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The Material-Semiotic Objects of Extractivism: Fetishized metals, racialized bodies and toxic landscapes in Chocó, Colombia.

Authors: Diego Melo*, University of Colorado At Boulder
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Legal Geography, Latin America
Keywords: extractivism, environmental racism, dispossession, toxicity, racialization, alluvial mining
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Besides fueling the development of modern capitalism, gold’s contemporary extraction continuous to leave traces behind. One of these traces is mercury, extensively used for alluvial mining along the placers of the Atrato River, in the Chocó department of Colombia. The liquid metal bioaccumulates, moving from dredging camps, to rivers, to fish, to humans, to future generations. But where did the all the gold go? Why do Colombian state institutions legislate upon mercury pollution, while claiming to know so little about gold commodity chains? This paper engages the Marxian concept of frontiers of dispossession, and a Deleuzian critique of liberal territoriality, to question the idea that mining-induced toxicity is a problem of “illegal” extraction. Instead of situating violence outside of law, I argue extractivism is constitutive of contemporary constitutional arrangements—including the state’s jurisdiction over the subsoil, the inclusive exclusions of “mixed race” ideology, and the forced displacement of communities through armed conflict and the production of toxic environments. Methodologically, this means it is more rigorous to focus on the material-semiotic objects of dispossession and environmental racism, than the legality of mining enclaves. Thus, research should move beyond legal documents and focus on gold and mercury, and their effects on global capital, the river basin, and the body. Just like commodity fetishism sustains capital accumulation, legal fetishism sustains extractivism if it ignores the flows of matter, energy, and racializing discourses that help gold launder finance capital globally, and allow mercury to destroy a human being’s nervous system, their land, and their offspring

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