Stampa Articolo

Negotiations of the Mining Industrial Closure in Northern Canada

Mining Reclamation

Mining Reclamation

di Linda Armano [*] 


In some countries (i.e. Canada, Australia, etc.) mineral exploration and mine development have become, in the last decades, the most significant economic development strategies with unprecedented levels of investment taking place today (Kung et al. 2022). In this regard, some governments have increased a marketing strategy specifically related to sustainable mining activities, as well as ethical diamonds as an alternative to blood diamonds from African countries (Armano and Joy 2021). Nevertheless, in these countries mining industry is not just related to diamond extraction, but it is also focused on a multitude of other minerals whose mines, as well as their closure, have inevitably changed indigenous life appearing as the only economic opportunity available to the local communities.

Compared to most other industries, mining activity has long cycles between the various stages of the mine life. Planning of the controlled ending of mining operations starts before the commencement of the mining activity and it is developed throughout the project’s life cycle with the broad-based participation of residents and other stakeholders (Armano 2022a). Unfortunately, these processes are not always followed in the right manner. Consequently, closure might frequently start a chain effect such as unemployment, out-migration, and population decline. This leads to abandoned infrastructure as well as negative environmental impacts suffered by local communities, especially in single-industry towns. In these terms, the mine poses strictly inextricable issues between theory, methods, business ethics, and politics.

In particular, this contribution gathers reflections built, however, on the concrete difficulty of conducting ethnographic research within particular sectors (such as extractive industry) and cultural contexts since, although respecting the ethical aspects of the research and maintaining a personal responsibility towards the people who took part in it, it went as far as to explore themes that mobilise sensitive issues for people involved in this study. Specifically, this ethnographic experience is situated

within an uncomfortable debate between specific multinational companies, government departments, and local residents living near the former mine in the region in which this research was carried out. In this way, the present ethnographic research, by exploring such a difficulty, has outlined the discursive limits imposed by an ontological policy that effectively prevents the possibility of researching certain issues (Gill 2017). By finding a compromise between attempts to preclude this study and discarding the idea of giving up on the investigation, this research, reasoning about the unspeakable (Dragojlovic and Samuels 2021), has produced reflections born to stem difficulties in the field. As a consequence, in this contribution, I will merely bring out the concepts that guided my reflections without, however, revealing any information regarding the contexts of investigation.

This article meets the demand of the indigenous population with which I conducted the research and who explicitly requested not to mention them in this contribution. However, they gave me permission to argue, in this article, about the power disequilibrium existing between their traditional comprehension of the territory and the political-economical management of the use of raw materials left on their land by the mining industry. The discussion between the two parts concerns on the one hand the abandoned mining activity impacts on local wildlife and the land, as well as the indigenous traditional activities and their culture in general; and on the other the government policy supporting scientific actions which extract environmental data from the mine site, instead of encouraging specific programs evaluating both the real costs of reclamation to offset the environmental impacts of the past mining industry and the requirements of local people. Furthermore, it is undeniable that the multinational corporations I have come into contact with operate as instruments that control languages, regulate the fruition of information, and limit the possibilities of dissent in order to promote, or at least not hinder, political and financial agendas that are currently considered dominant on a global scale (Kirsch and Benson 2010a).

The ethnographic research addressed in this article is based on an investigation that started from a country belonging to the so-called North of the World, and in particular within a region exploited above all for its non-renewable resources. Specifically, this ethnographic experience was an opportunity to problematize the life cycle of mining planning and the ongoing negotiations between the reclamation requests of the indigenous population living in the region where this research has been conducted. Thematically the article is organised around the particular key concept of “degradation” which informs the study of the mining infrastructure and the consequent reclamation. The latter highlights a sort of inner contradiction of the mine infrastructure suggesting that even as it is generative (from an economic perspective) (Howe et al. 2015), it degrades. This entails that mining industrialization involves not only prosperity but also social, economic, and environmental risks.

Thus, this contribution shows, through the analysed case, still existing limits of operations to minimise the adverse environmental and social impacts caused by the mining industrial closure. In doing this, the article adopts the lens of political ecology (Kirsch 2008) joined to the paradigmatic approach of the conversational method (Kovach, 2010) used during ethnographic research. 

