Shifting Livelihoods: Gold Mining and Subsistence in the Chocó, Colombia, by Daniel Tubb (2020). Seattle: University of Washington Press.
On the northern Pacific Coast of Colombia, a region long known as the Chocó, it rains on a scale that is difficult to imagine or describe. Over millions of years, those rains have washed gold, likely from primary deposits in the Andes, into the streambeds and alluvial soils of the Chocó. People have been mining that gold since pre-Columbian times. The Spanish came in search of the fabled golden city of El Dorado and, when they did not find it, they brought in enslaved Africans and forced them to mine on their behalf. Many of these enslaved people escaped or were manumitted and formed independent communities that still exist today. They call themselves libres, or “the free ones,” and live in mostly peaceful coexistence with their indigenous neighbors. Many practice subsistence horticulture and hunting, mine gold for cash, and make occasional commercial forays into urban Colombia.
Daniel Tubb’s book Shifting Lifelihoods shows how residents of this region strive for dignity and sociability in a region where gold always seems to be tantalizingly close to the surface. This is an ethnography from the mud: Tubb found his way to a community where people were mining gold on a micro-scale and offered his services. When his interlocutors understood that he did not want a share of the production, they welcomed his free labor and made him into a kind of apprentice. In the Chocó, as elsewhere, artisanal mining is hard, dirty, and dangerous work. Tubb is to be admired for making himself into a miner and, in doing so, achieving an embodied understanding of the lives of the people he mined with.
At the center of Tubb’s theoretical model is the Colombian idea of rebusque. He translates rebusque as “shifting” although, as he points out, “research” would also be a literal translation. “Shifting” denotes a flexible, and occasionally precarious, livelihood strategy whereby people invent or take advantage of opportunities as they arise to eke out a good life. A prime example of this strategy is getting enough to eat through hunting and horticulture, but also mining a few grams of gold a day to exchange for cash. That little bit of cash turns what might be a bare life into a life of relative comfort in a region usually depicted as being awash in misery, given the proximity to Pacific cocaine trafficking routes that has made it a crossroads for violent conflict between leftist insurgents, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian armed forces (see Taussig 2004).
Rebusque also speaks to the life of a local man who makes the trek to Medellín by bus to stock the tiny store he operates from his house. It speaks to the work of the motorcycle taxi drivers who Tubb meets as he navigates the city with his chocoano companion, the market vendors they patronize, and the prostitutes whose provocative silhouettes appear in doorways. Through rebusque, people make their money as bricoleurs in a situation where stable employment is near impossible to come by. Building on the idea of informal economy (Hart 1973), Tubb points out that shifting is much more the norm than the exception in Colombia—and perhaps all over the world. He also takes pains to point out that rebusque is not seen as immoral and thus eschews the term “hustling,” because of its connotation of taking advantage of others.
This brings us back to the politics of mining gold in the Chocó. Environmental activists and NGOs, as well as the Colombian state, have taken a keen interest in this activity. These actors tend to divide mining into two categories: artisanal and small-scale (in other mining regions, artisanal and small-scale mining are often lumped together.) Artisanal mining is done with hand tools, picks, pans and shovels, weights to bring divers to the bottoms of streambeds, handmade sluices, intricate networks of reservoirs, and the occasional gas-powered water pump. There are many different techniques, all of them labor-intensive. None of them produce very much, though there is enough gold in the streams and soils of the Chocó that they do work. Small-scale mining, on the other hand, is done with excavators. These machines allow their operators to excavate the alluvial soil down to the bedrock and run it through a big sluice called a classifier. This form of mining works on the same principle as its artisanal counterparts, but on a larger scale. Small-scale miners then use mercury to amalgamate the gold in the alluvium.
