The essays in this Dialogues explore the expression of Latin American visual culture in the context of resource extraction and related conflicts over water, land, and community rights. The contributors to the forum—whose diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds connect art history, anthropology, photography, and activism—consider how creative work in different media can convey the contradictions, ambiguities, and fluid nature of people's relationship with extractive industries. The essays explore how these forms of representation challenge both popular and academic ideas about resource conflicts. Some of the essays describe nonconventional forms of research dissemination, such as an exhibition on extractive landscapes featuring Peruvian contemporary visual artists and a book project about Colombian mining that combines documentary photography and ethnographic writing. Other essays explore the use of images and media technologies in campaigns against mineral and oil extraction in Peru and Ecuador, which sometimes rely on symbols of class struggle or indigeneity. The essays also explore the international reverberations of these campaigns and their influence on solidary activism, including the uncomfortable exchanges and uneasy alliances that result. The contributors critically examine innovative forms of translation and collaboration among scholars, activists, indigenous and environmental organizations, artists, journalists, and community members, as well as the tensions that may result from these collective endeavors. Together, the set of essays contribute to ongoing interdisciplinary discussion on three themes: representation, materiality, and translation.
RESUMEN Los ensayos en estos diálogos exploran la expresión de la cultura visual latinoamericana en el contexto de la extracción de recursos, y similares conflictos sobre el agua, la tierra y los derechos comunitarios. Los colaboradores del foro, cuyas diversas trayectorias prácticas y profesionales relacionan la historia del arte, la antropología, la fotografía y el activismo, consideran cómo el trabajo creativo en diferentes medios puede transmitir las contradicciones, las ambigüedades y el carácter fluido de la relación entre personas e industrias extractivas. Los ensayos exploran cómo estas formas de representación cuestionan ideas populares y académicas sobre los conflictos de recursos. Algunos de los ensayos describen formas no convencionales de difusión de la investigación, como una exposición sobre paisajes extractivos con artistas visuales contemporáneos peruanos y un proyecto de libro sobre minería colombiana que combina fotografía documental y escritura etnográfica. Otros ensayos exploran el uso de imágenes y tecnologías de los medios en campañas contra la extracción de minerales y petróleo en Perú y Ecuador, que a veces se basan en símbolos de la lucha de clases o la indigeneidad. Los ensayos también exploran las repercusiones internacionales de estas campañas y su influencia en el activismo solidario, incluyendo los intercambios incómodos y las frágiles alianzas que resultan. Los colaboradores examinan críticamente formas innovadoras de traducción y colaboración entre académicos, activistas, organizaciones indígenas y ambientales, artistas, periodistas y miembros de la comunidad, así como las tensiones que pueden resultar de estos esfuerzos colectivos. En conjunto, los ensayos contribuyen a una conversación interdisciplinaria en curso sobre tres temas: la representación, la materialidad y la traducción.
RESUMO Os ensaios desses Diálogos exploram a expressão da cultura visual latino-americana no contexto da extração de recursos e conflitos relacionados à água, à terra e aos direitos da comunidade. Os contribuintes do fórum – cujas diversas origens disciplinares e profissionais conectam história da arte, antropologia, fotografia e ativismo – consideram como o trabalho criativo em diferentes mídias pode transmitir as contradições, ambiguidades e natureza fluída da relação das pessoas com as indústrias extrativas. Os ensaios exploram como essas formas de representação desafiam ideias populares e acadêmicas sobre conflitos sobre recursos. Alguns dos ensaios descrevem formas não convencionais de divulgação de pesquisas, como uma exposição sobre paisagens extrativistas com artistas visuais contemporâneos peruanos e um projeto de livro sobre mineração colombiana que combina fotografia documental e escrita etnográfica. Outros ensaios exploram o uso de imagens e tecnologias de mídia em campanhas contra extração de minerais e petróleo no Peru e no Equador, que às vezes dependem de símbolos da luta de classes ou da indigeneidade. Os ensaios também exploram as repercussões internacionais dessas campanhas e sua influência no ativismo solidário, incluindo as desconfortáveis trocas e alianças desconfortáveis que resultam. Os contribuintes examinam criticamente formas inovadoras de tradução e colaboração entre acadêmicos, ativistas, organizações indígenas e ambientais, artistas, jornalistas e membros da comunidade, bem como as tensões que podem resultar desses esforços coletivos. Juntos, o conjunto de ensaios contribui para a discussão interdisciplinar em curso sobre três temas: representação, materialidade e tradução.