2 Uncomfortable debate between specific multinational companies, government departments, and local residents living near mines

Uncomfortable debate between specific multinational companies, government departments, and local residents living near mines

State of art of extractive industry literature 

The World Bank and other international donor communities have often supported the distribution of natural resource management based on the expectation that it would bring this governance down to local residents and achieve positive outcomes, comprising ecological sustainability and poverty reduction (Smoke, 2003). However, research on decentralisation mostly focuses on policy-making issues and less on terms of sustainability (Verbrugge, 2015). Chambers et al. (2021) have tried to fill this lack by exploring and mapping the different practices of co-production between local and global objectives and responses. Thus, the scholars have generally identified some clusters from six continents that developed sustainable projects of co-production at local to global scales: (1) researching solutions; (2) empowering voices; (3) brokering power; (4) reframing power; (5) navigating differences and (6) reframing agency. The researchers inform that each holds unique potential to achieve particular outcomes and poses unique challenges and risks. Therefore, their analysis provides a theoretical tool for researchers to critically reflect on this diversity and what kind of socioeconomic effects are produced.

The exploitation of non-renewable resources and the consequent reclamations have surfaced in mining extraction issues in surprising ways, igniting conversation about social and material arrangements that are often left submerged, invisible, and assumed. In recent years, we have witnessed a dramatic increase, in the social sciences and humanities, of studies of mining exploitation, concerning both artisanal, small-scale, and industrial activities (D’Angelo 2019). From these analyses, some basic reflections emerged such as the acknowledgement that mining activities are not inert. Indeed, mining activities embody social meanings, economic priorities, and different local issues (Lim 2013). In recent years, to align with these novel lines of inquiry, social scientists started to pay attention to extraction privileging multi-sited ethnography. This approach allows scholars to track and compare corporate practices of resource extraction, and the local perceptions about them, across diverse geographies (Armano 2022b). Specifically, the multi-sited ethnographic methodology has highlighted the understanding and connections between localised experiences and the global agenda in matters of the management of non-renewable resources (Haller 2020).

Furthermore, while some anthropologists continue to focus on local concerns and management of mining and energy ventures (Li, 2010) others focus their studies on the financiers of extractive companies, also actively engaging themselves in the often-complex relationships between local people and elite agencies (Kirsch, 2014). Crucially, while ethnographers have traditionally focused on the ways local populations are implicated in resource extraction, in the last decades one of the most fundamental contributions of anthropological research has been bringing into focus the policy and multinational performative power engaged in the mining industry (Hall 2013).

3 Abandoned mining activity impacts

Abandoned mining activity impacts

Another recent field of inquiry further pushes the boundaries of the analysis of agency in the politics of resource exploitation and reclamation, by examining for example both the intrinsic material properties of resources and their cultural constructions in local and global networks (Richardson and Weszkalnys, 2014). According to this approach, which takes its lead from actor-network theory, it is the qualities of the ore itself that endow it with the power to engage actors, knowledge, technologies, and capital to create entanglements of people and things in diverse localities, which in turn give rise to particular patterns, flows, and expectations (Weszkalnys, 2011). This interest in materiality is often interrelated with a particular historical approach which allows investigating, also from a diachronic perspective, the divergences in modes of extraction, and how the resources have been connected to a local concern for the management of territories (Appel, 2015). In these accounts, Appel (2012), examining the complex web of partnerships, separations, and mobilities that have emerged around Equatorial Guinea’s offshore oil industry, affirms the existence of forms of corporate and local infrastructural violence. She elucidates that these struggles reinforce racial hierarchies, inequities, and the power of extractive companies. However, thanks to paternalistic projects, Appel affirms that the companies often position themselves as a benevolent agent (Schwenkel 2013).

In general, by placing the social relations of mining extraction, and the following reclamation, front, and centre, anthropological approaches set out to counterbalance the depersonalization that has dominated accounts of the political economy of resource extraction. The anthropology of extraction approaches this project by bringing its own conceptual toolkit and methodologies to explore the socioeconomic dynamics understood as processes of continuity and change. Applying anthropological tropes such as kinship, gift, and reciprocity used as heuristic devices to analyse how resource extraction and reclamation create and reshape social relations between corporate actors, governments, stakeholders, and local populations (Gilberthorpe and Rajak 2016) also allows to investigate the economies of extraction practice, at the micro-level as much as the macro, and exercises of power.

Generally considered as a reality apart, not involving cultural relations, the mining industry is seen as determined by an asocial logic of accumulation (Gledhill, 2013). For this reason, Gilberthorpe and Rajak (2016) argue that the abstraction of resource economies from social relations has the effect of creating a sort of distortion in which environmental landscapes are simply seen to be predetermined and explained by a geological destiny (Schwenkel 2013).