In the accounts produced by NGOs and those interested in responsible gold sourcing, these two mining techniques are painted in stark moral contrast: artisanal mining is depicted as good and small-scale mining as bad. There is a logic to this dichotomy. A small-scale mining operation can mine in a few weeks an area that a family of artisanal miners might mine over the course of several lifetimes. Small-scale miners strip away topsoil and flush it down rivers and streams. This makes waterways harder to navigate in a region where there are no roads. It also prevents fish from running and, thus, deprives locals of an important element of their diet. Mercury causes an array of health problems and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Small-scale miners can also turn lush jungle into vast fields of grey gravel, leaving pits that fill with water in which malarial mosquitos breed. Worse, the operations of these small-scale miners are targets of extortion and end up funding the various armed groups operating in the region.
Tubb acknowledges a division of labor that is often used as a shorthand to characterize the miners of the Chocó. Artisanal miners are generally libres chocoanos, while small-scale mining operations are generally run by paisas, outsiders from the inland Department of Antioquia. According to the folk ethnosociology of Colombia, paisas are hard-working, entrepreneurial, and potentially unscrupulous. These visitors from Antioquia are said to exploit the chocoanos, steal their land, and pollute their rivers.
Yet Tubb stresses that the situation is far more complex than this rigid taxonomy would indicate. The chocoanos do not perceive paisa small-scale (and often illegal) miners as a threat; instead, the threat that they perceive stems from large-scale, legal, multinational mining projects. The Colombian constitution grants the people of the Chocó a kind of inalienable, communal land tenure. It does not, however, grant them rights to the subsoil. The Colombian government rewrote its mining code in 2001 in hopes of making mining an engine of development by attracting foreign direct investment. It has conceded vast tracts of land in the Chocó and elsewhere to foreign mining companies for the development of large-scale mining projects. The family with whom Tubb worked in the Chocó actually invited paisa miners, with their excavators and mercury, to its traditional lands to extract the gold as quickly as possible before they could be dispossessed by multinationals.
Soon, the lands of these chocoanos were reduced to barren grey expanses of mud and gravel, but they nonetheless saw beauty there. Tubb begins his book with an anecdote of hiking across a devastated landscape with one of his friends and feeling horrified. Yet his companion said that it was beautiful. His friend is a miner. Miners like mines. He saw the backbreaking work of a generation accomplished in a few weeks. In this light, artisanal and small-scale miners have a lot more in common than NGO narratives would suggest.
After all, there are ways of making money from gold mining in the Chocó that do not involve getting metal out of the ground. Fictional gold can be a way to launder money for cocaine traffickers. Speculative gold can produce paper profits on the Toronto stock market. Tubb noted a huge spike in gold production in the official reports coming from a region called the Upper Baudó. In a neat piece of fieldwork, he visited the area and saw no signs of mines or of people living the lifestyle that accompanies a gold rush. Thus, he was able to untangle how the fictional gold of the Upper Baudó was being used to bring the proceeds of the narcotics trafficking that also takes place in the Chocó onto the books.
Tubb also recounts stories of mysterious gringo engineers showing up in army helicopters. He shares locals’ recollections of vast tracts of land on strange maps being conceded to foreign gold-mining companies. He finds these companies issuing breathless press releases proclaiming megaprojects that are about to break ground, and yet there are no large-scale mining projects in the Chocó. Rather, they always seem to be just around the corner. Tubb suggests that these public relations campaigns merely inflate the value of Northern mining companies and attract investment in projects that usually never take shape. While the materiality of gold is paramount to those who mine it, in these schemes it becomes entirely immaterial and speculative.
This is an exciting time for the anthropological study of mining, and Shifting Livelihoods makes a welcome contribution to the scholarship that is emerging. There is much to be learned from life in the Chocó, where Daniel Tubb lived and worked while shifting in both senses of the word: as an artisanal miner and as a researcher.
Brian Brazeal is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology at California State University, Chico. He studies gemstone mining and the global gem trade.
Hart, Keith. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” Journal of Modern African Studies 11(1): 61–89.
Taussig, Michael. 2004. My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.