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hen the price of gold reached unprecedented heights in 2011, Canadian anthropologist Daniel Tubb was at a small riverine community in northwestern Colombia. He volunteered his unskilled labor at two mines owned by Black families to better understand the political economy of a gold rush in the Chocó Departamento, home to Black and Indigenous collective territories. Living and working with Black artisanal gold miners, Pedro, Don Alfonso, and Esteban, Tubb experiences how excavators spread throughout the Pacific lowlands. For journalists and NGOs analyzing the situation from a bird’s eye view, the so-called “illegal mining” looks like a disease sprouting craters across the rainforest likes sores on the skin. The hegemonic narrative frames the issue as an environmental disaster resulting from state abandonment, wherein people are coerced into contaminating their own territories to survive. Ethnography, on the contrary, allows Tubb to puncture through this cohesive account.
Shifting Livelihoods demonstrates that Black Chocoan miners agreed to mine their lands with White-Mestizo foreigners with bulldozers from the neighboring Antioquia province to generate cash for their households. Tubb’s central observation is that Black families welcomed the people who brought the excavators with them as the most efficient way to access the gold. Turning the metal into cash allowed Black families to monetize what they thought of as their savings and engage in terraforming projects beyond the bodily capabilities that power artisanal mining. As such, Tubb argues that excavator-led gold mining constitutes the search for a dignifying livelihood amid unstable employment opportunities. A beautifully written book, Shifting Livelihoods is captivating: it provides well curated details that connect readers and characters with uncanny intimacy. In this review, I read Tubb’s ethnography through a framework he explicitly rejected — (the Marxian critique of political economy). The rigorous ethnographic tracing in Shifting Livelihoods advances current theoretical work on racial capitalism, up to a critical limit: an appropriate definition of value.
“Shifting” is Tubb’s ethnographically tuned translation of rebusque, the Colombian Spanish code for finding income through informal work. Gold mining in Chocó is the most arduous node in a broader network of trade that requires “shifting the earth, moving water, burning mercury, exchanging gold at buying and selling houses, shipping it to refineries in Medellín, and selling it on global markets” (73). The book vividly explains the extraction node through vignettes that rely on Tubb’s familiarity with miners and excavators during a year and a half of fieldwork. Part One guides readers through the laborious act of extracting and selling gold droplets in the jungle, which shows how artisanal mining complements Afro-descendant peasant-farmers’ (campesinos) subsistence activities, such as harvesting plantains, raising chickens, fishing bocachico, hunting pacas, and making delicious borojó juice. In Chapter 1, Tubb introduces us to Pedro, Javier, and Antonio (three Black artisanal male miners) who dig inside an enclave to unearth gold using hand tools and manual techniques. They use the cash from selling the gold at the market to complement other activities, such as hunting, gathering, gardening, small-scale agriculture, and fishing. However, these activities take place where excavators have also carved the landscape to produce cash quickly. Pedro and Don Alfonso (two land owning Black men) use water reservoirs dug by the excavators to continue their artisanal mining and obtain a reliable source of gold that can be turned into cash. Don Alfonso, in particular, used the share of the cash from the excavator’s mining activities on his extended family’s land plot to build a small house in a shanty town (comuna) in Medellín. He then used ongoing yields of gold from the water reservoir to make trips to the city to pick up his rent and buy consumer goods to sell at his small village store.
As we follow Tubb and Don Alfonso, we learn the person renting the house in Medellín is Carlos, a Black man from the same village in the Chocó, who left due to guerilla violence. Carlos now has to commute 2 hours a day to make a living as a construction laborer. While Tubb argues the mine provided Don Alfonso with “a base from which to access the wider economy on his own terms,” the data more generally show how excavators and their links to armed violence helped produce class relations: property owners, wage workers, water reservoirs functional to artisanal mining, and gold turned into cash then turned into buildings where ground rent is charged in a neighboring city. As such, what Tubb calls the “emancipatory potential of producing gold” (59-63) also shows excavators’ capacity to reconfigure people’s relationships to one another and their environment (Moore, 2015). People and nature are put to work as cheaply as possible (Patel and Moore, 2017) and contribute to an ongoing process of proletarianization and urbanization in Colombia. In short, excavators helped peasants become petit bourgeois, between the jungle and the city.
Part Two is a different game because excavators transform mining from a subsistence activity into a form of accumulation. Bulldozers produce faster and more efficient returns on the work/energy invested, and begin to make Black families spend less time in subsistence activities. Extended family members, neighbors, community councils, and guerrilla groups are attracted to the mining in hopes for a cut from the bonanza. In Chapters 3 and 4, Tubb’s ethnographic work allows us to sympathize with José and Geraldo, two White-Mestizo men who migrated from Antioquia with enough to start mechanized mining enclaves in Chocó. In 2013, these men left their host Esteban, the Black artisanal miner and plot owner, because they could not find enough gold. The operating costs were simply asphyxiating: about a dozen workers were promised wages and shares of each wash, the Black families who owned the plots asked for 10% from each wash, the community councils asked for 2%, and the guerilla groups extorted the mine. Although the retreros hoped to “get ahead,” they could not consolidate a profitable enterprise. Tubb’s ethnographic narrative humanizes otherwise stigmatized backhoe operators from the Lower Cauca region of Antioquia, who faced a double persecution by the state officers and paramilitaries in the late 2000s and sought refuge in the Chocó. As such, rebusque (the shifting livelihood) honors the honest and hard labor of working-class people who find dignifying opportunities, in spite of state law and armed violence (117). Tubb’s work opens the door for a deeper investigation of the intricate class, race, and gender dynamics behind excavators: specifically, who ultimately profits from the money sent to turn gold into capital through loans and excavators in the Chocó. Angela Castillo and Sebastián Rubiano (2019), for example, report that gold refineries provided loans to Black families in the Condoto River through White-Mestizo excavator miners, on the condition that the gold be sold back to the refineries. Thus, Medellín-based White-Mestizo capitalists have been implicated in activating excavator mining booms through money flows.