4 Degradation of mining infrastructure

Degradation of mining infrastructure

The issues of mining industrialization and reclamation also raise debates in social anthropology on land acquisitions (or grabbings) highlighting the need to go further back in history to analyse their impacts on local livelihoods (Haller et al. 2020). These approaches help us understand some of today’s dynamics when scholars study pre-colonial common property institutions and the way they were transformed by Western colonisation into State property, until privatisation and open access (Hall 2013; Haller 2019). In this study area, the land is a research preoccupation of social anthropologists in different global contexts above all related to non-renewable resources exploitation objectives. As scholars highlight, the meaning of the land from a colonial perspective differs much from native views on what land means (Armano 2022a). However, many reflections and approaches have been raised in the last decades about this topic. On the one hand, these differences in perception engage social anthropologists in cultural translation projects, while on the other hand the colonial contexts in which anthropologists’ work have put them in a position of being collaborators or informants (Hall 2013).

If a greater debate has emerged in the last decades on several poor economic contexts affected by industrial exploitation, fewer studies are focused on the so-called North of the World and in particular, on industrialised uses of indigenous territories by extractive multinationals. However, in the past two decades, new attempts to study the industrialised mining history have emerged intending to examine the current state of the mining rush. Following this line, there are some studies contextualised in Canada and Australia (Midgley 2015; Chong and Collie 2022) that argue about the miners working conditions and their sense of belonging to the same community, which is made up of aboriginal and not aboriginal workers, who share their experiences in the same dangerous workplace (Krekshi 2009). Furthermore, there are other studies focused on the mine closure and how the mining communities have continued to keep memories of the workplace experiences (Bernauer, 2019). Moreover, the authors who focus on the process of closure, have highlighted ways in which former sites of commodity production continue to be transformed by numerous financial and reclamation policies. In these contexts, the closure of the mines is a process that allows the history of a mine to resurface, also increasing a reimagination of the landscape, already transformed by mining, through reclamation activities (Midgley, 2015). Other studies on extractive exploitation are focused on the entire mines’ life (Lim 2013), as well as on its impact on native communities during the productivity phase (Gledhill, 2013).

However, what the mines’ closure has left behind is still little studied. In the 1970s scholars often faced the extractive industry in industrialised countries such as North America or Australia, as an aspect of internal colonialism (Bernauer, 2019). In these studies, such a power system has been interpreted as a result of the unequal development of the economy caused by the political relationship between the indigenous and, in general, rural context and the power cores. These works emphasise the role of economic dependency in the maintenance of power relations and examine the flows of wealth between peripheral and core regions (Haller et al. 2007).

Some scholars focused on mining activity in industrialised contexts underscore the colonial continuities in the extractive economy based on the dispossession of indigenous land and resources (Coulthard 2014).  Specifically, these studies highlight that multinational extraction is contradictory to indigenous values regarding the relationship with the land, wildlife, and the external introduction of the accumulation of personal wealth. Therefore, the concept of development itself is inherently colonial because it is premised on a discourse of external policy changing indigenous traditional activities and, in general, their lifestyle (Bernauer, 2019).

Most recent studies of extraction in rich countries are focused on oral testimonies on the history of mines (Cater 2013), ranging from socio-economic impacts (Hart 2012) to resource governance (Hall 2013), land-based economies (Bernauer, 2019), and native identities (Midgley 2015). 

5 Colonial continuities in the extractive economy

Colonial continuities in the extractive economy

Theoretical framework, contextual factors, and the politics of mine’s closure 

As Stuart Kirsch (2008) highlights, in the recent discussions of science and society, the topic of how scientific knowledge is produced has emerged. In these debates, scholars use the term “Mode 1 science” to refer to disciplinary knowledge production based on relatively homogeneous processes. Notably, participation is restricted and hierarchical, corresponding to the more traditional practices of science, such as laboratory procedures (Latour, 1993). Mode 1 knowledge production is based on the assumption that science and society are separate domains. This division allows for productive kinds of transactions, such as the transformation of scientific data into policy through political processes. On the contrary, the “Mode 2 science” is spread across different kinds of institutions. It is more heterogeneous, reflexive, and socially accountable. In Mode 2 knowledge production, science and society are entangled domains (Gledhill, 2013).

Roy Rappaport (1996) helped spur the transition from cultural ecology to political ecology, and from Mode 1 to Mode 2 knowledge production in the research of environmental anthropology. In this context, political ecology emerged as a consequence of the large-scale political and economic changes associated with globalisation and the rise of environmentalism as a social movement related to the degradation caused by industrialization.

The transformations described are evident in many contemporary pieces of research on political ecology which often focus their attention on the social and environmental impacts of mining (Haller et al. 2007). Specifically, most of the literature published aims to understand how the economic benefits of a dominant extractive industry are offset by a range of economic, social, political, and environmental risks and costs (Hart 2012).

