An ethnography of entanglements: Mercury’s presence and absence in artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Antioquia Columbia

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Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa New Zealand with assistance from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Otago
This paper describes a ‘follow the thing’ methodology as applied to an ethnography of entanglements. This methodology allowed for a materially and politically nuanced understanding of Antioquia, Colombia’s response to mercury pollution. This pollution primarily originates from the Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) industry where mercury is employed in the gold extraction process. In following the mercury, the authors experiment with an ethnography of entanglements. The paper discusses how they address the current lacunae in mining ethnographies by focussing on mining as ‘practice’, going past the provision of technical descriptions of mining and ethnographic descriptions of miners to an ethnography of mining. This ethnographic approach considers the politics of materiality and addresses a lack of attention to the impacts of the presence and absence of materials on social life. Various mining practices in Antioquia illuminate how entanglements between miners and mercury have been co-constitutive of particular modes of ASGM. The paper will also provide examples of ‘negative mercury entanglements’ where efforts have been made to extricate mercury from mining practices. Rather than creating a vacuum, these mercury absences have been generative of new contested symbolic and material arrangements including entrepreneurial and ‘responsible’ mining, debates over miners’ rights, and the creation of new political relationships between ASGM and large-scale mining companies.
follow the thing, ethnography, entanglements, mercury, mining, artisanal gold mining, small-scale mining
SITES: a Journal for South Pacific Cultural Studies, 2018, 15 (1), pp. 38 - 69