"Long-Term Trends in Latin American Mining"

Dore, Elizabeth.

Dore, Elizabeth. “Environment and Society: Long-Term Trends in Latin American Mining,” Environment and History 6 (2000): pp. 1-29.

From the outset this article takes on the tensions of capitalist production: namely the tendency to promote technical innovation, and alleviate worker exploitation, while at the same time driving to maximize absolute surplus production through continuous expansion, which has tended to deteriorate social conditions. Dore exploits this contradiction to theorize a relationship between labour and environmental conditions in which she suggests that as capitalist production expands, negative externalities are displaced from the work force onto the environment.

Pre-Conquest she echoes Cleary and relies on Denevan to debunk the pristine myth and argue that the Maya collapse, as well as destabilization across pre-Columbian Latin America may very well have had ecological dimensions. Also following Cleary, she defends the idea that the demographic collapse ushered in as part of the Conquest actually reigned in environmental decline, although she intimates that this may have helped the Amazon forests survive, rather than—as Cleary argues—allowing for the growth of secondary forest.

Her description of the colonial mining enterprise stresses the impact on the labour force. She hits all the big marks—Toledan reforms, Murcury amalgamation, patio process, mit’a, etc—and frames them as evidence of few technological advances and increasingly brutal exploitation of workers.

Looking especially at the Cerro de Pasco Corp and its La Oroya smelter (Mallon and Marítnez-Alier give more detail), Dore argues that in what she calls the Neo-colonial period of Latin American mining consisted of increased proletarianization of the peasantry and modernization of the industry. Here she briefly mentions the IPC’s initial 1872 foray into the Talara fields, liberal reforms and the privatization of mineral deposits (1901 in Peru). But her logic seems somewhat circular. In dealing with La Oroya, she argues that the initial contamination it caused fomented a process of proletarianization (Mallon, too), as subsistence and hacienda work was less feasible in arsenic-laced fields fed by toxic water. She also discusses the corporation’s reliance on enganche, and the problem that the persistence of household economies posed to the corporation’s labour needs (also Mallon). To me it seems that this initial period of La Oroya’s operation contradicts Dore’s thesis of an inverse relationship between exploitation of labour and environmental decline. Here it seems both occur in tandem. That said, she does link proletarianization to modernization, which then can be tied to the efforts made to reduce the smelter’s environmental impact (installing flues, etc.). But this inverse relationship theory may imply a kind of causality that the case of La Oroya definitely complicates.

The section on capitalist modernization does strongly support here thesis. Roughly spanning the mid-to-late twentieth century, this section deals with the technological revolution symbolized by open-pit mining, the emergence and severe environmental impact of “development poles” like Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela and the Programa Grande Carajás in Brazil—as well as equivalent phenomena in the informal sector, such as the garimpeiros (here she parrots the debate that Cleary details)—and the consolidation and gains of industrial workers’ movements in the region. Here the corollary between increasing environmental decline and decreasing worker exploitation is clear, but no causal linkages are proposed.

Dore’s final section on the debt crisis is brief but it describes a swing back toward the crossroads represented by La Oroya almost a century ago. As decisions became the purview of foreign financial capital and IFIs, social dislocation flourished and ecological concerns became even less of a priority.

In her conclusion, Dore acknowledges that indeed the end of this inversion may be upon us: that in the wake of the debt crisis and with the rise of neoliberalism, we now see a confluence of human and environmental degradation. However, the way she treats the example of La Oroya—as something that did not already imply such a confluence—allows her to portray this as something new, rather than a return to the kind of profit-centered myopia we see in the second conquest of Latin America.

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