The present article describes the resulting debate on the environmental consequences in a country belonging to the North of the World since the closure of a lead-zinc mine at the beginning of the 2000s and highlights the Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge production. Furthermore, relying on political ecology (Kirsh 2008), this ethnographic research is based on the traditional way of passing knowledge starting from an indigenous worldview which is supported by oral methods. Much of this orality continues to the present day in the native community in which I conducted the research. In this context, specific protocols are explained to the researchers to ensure that their activities are carried out properly and in a manner that reflects community teachings.

Specifically, since I spent time with indigenous people, I find particularly useful the approach called the conversational method elaborated by Margaret Kovach (2010), who argues that it is a complex whole of attitudes that researchers should use during their research among native populations. As the author highlights, the conversational method is of significance to indigenous methodologies because it is a method of gathering knowledge based on oral storytelling tradition congruent with an indigenous paradigm. Kovach asserts that the conversational method «involves dialogic participation that holds a deep purpose of sharing a story as a means to assist others. It is relational at its core. Therefore, the relational dynamic between self, others, and nature are central» (Kovach 2010: 40).

During my research among the indigenous community living in the mining region, I focused on the method proposed by Kovach in order to understand a specific and useful way to create trust between them and me being recognised as a non-indigenous researcher. As Shawn Wilson (2001) has argued, the concept of indigenous methodology is a paradigmatic approach based upon an indigenous philosophical positioning or epistemology. Since indigenous methodologies are relatively emergent within Western qualitative research, it is useful to explain what exactly is meant by the claim that indigenous methodologies are a «paradigmatic approach» (Kovack 2010: 41). As Neuman (2006) reminds us, a paradigm is a basic orientation to theory and thus impacts the method. Within this approach, significant attention is paid to the assumptions about knowledge. This is differentiated from a more pragmatic approach (or applied research) which is not committed to any one system of philosophy and reality (Hart 2012).

6 Mining activity as a dispossession of indigenous land and resources

Mining activity as a dispossession of indigenous land and resources

Therefore, using the term paradigmatic approach concerning indigenous methodologies means that this kind of research approach flows from an indigenous belief system that has at its core a relational understanding and accountability to others (Schwenkel 2013). Furthermore, an indigenous paradigm supports a decolonizing perspective which is fundamental for the study of indigenous-settler relationships, despite decolonizing analysis being born of critical theory embodied within the transformative paradigm of the Western tradition (Hart 2012).

The conversational method, aligned with a native worldview, was essential for me to understand how the mining project (consisting of the geological exploration, the putting into production, and the final reclamation) is entangled with many other indigenous cultural aspects. In this way, a mining project can be considered in relation to its material aspects (pipes, workers’ village), social implications (institutions, economic systems, and mass media practices), and philosophical issues (intellectual projects created by human ingenuity and nailed down in concrete forms) (Howe et al. 2015).

This contribution is based on thirty-three informal conversations, carried out during the summer of 2019, with the residents (indigenous and non-indigenous people) of the nearby community of the former mine site, many of whom worked at the mine or had family members living in the area. Ten women and twenty-three men, during the informal talks, told their experiences and perspectives concerning the mine and its closure. The approach used for the interviews was informal (without any structured or semi-structured questions) and, therefore, conversational. Furthermore, following the requirements of participants, the conversations were not recorded. In general, the talks generated descriptions of the thoughts of the interviewees who were affected by the closure, including information about their attitudes, feelings, and experiences pertaining to the mine (Hart 2012). A highly experienced local interpreter was engaged as the community research associate and lead interpreter of indigenous language during the field research; moreover, the interpreter assisted with the identification of research native participants. At the end of my fieldwork, I also participated in a local community forum that took place in some public departments of the region, in August 2019. In this venue, participants presented and discussed preliminary findings, and they also communicated recollections, concerns, and understandings of the extractive life cycle. There were also conducted archive analyses of policy documents including mine closure submissions, public hearing transcripts, government documents (e.g. consultants’ reports), and media reports at the archives of the town.

Some prominent themes of the collected materials that emerged throughout the research were the extensive disappointment of the residents (especially indigenous) at the failure of the local government to live up to its public statements regarding the promotion of an alternative site use of the extractive site. Other themes included scepticism towards the reasons given by the government for the abandonment and reclamation of the mine area and a range of material and non-material social effects that the mine’s closure had on the residents of the region. All these topics emerged from conversations and documents and were successively organised into the key concept of degradation.

