gramscian understandings of the cultural dimensions of class politics, and Thompsonian notions of a moral economy (Gramsci 1971; Thompson 1971; Foucault 1991)--this political-ecological scholarship takes as a starting point the recognition that sociopolitical contestations over resource use and environmental conservation are simultaneously material and symbolic in character. This is to say that such struggles are typically about not just access to and control over physical resources, but also the ideas, meanings, and imaginaries that actors involved in these struggles ascribe to nature and to nature-society relations. Attention to these discursive dimensions of environmental politics has led political ecologists to critically examine the historical narratives that powerful actors assemble in order to justify development and conservation interventions (Bassett and Zueli 2000; Davis 2005). It has also spurred ethnographic research into the often-complex ways in which social memories are expressed and deployed in resource conflicts at the micropolitical level (Moore 1993, 1998). A review of this literature suggests that, for critical nature-society scholars, a "historical perspective" has come to entail not only situating present-day environmental struggles within longer-term trajectories of political-ecological change and conflict. It also involves investigating how diverse actors mobilize particular representations of the past in order to advance their goals and defend their interests. From this perspective, then, historical memories and narratives may be considered constitutive forces within environmental politics.

This paper draws on these insights to examine how history is represented and invoked within contemporary debates and conflicts over large-scale mining in Peru. During the last two decades, Peru has experienced a marked growth of mineral development activities. This mining industry dynamism has been driven by the interplay of several factors, including heightened demand for minerals on global markets, techno-organizational advances that have made lower-quality deposits profitable to exploit, and neoliberal reforms undertaken in the 1990s that reopened the Peruvian mining sector to foreign direct investment and transformed land-tenure legislation in ways that "freed" land for capitalist resource development (Bury 2005; Bebbington 2007). The result has been an intensification of extraction in the country's long-standing mining regions, as well as an expansion of mining into areas with little or no mining history. The construction of numerous new "mega" mines--operations capable of processing massive amounts of spatially diffuse, low-grade ore--has led to surging mineral production and export figures, thus consolidating mining's political-economic importance at the national scale. …

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