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Subterranean Territories: Authority and Contestation on an Indonesian Gold Mining Concession

Authors: Matthew Libassi*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Human-Environment Geography, Asia
Keywords: small-scale gold mining, territory, resource extraction, development, Indonesia
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In Indonesia, as in most countries around the world, subsurface resources are the domain of the state. However, this exclusive control has recently encountered a surprising threat: artisanal and small-scale miners. This growing informal sector, which provides livelihoods to more than one million Indonesians, bypasses state authority by directly accessing minerals and propels a political critique of centralized resource control. In response, the Indonesian government and allied corporations have fought to (re)consolidate their authority. This paper examines a case of these ongoing processes of territorialization and contestation in a gold mining region of West Java, Indonesia. There, a state-backed corporate mine and thousands of small-scale miners compete over access to the same underground reserves. “The concession” serves as a territorial designation within which the state attempts to control the subterranean, direct the distribution of natural resource benefits, and shape local populations into "proper" national subjects. While policing forces endeavor to violently exclude small-scale miners from access to the concession, corporate social responsibility, public health, and sustainability initiatives try to shift their behavior and politics. To this end, the state and corporation attempt to bolster their legitimacy by constructing dichotomies between formal and informal mining. Whereas state-backed extraction is depicted as using “environmental best practices,” managing “vital resources” for the benefit of the entire nation, and promoting pious values, small-scale mining is condemned as polluting, thieving, and morally corrupt. As with other forms of “scientific management” of resources, state control of subterranean territories quickly becomes a means of disciplining resident populations.

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