Since the mine stopped operating the site has become mired in a state of uncertainty. Despite the expensive reclamation costs, the work was left incomplete causing alarming legacies which include heavy metal leaching, wildlife habitat loss, polluted rivers, the disruption of migratory animal routes, and damage to traditional native food sources.

Southcott (2013) highlights that reclamation has the potential to help mitigate these negative impacts and ensure that development does not leave residents worse off. However, Dance (2015), focusing on mining industries, distinguishes two periods of mining: An era of regulatory laxness and limited reclamation, characterised by disastrous inheritances, including abandoned mines; and its modern counterpart from the 1980s onwards, distinguished by technological innovations and accurate reclamation planning’s (Midgley 2015). However, some abandoned mines confuse the borders between these periods, and the current attempts to resolve these issues are marked by a jurisdictional frame informed by land claims agreements (Hart 2012).

Contemporary reclamation practice generally involves planning, engineering, and management strategies undertaken to help monitor, mitigate, and remove disturbances and pollution in areas affected by mining-related activities. Even though contemporary reclamation practices imply planning strategies, engineering, industrial management, and policy selected to monitor the levels of pollution in the air and soils, they can be terribly difficult above all in remote locations. In these cases, reclamation planning cannot be sufficient to restore a site to its previous state, fill up mine pits, and restabilise waste piles. In addition to these difficulties, also limited government funding, skilled labour shortages, and regulations inapplicability can complicate these struggles (Dance 2015).

More broadly, despite innumerable difficulties, various policies and global agendas inform modern reclamation strategies. These include for example territorial, provincial, and national legislatures, courts, and agencies authorised over land-use policies. Therefore, the reclamation is moulded by diverse legislation, licensing systems, environmental review processes, and diverse guidelines (Hart 2012). 

Traditional way of passing knowledge in Canada, picture of Chiara Tubia

Traditional way of passing knowledge in Canada (picture of Chiara Tubia)


Analysis of conflicts is the core of much political ecology research regarding mining exploitation and reclamation (Le Billon and Duffy 2018). Indeed, studies highlight that remediation works of mine sites rarely succeed in bringing back the land to its pre-extractive conditions (Toumbourou, et al. 2020; Haller et al. 2010). Furthermore, other scholars outline that weak state power can cause cracks in mining contexts between political objectives and residents in which systematic resistance from local communities can emerge. Case studies suggest that the general trust in institutions tends to limit possible opposition by local groups. On the contrary, difficult environmental impacts, extra-local ventures and partnerships, as well as scepticism toward governments and mining multinationals tend to cause forms of resistance (Conde and Le Billon 2017). Theoretically, good governance practices determine the traditional and cultural integrity of local groups. Actually, the opposite is commonly true (Hart 2012).

Considering the conceptual and material characteristics of mining infrastructures, some scholars also highlight a sort of inner paradox of these infrastructures themselves (Howe et al. 2015). In other words, despite mining infrastructures infusing a sense of solidity and durable functionality, thanks to the pipes, galleries, and workers’ villages, can also be illusorily solid. Therefore, this kind of infrastructure must be constantly modified to meet every new juncture. For this reason, Hart (2012) asserts that the reclamation converts mining’s closure into new uses. Nevertheless, he affirms that it seems an ontological oxymoron based on an attempt to transform the past into the future. As such, renewing the use of a mine after its closure highlights that this material and symbolic infrastructural solidity is more an illusion than a reality. In this way, mining infrastructure can be compared against the unavoidable degradation over time. Despite its ostensible solidity, in which human intention and materiality are unified, the mining infrastructure can also show its vulnerability in front of the use of chemical substances, water, weather, and industrial practices. 

In addition to the mining infrastructure’s rigidity and notwithstanding that its materiality may feel impenetrable, it needs “softer” competencies (Howe et al. 2015). For this reason, mining infrastructures must be modified in modular increments (Appel 2012), implying negotiations with other levels of the system (Howe et al. 2015). Indeed, the ineptitude of such infrastructures to adapt to new circumstances is the consequence of their falling into disuse (Latour 1993).

Besides all these considerations, the particular mine closure investigated in this research raises another paradox related to mining infrastructure. Even as this latter is, in a sense, a system that owes much of its life to human planning and work, when it collapses, often whiting the reclamation passage, the mining production’s previous capacities are definitively destabilised (Hart 2012). As Howe et al. (2015) highlight, a mining project and its final reclamation become visible when they are breaking down. In this sense, the mining infrastructure, as well as its reclamation, seem to project itself into the future, but their longevity is evanescent (Appel 2012). 