Mechanized mining may share parallels with what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007, 2017) calls a carceral regime, wherein heavy machinery extract not just gold, but the key resources of Chocoan Blackness: ancestral knowledges, labor-power, and the unpaid reproductive activities of Black women who harness dual household economies across riverine communities in the Chocó. This lead is one of the book’s most valuable contributions. It clarifies that excavators root themselves in the local fabric through wages to workers, land rent to Black families, revenue dividends to local community councils, and security “taxes” to illegal armed groups.
Part Three departs from the rich ethnographic tracing and moves on to an eclectic exploration of how gold mining activities are tied to other financial circuits. Using some fieldnotes alongside statistics, news reports, and secondary sources, Tubb sketches a “transformation of value” argument. He suggests that drug traffickers launder money using fake gold production reports, while Canadian junior mining companies make money from advertising mines in “out-of-the-way places.” In Chapter 5, Tubb reviews resource production statistics and shows how much gold has not been registered where it was extracted (i.e., the Upper- and Mid-Atrato and San Juan River basins), but in places where buyers register it independently after purchasing the gold from miners (i.e., the Baudó region, where no gold mining takes place). Tubb then outlines a series of clever transactions that people have (or could) use to report profits from the sale of cocaine as profits from gold mining. These include transactions at the currency exchange black market, international wire transfers over long periods of time, and fraud through the stock market. Tubb’s conjectures are extremely timely and speak to ongoing analyses that situate the proliferation of mechanized gold mining as a consequence of cocaine’s illegality vis-a-vis gold’s legality (Nicholls, 2023).
The final chapter, Chapter 6, discusses how Canadian junior mining companies presumably make profits from advertising their title acquisitions in the Chocó rainforest to stock exchange investors at the Toronto Stock Exchange (147). As every other section in the book, the details are exceptionally well reported and provide a comprehensive account of the tensions and politics associated with subsoil enclosures favorable to corporations, but hostile to Black Communities’ territorial rights. Tubb narrates the ways that a Canadian junior mining company partnered with a global giant, AngloGold Ashanti, conjured mining concessions in a part of the upper Atrato River undergoing armed conflict, where the Colombian government delayed a collective land titling claim for a Black community for twelve years (see Alzate, 2022 and Corredor, 2023). Tubb sees the enclosure as “speculation” because the large-scale mining project never flourished, but the concessions nonetheless became “a way to transform investors’ cash into insider profits” (171). Although Tubb does not provide evidence of profits being made, the chapter illuminates the ways that subsoil rights are contested amid armed violence and structural asymmetries between riverine communities and state, NGO, and corporate actors at their offices in Bogotá.
In light of these insights into the constraints and opportunities that shape excavator mining and gold trade vis-a-vis shifting livelihoods, within and beyond the Chocó rainforest, it is not clear why Tubb rejects Marx. Value structures the overall argument in Shifting Livelihoods, guiding the sections on production (of gold via artisanal mining), accumulation (of money from larger and faster gold yields thanks to excavators), and transformation (of cocaine profits into legalized gold registries and financial speculation through mining concessions). Despite the central role of value in the book, Tubb never defines value. For Marx (1867), value is socially necessary labor time: what it costs people to survive and work at an average intensity and skill in exchange for a wage (see Huber, 2017 and Harvey, 2018). Tubb’s account would benefit from an explanation of how excavator gold mining, cocaine trafficking, and joint-venture agreements hoping to execute large-scale mining actually make money. The answer for Marx is the exploitation of human labor (the secret of capital), which transforms money into self-generating money, as living labor reanimates dead labor: excavators and dredgers and any other machines where previous labor has been congealed (Kirsch & Mitchell, 2004). While evidence in the book enables us to piece out how this happens regarding gold mining, the lack of a proper definition of value leads to unclear theorizations when it comes to drug-trafficking and mining enclosures. Under Marx’s notion of value, money laundering would not transform value, but legalize the extraction of surplus value from people and nature through market transactions. An engagement with Marx would push Tubb to explain how value is produced in cocaine trafficking through the exploitation of peasant-farmers whose coca leaf outputs are bought at monopsony prices in marginalized and impoverished rural areas in Colombia. Tubb could show how surplus value is produced through the transformation of tons of coca leaves into kilograms of white powder, later sold at exorbitant prices in underground markets in Europe and the US. Finally, an engagement with Marx’s concept of value would urge Tubb to clarify how transnational mining joint-ventures make money, not by enclosing subsoils within the rainforest, but exploiting labor elsewhere (the secret of investors’ capital, with which they speculate in stock exchange markets in the first place).
Overall, Shifting Livelihoods delivers a nuanced and beautifully written understanding of excavator gold mining in the Chocó. I am extremely grateful to Daniel Tubb for his outstanding ethnographic tracing and the ways it helps clarify what bourgeois Whites and Mestizos profiting from environmental degradation in Black Chocoan territories would gladly portray as a phantom menace. Readers may find Steve Cagan and Mary Kelsey’s (2020) stunning photography book The Price of Gold an excellent visual complement to Shifting Livelihoods. Maybe one day, the people who live in the Chocó will be able to tell this story in English themselves.
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Diego Melo is a queer political ecologist from Bogotá and a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Their dissertation examines the co-production of gold and copper mining frontiers along the upper Atrato River basin and traces resource extraction as operations of racial capitalism on and against body-territories across generations.