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Residual ecologies: finding life within extraction

Sebastián Ureta (with Patricio Flores)

The Carén River is a narrow water stream located near the town of Alhue, in central Chile. It would be completely unremarkable if it were not for one key aspect: it carries a substantive amount of water throughout the year. Being located in the middle of a semi-arid region experiencing a decade-long megadrought, this characteristic has turned the Carén River into the source of several lively ecologies. From being the only reliable source of water for local farmers to becoming a popular holiday retreat during summertime, in recent years the river has even welcomed different types of wild animals. Such availability of water, the source of so much vitality, has a counterintuitive source: mining waste.

On the upper section of the Carén River basin lays Tranque Carén, the waste depository of Mina El Teniente, the largest subterranean mine in the world. Its contents are known as tailings, or the sludge left over from the process of extracting the valuable mineral from an ore. Besides being potentially toxic, tailings are noteworthy by their sheer amount. Large mines such as El Teniente produce several hundred thousand tons of tailings per day, making them the largest form of industrial waste worldwide, an Earth-shaping force on the same scale than geological processes such as river sedimentation. Accumulated on precarious depositories, tailings tend to spill regularly, causing massive levels of pollution and destruction. However, along with crushed rock and chemical reactants, tailings at Carén contain a fair amount of water. Released after being treated, this water triggers the lively ecologies existing downstream from the depository.

Since starting fieldwork at Carén in 2013 we struggled to make sense of such ecologies. The usual stories of pollution and environmental (in)justices, characteristic of Latin America’s extractivismo, also happened there. No doubt about that. But there were several other stories too. Stories of humans, animals and plants living, even thriving, in the area thanks to the depository’s water, developing in the process highly sophisticated capacities to engage with its potentially toxic components. Instead of a story of toxicity, we decided at last, ours was going to be a story of geosymbiosis, of the intimate entanglements between water, crushed rocks, chemical reactives and organic beings characterizing much of life at the Carén basin. But our entanglements were quite different from the usual image of symbiosis as the mutual enrichment among collaborating species currently popular in the life sciences and the environmental humanities. Besides being cooperative, resilient and caring, our geosymbioses were frequently nasty, painful, exploitative, even deadly in the long run.

Through geosymbioses, life at Carén emerges in the form of residual ecologies, ecologies on which human-made chemical residues occupy constitutive roles. Instead of being overtly toxic, on residual ecologies these residues have become intoxicating, allowing the continuation of certain life in certain ways, but canceling out many others. Due to the current inescapability of human-made chemical pollution, residual ecologies are rapidly becoming one of the main manifestations of life on earth, an entanglement in which a plural we – humans, animals, plants and inorganic entities – must learn to live (and die) together.


Sebastián Ureta is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado (Santiago, Chile). He trained as a sociologist, with a focus on science and technology studies. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology from the Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago and completed his PhD in 2006 in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics (UK). Subsequently, he worked as an Assistant Professor at the Instituto de Sociología, Universidad Católica de Chile. From November 2007 to March 2008 he was also a British Academy visiting fellow in the sociology department at Lancaster University (UK). From May 2009 to March 2012 he was a Marie Curie International incoming fellow at the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG), Technische Universität Berlin. Currently he is working on a research project focused on the government of industrial waste in Chile, in particular the massive waste produced by the country’s booming mining industry. In March 2015 he became the PI of the Millennium Nucleus for Energy and Society Research (NUMIES), a new research group studying the interrelations between energy issues and society in Chile.