 Holistic model of indigenous wellbeing

Holistic model of indigenous wellbeing

Disappointment, scepticism, and social effects of degradation 

From the indigenous people’s perspective encountered during my ethnographic research, various kinds of pollution in their ancestral territories have been caused by the mining industry. Natives assert that the project of the mine has degenerated into multiplying infrastructures employing human labour promising a better quality of life. After a proliferation of neoliberal policies in which mining infrastructures have been progressively reduced in the region, many of these extractive areas were abandoned and now they are deteriorating.

This policy relating to the mine’s closures and reclamations left the region with many uncertainties. Indeed, nobody knew how to hire the former miners for other jobs. In the meantime, growing concerns emerged over the environmental impacts of mining such as soil and water contamination, the disposal of tailings waste, as well as on the health of the wildlife upon which the indigenous depend for hunting. Furthermore, as some well-documented research indicates (Hall 2013), the mining industry caused general damage to the traditional lifestyle of the native population and their subsistence activities. For that reason, in the region where I carried out the research, while some native communities affected by the mine required monetary compensation, other indigenous groups called for compensation in the form of old equipment from the mine or used in the reclamation activities. In general terms, all these requests notified the plea for justice for harming the territories and impacting the traditional activities.

Some authors, focusing on social, economic, and environmental outcomes, have asserted that the mining activity investigated in this study did not provide an environment that encouraged sustainable development for the communities living near the extractive area, inasmuch the positive results that the mine brought to the communities did not continue after the mining closure (Schwenkel 2013). Communities’ requirements for justice in the region during the closure of the mine revealed a dramatic change in the political context during the period between the founding and closure of the mine.

The massive mining construction projects, with a marriage of material and natural capital, had their first origins after World War II when a period of rapid social and economic change started. As remembered by some indigenous workers whom I talked with, between the 1950s and 1970s, most native people moved from semi-nomadic to consolidated settlements located in different areas of the region. At that time, the relationship between mining industries and the indigenous people was already based on a policy that imposed the welfare state across the region depriving indigenous communities of some control over their lives (Midgley 2015; Hall 2013).

This change has been studied from different approaches and recounted by native people who experienced what may have been one of the most rapid sociocultural and political-economic changes in their history (Schwenkel 2013). Following the collapse of the previous trade between settlers and native groups, that had economically supported, in addition to the traditional activities, indigenous people of the region, the State focused on alternative employment. In this way, the mining industry became more and more important for the development of the region in the post-war period, imposing itself as a unique economic alternative for the local population.

Thus, the development of the mine was an important initiative in satisfying the employment needs of the residents of the region who needed cash income and became increasingly dependent on social assistance. Nevertheless, in front of these continuing changes, in the early 1970s, indigenous people created some native political organisations to represent them and defend their interests in the face of mining, oil, and gas companies as well as governments that wanted to occupy their territories.

Thanks to the documents stored in the archive of the capital of the region, it was possible to track the historical path of the mining regional industry from which it is possible to understand the many failed attempts to manage resources wisely using scientific and technical knowledge and skills (Midgley 2015). 

Despite the socio-cultural life of indigenous communities being inevitably involved in the elaborate environmental assessment related to the mining project (and thus on the so-called Mode 1 science), they consider the land, as Thomas Andrews (2004) explained, like a: 

«blanket woven from strands of stories centuries old, a landscape imbued with rivers of meanings. It is a cultural landscape where physical features are used as mnemonic devices to order and help preserve oral narratives, which themselves encode knowledge relative to identity, history, culture, and subsistence» (Andrews 2004: 301). 
Canadan Northern abandoned mine

Canadan Northern abandoned mine

In this way, the vast territories are deeply known by native groups that are highly mobile societies. As Andrews highlights, the indigenous people’s knowledge is based on a «complex ethnogeography where the physical world is transformed into social geography in which culture and landscape are fused into a semiotic whole» (ivi: 302). Many scholars have documented societies that retain rich oral traditions as well as a mnemonic relationship between site characteristics, storytelling, and historical events (Feld and Basso 1996; Hirsch and O’Hanlon 1995). In our case, the concept of knowledge relating to the management of the land is, for the indigenous people I met, imbued with wisdom which is also expressed concretely through traditional subsistence activities and ritual practices (Armano 2022a). Adults train youth in the summer camps on how to survive in their territories, how to hunt, skin animals, cut, and use all their parts. After the hunt, the food is shared among people in the community. People who lived on these territories all their lives and visited places of sacred significance have the right to recount traditional stories, which are also used to build relationships with the younger generations. As keepers of traditional knowledge, these people are respected in their communities. Furthermore, knowledge passed down through the ages is always mediated through personal experience (Midgley 2015).