Introduction: Bridging Academia, Activism, and Visual Culture in Conflicts over Resource Extraction
This forum examines the role of visual culture in some of the most contentious issues in Latin America today: conflicts over resource extraction and related struggles over water and land in communities affected by extractive activity.1 The essays that follow focus on various sites of extraction as they materialize through different forms of visual media, including protest art, photography, and art installations. An art exhibition showcasing the work of Peruvian contemporary artists, for example, illustrates how extractive activity transforms places like Cerro de Pasco, where copper mining gave residents a means of employment while swallowing the town with a gigantic open pit. In another contribution, a photographic book project captures daily life in Colombian small-scale gold mining operations, which have long provided miners with a precarious livelihood but are now also coveted by multinational corporations. This Dialogues explores the potential of these multisensory representations to capture the complexity of people's relationship with extraction, invite reflection, and inspire political action.
In the context of resource extraction, visual culture can shape collective action and create a common vocabulary of activism that is both shared and contested. The contributions to this forum examine visual symbols that featured prominently in national and international activism, such as the Andean Chakana in protests against mining in Ecuador, or photographs of indigenous women with red face paint in campaigns to stop oil extraction in Yasuní National Park. In Peru, the iconic digital image of a defiant woman with a raised arm, holding the broken “arm” of a mining excavator, challenged the government-sanctioned narrative that promotes mining development. These forms of visual culture can bring people together, overcoming (but not erasing) the internal differences and tensions that are part of social activism in response to resource extraction.
The contributions that follow are informed by each author's own engagement with extractive activities through academic research, photojournalism, activism, and personal experience. As contributors to this Dialogues, we were brought together by a common interest in resource extraction and a shared desire to communicate across disciplines and to wider audiences in ways that bring together academia, activism, and visual culture.
This collection of essays took shape as a panel for the XXXVI Latin American Studies Association International Congress in Barcelona in May 2018. However, some of the ideas that inspired the panel emerged earlier, in conversation with Pablo Sánchez and Ofelia Vargas (two contributors to this Dialogues), whom I met in 2005 while I was conducting doctoral research on mining conflicts and while they were involved with one of the organizations at the forefront of grassroots mobilizing in their home city of Cajamarca, Peru. It was a time of intense conflict between local communities and the Yanacocha Mining Company, and through their work with local organizations, Sánchez and Vargas witnessed firsthand how the expansion of resource extraction generated protest and unrest throughout the country.
In the years that followed, resource extraction became the subject of numerous studies, reports, and projects led by academics, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and governmental agencies. Increased media attention put a spotlight on the social and environmental effects of extractive activity, and made mining conflicts a focal point of national political debate. Yet when I reconnected with Sánchez and Vargas during my recent visits to Peru, our conversations seemed to suggest that in spite of some changes, much has remained the same. From corporate practices to the actions of successive governments, the model of extractivism—which sees resource extraction as a driver of economic growth and prosperity2—continues to shape national policy and popular discourse. States, corporations, and mainstream media often disseminate information that is built on persistent misconceptions about how people experience resource extraction and why they engage in protests against it. For example, the reasons why people oppose or support extractive industries are often simplified and attributed to economic interests, political ambitions, or manipulation by external actors.3 The analysis of mining conflicts tends to portray the various stakeholders (e.g., the state, corporation, and community) as monolithic actors pitted against each other. At the same time, popular organizations, NGOs, activists, and their allies sometimes present a counter-narrative that also simplifies and glosses over the divisions and tensions that exist in communities affected by mining activity.
Through their work, the authors of these essays have witnessed how visual and creative forms of expression (from local artists' depictions of mining to community murals, songs, and video) seemed to produce ruptures in dominant narratives about resource-led development, suggesting new ways of seeing and thinking about extraction (Figure 1). We thus asked ourselves how visual culture and activism could challenge and complicate these hegemonic narratives. Noting the limits of both academic research and activist strategies, we wondered how the two could come together to reach a broader audience and contribute to a better understanding of the challenges faced by communities affected by resource extraction.
These reflections inspired the questions that we address in this forum: How could bridging academia, art, and activism serve to challenge dominant discourses around resource extraction? How are academics and nonacademics using visual strategies to reach diverse audiences? The essays that follow consider how creative forms of representation can convey the reality of extraction in ways that are more accessible to the public. The authors explore how artifacts—from maps and photographs to protest art—can serve as catalysts for reflection and action, while recognizing the tensions and disjuncture that also accompany collaborative projects and collective action.
