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Anatomy of Autonomy: Corporeal Resources and Contaminated Self-Governance


Before any evidence of an urban population, the Bolivian town of Llallagua announces its presence through the desmontes, or slag heaps. From a distance, the desmontes look like a second mountain range running alongside the original – its afterimage, or its less verdant younger sibling. More accurately, the desmontes are connected to the mountains in the way that entrails are connected to the carcass. The guts of the Juan del Valle mountain were not uniformly valuable, and the process of turning the mountain inside out yielded as much offal as meat: the desmontes are composed of billions of waste rocks that were discarded over the last century. The connection between the mountain and the slag heaps is actually contained in the word desmonte. Derived from the Spanish desmontar – to take apart – desmonte connotes the disassembly of the mountain (monte). The des-monte, the un-mountain.

Underground, these slag heaps are mirrored in the absence of rock. Beginning in 1899, the Juan del Valle Mountain’s tin-laced veins were drained to make tin cans, a new technology of food preservation that, in turn, enabled the expansion of urban industry in the global north, worldwide imperial frontiers, and modern warfare. Where the tin used to be, a labyrinthine world remains. The disembowelment of mountain created a three-dimensional network of hollow spaces, ranging in size from cramped cavities to ballroom-sized galleries. These hollow spaces, however, are far from empty. Thousands of independent tin miners move through these twisted passageways on a daily basis, working and living in the shell of a mine formally abandoned by the state more than three decades ago. These small-scale miners, organized into collectives known as mining cooperatives, treat the subterranean spaces as much more than extractive sites. Through processes of subtraction (of rock) and addition (of belongings and meanings), they have turned apparently empty spaces into domestic spheres and meeting halls. In the apertures opened by capital flight, miners have forged a brittle autonomy, at once limited and subtended by processes of degradation and contamination.


This paper is concerned with how studies of material natures might move beyond concerns with causal directionality, in which the question of interest is whether social processes are materializing nature-as-resource or whether nature’s essential properties are giving form to political economic processes. In geography and cognate disciplines, there is an increasing fascination with processes of technoscientific “resource making,” and my intention is to build on such insights to consider how resources are never materialized alone, but rather always in conjunction with the transubstantiation of other bodies, including individual laboring bodies, political bodies, infrastructural bodies, and so on. Put differently, I am interested in how miners’ precarious autonomy is forged through the same processes that materialize sick and socially differentiated individuals, contaminated and degraded environments, and commodities needed for a supposedly “green” global economy.

With this goal in mind, I reframe the practices of building political economic autonomy as practices of corporeal formation and transgression. Corporeal boundaries are never fully impermeable, and I argue that it is precisely through transgressions of skin and stone that material substances are reorganized, resignified, and ultimately rematerialized. At stake in this exploration are a series of questions about how to conceptualize political and economic autonomy – key goals for many communities throughout Latin America – in a context of pervasive toxicity and political ambiguity. What does autonomy look like if it is disarticulated from notions of homogenous community or fully sovereign territory? Where do apparently brittle autonomies grow supple?


Andrea Marston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University. Her work explores the material politics of resource extraction. Working at the intersection of political ecology / political economy, Science and Technology Studies, and the cultural politics of nature, she examines the relationship between the grounded practices of resource extraction and the reproduction of racialized, colonial, and gendered national politics, and she is currently completing a book manuscript based on her research with small-scale miners in Bolivia, which is tentatively titled Thieves of Patria: Subterranean Matters of Plurinational Bolivia.