To underscore the negative impact on the relationship between indigenous groups and the land, the mine investigated in this research is particularly useful in understanding the concrete dynamics of structural violence (Farmer 2003). Thus, strategic practices related to the mine reclamation clearly show the long-term role of political power in decisions about waste disposal mining infrastructure. In this particular arena, many people belonging to the native groups distrusted planning based on the deployment of scientific knowledge used by the government to prevent risks related to the contamination of the water and soil. Indeed, a decisive role in the mine’s closure planning was undertaken by specific use of the scientific knowledge involved to justify a peculiar analysis of the costs of reclamation. A large number of studies mobilised by government scientists, such as geologists, engineers as well and technical consultants employed in public departments and private firms, produced authoritative data, from the government’s viewpoint, for resolving the dispute over the cost of the mining closure. From these premises, the evaluations of the soil and water contamination were thus important in establishing the amount of money the multinationals would have to pay for reclamation (Midgley 2015). The economic relevance of these scientific evaluations is evident in a letter I found in the archive and written by one of the mining companies’ operatives in the region. In this document, the multinational contested that the surface soils at the mine investigated were contaminated. Notably, in this letter, the company affirmed that the soil at the extractive site was toxic and, as such, it needed a considerable expense to afford the reclamation. Thus, producing and justifying the scientific analysis, from which to deduce information, was a fundamental passage to finalise, in addition to the cost of reclamation, also the current value of the site (Hart 2012).

Initially, the costs to deal with environmental degradation had been taken charge of by mine companies with the support of the government. Indeed, particular regional policies set the terms of reclamation taking on the responsibility of processing the mine closure efforts. However, while the extraction production had stopped, the government and multinationals continued to estimate the cost of reclamation, especially, the amount that would be held to ensure that the mining companies completed the practices of recovery. These valuations were long negotiated both by the government and extractive societies (Schwenkel 2013). Given that many mining projects in countries belonging to the so-called North of the World have long been considered developmental programs to foster ideals of progress, we can suppose that socioeconomic disparities arise when extractive industrialisation does not work (Howe et al. 2015). Therefore, in addition to considering this kind of policy as a representation of economic growth, it can be also evaluated as a clear representation of infrastructural degradation which emerges within unequal divisions of labour that are influenced by radicated geopolitical inequities.

The pretextual use of scientific analysis shows how multinationals produced a counter-discourse to the mining imaginary. Although the mine was an unproductive site, the companies considered the former mine a useful and valuable site. Nevertheless, some documents stored in the archive blurred the severity of contamination of the extractive area. As some indigenous and non-indigenous residents remembered, geologists and engineers collected soil samples, monitored the level of pollution in the water and various field projects were initiated to authorise different valuations of the cost of reclamation. As people I met during the ethnographic research asserted, these valuations were contested not only by the indigenous communities but also by many non-indigenous residents living in the region. In that circumstance, local people petitioned the mining companies and the government to find an alternate use for the site.

Another interesting issue is that the mine’s life cycle planning was publicly inspired by sustainability principles, supporting the relevance of social, environmental, and economic respect during the mine’s life cycle. However, what was less understood was how co-existing sustainability goals supported by every public and private actor involved in the mining project, clashed with each other. For example, the socioeconomic implications of the mining closure were fully ignored, causing several problems protracted for a long time and impacting the population of the region.

Notably, from an indigenous perspective, we can consider the consequences of the mine’s closure as something that emerges between the colonial epistemologies and the process of decolonisation supported by the indigenous. As Smith (2013) highlights, despite policy-makers framing new government ventures as economic development and sustainable projects, they often neglect the traditional activities of indigenous who constantly struggle against the colonial entities that attempt to sever the native relationship with their territories.

As Eid and Haller (2018), highlight this schema has always followed, in many sociocultural and political-economic contexts, different elite ideologies whose aim is to frame territories into administrative patterns. In the last decades, modern environmentalism, and as a consequence sustainable policy, started to focus on the issue concerning the protection of biodiversity. Nevertheless, the two authors assert that this planning continues to limit the land use by the indigenous population through practices of territorialisation to control people and territories.