While the need for a public or engaged scholarship relating to resource extraction has been established,4 something that has not been given as much attention, as Stine Krøijer's essay points out, is how activists and others engage with the work of academics and how they use “our” theoretical concepts in ways that shape their activist work. We cannot predetermine how academic knowledge will be used, nor can we control the meaning that is assigned to images and artifacts. Perhaps it is this flexibility of meaning that enables a more open interpretation, and also opens up new spaces for interaction among different actors. Some projects described in the essays enabled collaboration among artists, academics, journalists, activists, and local communities, even though these actors did not always share the same objectives. Collaboration, after all, does not mean that everyone agrees; disagreement and antagonism can also be productive.
I want to focus on three common themes that run through the essays in this forum: representation, materiality, and translation. Academics (anthropologists in particular) have long been engaged in debates about representation, and these debates have influenced how we carry out our research and how we represent the issues and communities we study. Many of us have also been inspired to think about how different styles of writing and innovative forms of research dissemination can more effectively communicate our work. Meanwhile, activists and community members are also engaged in efforts to represent their struggles to the country and the world, often resorting to new technologies, social media, and international allies to make their voices heard. As conflicts over resource extraction have proliferated in Latin America, how is extractive activity represented by people who are affected by it, and by scholars, artists, journalists, and activists who take on the role of communicating those experiences with a broader public? As academics, how do our own interventions and goals as researchers intersect with (or diverge from) those of activists and community members working to effect change?
One of the common elements in the essays is that they demonstrate the diversity of actors implicated in resource extraction. Communities and social movements are not internally homogeneous or cohesive, and this diversity results in different ways of understanding resources and representing nature. While some environmentalists would like to save (or return to) a pure “Nature” that never existed, the photographs and other visual works described in the essays show a different kind of environment. These representations of resource extraction blur the lines between the natural and the artificial, the legal and the illegal, the traditional and the modern. In the art exhibition curated by Dorota Biczel (Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru) and in the book by Elizabeth Ferry and Stephen Ferry (La Batea), we see the lives and economies that have grown around extractive industries, and the processes of production and destruction that accompany them. Mining is not only about displacement and dispossession—it also creates new ways of relating to a damaged environment and coexisting with an industry that offers a livelihood even as it gradually destroys forms of life and ways of living.
Mineral extraction has a long history in the Andes, yet Peru's image as a “mining country” has been challenged by recent protests against extractive activity. Artists have also sought to bring these issues into the political consciousness through creative means, defying the romantic image of Peru as a tourist paradise of unspoiled natural beauty, as in recent efforts to brand the country (through the Marca Perú marketing campaign) in ways that erase the historic and present-day impact of resource extraction. According to Dorota Biczel, the work of artists such as Edi Hirose and Nancy La Rosa reveals more than the authorized, official imaginary that commodifies the country's rich biodiversity for the consumption of national and foreign tourists as well as multinational corporations. Their photographs and artwork depict life on the margins of extraction and document changes in the landscape, contradicting the narratives of progress and prosperity featured in corporate public relations, media representations, and neoliberal discourses.
Although art can serve to counter the official narrative of Latin America as an extractive frontier, creative forms of expression also capture the ambiguity of people's relationship to the land. For example, people's response to extractive industries often oscillates between resistance and acceptance. Such ambiguity can pose a challenge for both activism and public scholarship, and contrasts with documentary films and other audiovisual projects produced by NGOs and social movements that have a more explicit political message. These tensions and contradictions also need to be made visible in representations of resource extraction.
A second theme that runs through the essays is the materiality of mining and other extractive activities. Mining “moves mountains” and changes the composition of water, air, and soils. The essays in this forum engage with the mundane and extraordinary everyday aspects of life alongside mining—the way that it reshapes landscapes and transforms lives, whether through the slow seepage of chemical substances or the blast of dynamite on a mountaintop. The photographs, artwork, and other artifacts discussed in the essays materialize gold, mercury, lagoons, rivers, rock, and other elements of the environment. An attention to materiality can help us to disaggregate the objects we study into their constitutive parts, revealing the many actors and agencies (human and nonhuman) that they encompass. It forces us to pay attention to the infrastructure of the mines, the particular effects of toxic substances, and the form and texture of the extracted materials.
We also experience the materiality of extraction through the senses—for example, through the sense of touch, as in the cover design of the book by Elizabeth Ferry and Stephen Ferry, which contains a spot of gold leaf at the center of a circular graphic representing a batea used by artisanal miners to pan for gold. Gold has shaped the history of the region from precolonial times to more recent incursions by multinational companies that have interrupted the social order. The photographs in the book urge us to consider the material conditions of workers' lives and their encounters with the violence perpetrated by armed insurgents, military and paramilitary forces, and corporate actors. The sights and textures captured in the book's pages engage the reader's senses to reveal how mining degrades environments and human bodies.