According to Coultard (2014), the attitude of some governments, above all in mining contexts, toward the native groups moved from an “elimination by elimination” to “elimination by assimilation” to “elimination by recognition”. Despite less actualization of overt violence that was a characteristic of many previous colonial political strategies, the scholar encourages indigenous to pay attention to the new concept of “reconciliation” supported by the settler-state in order to understand the real objective the ruling classes have on native groups. Coulthard supports the general idea that the state’s agendas remember what Marx called “original accumulation” that operates throughout the globalisation expansion. Thus, globalisation, capitalism, and colonialism make it impossible to be anticolonial without being anticapitalistic and vice-versa. In this regard, Coulthard supposes policy on traditional lands involves both the expropriation of land and an inevitable impact on material resources, traditional indigenous activities, and, in general, their lifestyle. 

Ancestral Territories

Ancestral Territories


The capacity of the process of mining closure and the consequent reclamation to attract many sociocultural and political-economic issues, allows the scholars to propose many interpretations.

This ethnographic research satisfies the requests of indigenous communities in the region by not mentioning either the name of the former mine or specifying the native groups involved in the political issues related to the degradation left by the extractive industry. The study highlights the ongoing indigenous struggles against ever-new policies related to the practices of reclamation. Furthermore, this research, requiring further in-depth analysis, shows that a possible indigenous resurgence may consist of a stronger use of the Mode 2 knowledge aligned with a native worldview. 

Moreover, to tackle the different positions between the multinationals, government, and residents, in recent years, a regional social movement has been trying to halt mine degradation through awareness campaigns.

In general, most of the local people disapprove of corporate refusal to take responsibility for the long-term environmental consequences. Thus, a contradiction emerges from the contrasts of viewpoints between residents’ and extractive companies’ decisions. The techno-scientific analysis endorsed by the multinationals was publicly presented to alleviate the pollution levels in water and soil, caused by the mining degradation. However, this scientific production also introduced new risks such as the denial of traditional activities and, in general, obstacles in the cultural relationship of the indigenous with their territories. In the meantime, as Hart (2012) asserts, given that mining infrastructures are involved with socio-political institutions, a possible collapse of one of their parts often causes a general collapse of socio-economic and political systems. Mining infrastructures and reclamations can thus fuel social hazards if they are established without any attention to human equality or natural processes.

As a whole, this study has tried to show controversial qualities of the process of reclamation which are, at the same time, generative and degenerative (Howe et al. 2015), future-oriented but also often obsolete in relation to the policy applied to solve the mining degradation. 

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 64, novembre 2023 
[*] Abstract 
Il processo di chiusura di una miniera e la conseguente bonifica sollevano molteplici riflessioni socioculturali ed economico-politiche. Questa ricerca etnografica, seppur anomala in quanto soddisfa le richieste dei residenti che vivono vicino alla zona mineraria bonificata di non essere esplicitamente menzionati nello studio, evidenzia le lotte di comunità indigene e dei residenti non-indigeni contro le reiterate politiche legate alle pratiche di bonifica. Per affrontare le diverse posizioni tra multinazionali, governo e residenti, negli ultimi anni un movimento sociale regionale ha cercato di fermare il degrado delle miniere attraverso campagne di sensibilizzazione. In generale, dai contrastanti punti di vista tra residenti, multinazionali e dipartimenti governativi emergono profonde contrapposizioni: da un lato la produzione tecnico-scientifica appoggiata dalle multinazionali è stata presentata pubblicamente per alleviare i livelli di inquinamento dell’acqua e del suolo causati dal degrado minerario; e dall’altro i nuovi rischi, messi in luce dai residenti, legati all’impedimento di una continuità delle attività tradizionali degli indigeni nei loro territori e al degrado ambientale. Nel complesso, questo studio ha cercato di mostrare le pratiche controverse del processo di bonifica che sono, allo stesso tempo, generative e degenerative, orientate al futuro ma anche spesso obsolete rispetto a politiche risolutive del degrado minerario.


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Linda Armano, ricercatrice in antropologia, ha frequentato il dottorato in cotutela tra l’Università di Lione e l’Università di Venezia occupandosi di Anthropology of Mining, di etnografia della tecnologia e in generale di etnografia degli oggetti. Attualmente collabora in progetti di ricerca interdisciplinari applicando le metodologie antropologiche a vari ambiti. Tra gli ultimi progetti realizzati c’è il “marketing antropologico”, applicato soprattutto allo studio antropologico delle esperienze d’acquisto, che rientra in un più vasto progetto di lavoro aziendale in cui collaborano e dialogano antropologia, economia, neuroscienze, marketing strategico e digital marketing. Si pone l’obiettivo di diffondere l’antropologia anche al di fuori del mondo accademico applicando la metodologia scientifica alla risoluzione di problemi reali. Ha pubblicato recentemente la monografia Esplorare valore e comprendere i limiti, Quaderni di “Dialoghi Mediterranei” n. 3, Cisu editore (2022).





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