Some of the essays also consider the material contexts in which protest symbols appear and how they are able to travel beyond their immediate localities. Pablo Sánchez and Ofelia Vargas examine artifacts that are produced and reproduced by artists and activists, and the potential of these artifacts to facilitate the building of alliances. The conflict over the Conga mine in Peru is one example of an event that created alliances among national and international actors, which was instrumental for propelling onto the global stage “environmental heroes” like Máxima Acuña, a campesina who defied a mining company by refusing to sell her property and resisting efforts to forcefully evict her from her land. Making Máxima into a symbol of resistance also helped to bring to light other issues, such as the importance of lagoons and groundwater sources that might be affected by the mine. The Conga case illustrates the challenges of representing these conflicts for a broader audience without simplifying or distorting the issues involved. The good intention of activists and their allies can have grave consequences, such as the risks faced by Latin American activists once they become icons of an environmental struggle.5
By focusing on materiality, we see that objects are not stable entities—they continuously change form, and the meanings and relationships attached to them also change. In conflicts over resource extraction in Peru and Ecuador, protest icons and symbols used in activist campaigns enable forms of collaboration and could be conceptualized as assemblages or sites of engagement. These visual artifacts may be able to capture multiplicity and nuance in ways that other protest strategies do not. They can generate new meanings and produce transformative learning, such as when activists emphasize the potential impacts of mining on the bodies of water on which communities depend. As Teresa Velásquez shows, these symbols sometimes succeed in uniting rural and urban actors (such as indigenous groups, students, unions, politicians, and environmentalists) for a common cause. At other times, protest strategies (such as appeals to nationalism and anti-imperialism) are not successful at assembling actors with different ideologies and interests, resulting in factions and disagreements among groups.
The visual and creative tactics of activist campaigns in Peru and Ecuador have played a key role in establishing alliances and making the struggles of communities visible. In some cases, the artifacts that are produced are able to capture the multifaceted nature of the conflicts. However, other questions also arise: What do these artifacts make visible, and what remains unseen? How can visual culture connect people and inspire social change, and in what instances does it produce fractures, exposing the limits of translation?
As a third common theme, the essays in this forum allude to different forms of translation that are relevant for thinking about resource extraction: translation between languages, across disciplines, from images to text, from an academic to a nonacademic public (and vice versa). In the making of La Batea, translation took place through the collaboration between an anthropologist and a photographer, Elizabeth Ferry and Stephen Ferry. The book's experimental form is aimed at a nonacademic audience, including people with a connection to the extractive activities that it depicts. The authors' hope is that the multisensory experiences captured in the book translate across different audiences and geographic locations in Colombia and beyond. Dorota Biczel's Moving Mountains exhibition at the University of Texas at Austin was also an opportunity to bring the experiences of Peruvian extraction to a different context where it resonates with other struggles over land and resources. Similarly, the photographic exhibitions resulting from the collaboration between anthropologist Stine Krøijer and photographer Mike Kollöffel seek to create spaces for dialogue between indigenous peoples and European audiences. As Krøijer's essay in this forum shows, however, the visual strategies of international solidarity and alliance-building sometimes produces unruly analogies and uncomfortable translations.
Although many of us recognize the need for public and engaged scholarship, how does translation occur as information travels between different audiences and geographic sites? What are the problems and opportunities that arise as images and narratives are disseminated for global consumption? Information about resource conflicts now travels through news media, documentaries, academic circuits, and activist networks, and sometimes the outcomes are unexpected. Some scholars have noted the problems of activist representations of resource conflicts, which sometimes depict indigenous peoples as victims of extractivism, on the verge of extinction—a narrative that erases their agency.6
In documentary films about mining, for example, there is often a need for heroic narrative that leads to simplifying morally complex situations. Sometimes, they romanticize indigenous cultures, emphasize the sentience or “sacredness” of nature, and employ environmentalist discourses that appeal to international audiences, but these narratives can also be reinterpreted by the audience and transformed in unexpected ways.7 The essays by Teresa Velásquez and Stine Krøijer also show how the concept of indigeneity or other markers of identity are used in activism, with unpredictable consequences. In some cases, activist and media representations of resource conflicts may perpetuate stereotypes, and in others, they can produce conceptual innovation and novel forms of political action that may pose a challenge to the logic of extractivism.
Academics are not the only ones doing the work of translation, and translation does not always happen in the ways they might want. This forum addresses the need for critical reflexivity about the visual culture of extraction, including our own contributions to global representations of resource conflicts. The essays that follow explore innovative forms of translation and collaboration that aim to capture the multiple voices and diverse experiences of resource extraction and make academic research more accessible and useful for communities affected by extractive industries.