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Daniel Tubb on the fieldwork for his new ethnography Shifting Livelihoods

By Daniel Tubb, University of New Brunswick

Shifting Livelihoods: Gold Mining and Subsistence in the Chocó, Colombia, University of Washington Press, 2020

Shifting Livelihoods emerged from the eighteen months I spent learning how to mine gold with hand tools in the Colombian Pacific department of the Chocó, between 2010 and 2012. It is my first book, and as an anthropologist, I spent my time doing participant observation, working at artisanal and small-scale gold mines and living in an Afro-Colombian community. The book itself is the product of that long-term, place-based, ethnographic field work.

I spent most of my time in one village in the Colombian Pacific on a river learning the work of mining for gold. I laboured alongside Afro-Colombian artisanal gold miners. I was enthusiastic, if not terribly efficient. I rose before dawn, hauled fuel, dug trenches, and threw stones. I spent a little time underground. I found ways to help. I became proficient in some techniques. Difficult tasks became mundane, even though most of the time I stayed a neophyte. With some miners, I cleared stones from the sluice. The sluice was half a dugout canoe, which fed into a plank of wood with the sides nailed over a sack. As miners dumped stones and sand and gravel dug from the pit, I kept the sluice clear. Their wooden pans were the primary tools. Some people sent wooden pans full of mud sailing up from the bottom of the pit to pass the empty pans sent sailing down by others. I cleared away the stones and gravel left in the sluice by the steady pull of a trickle of water. If I worked slowly, the stones would pile up and friends would come over and clear everything in one motion, which left me embarrassed. Over time, I learned some of her tricks. Do not pick the stones one at a time, scoop them en masse. The work was physical and skillful.

The book, in part, is a study of that skilled work, and the freedom that it can give. Its pages draw on the time I spent working with miners. From those labors, I address the diverse economies of artisanal gold miners and others who earn their livelihood using wooden pans and hand tools alongside hunting, fishing, urban migration and trade, and other shifting livelihood strategies of rebusque. My focus is on the labor and livelihoods of miners embedded within the broader connections of gold.

My arguments emerge from an apprenticeship in the skilled techniques of mining. I labored to become conversant in mine work. Throwing stones, digging, shoveling, and picking gave me insight on what the yellow metal meant, how to find it, and what to do with it. These activities opened a window onto the practicalities and ambiguities of mining. Some tasks became familiar. If familiarity is a necessary step to understanding, learning to mine helped me develop an intimate, practical, and embodied understanding of the work. It also created a space for a mutual trust and friendship that facilitated my ethnographic endeavor. Quotidian interactions, informal conversations, and deepening relationships created friendships. Learning to mine helped build confidences, which are the truck and trade of ethnography. It helped me learn both what is important and what to ask (and not ask). It gave me an opportunity to meet miners, and was a ready, intelligible explanation for my presence. It helped me build human connections and develop social competencies.

The fact that I became an enthusiastic, if ultimately incompetent and inexpert, miner, helped me become aware of what was important to miners, while also giving me some of the habits required to navigate everyday tasks. In addition, if the men and women who worked at their mines all day assumed the role of skilled experts, I assumed the role of their novice, someone to be taught and protected. This temporary inversion of knowledge and power was notable because, too often, outsiders and visiting researchers would arrive unexpectedly in the late afternoons, just as miners were returning from the bush the most tired and dirty. By working alongside them, by being as tired and as dirty, my research became more legible. Everyone knew what my method was because they saw me doing it. My ethnographic participant observation was not enough, however. I also read. I read newspapers, magazines, archival documents, websites, and a burgeoning literature on mining in Latin America and beyond. Once I had finished my fieldwork in 2012, I spent a year reading corporate reports, financial statements, and websites of companies based in Canada with projects in the Chocó, as well as activists’ reports and newspaper articles. I studied and mapped gold mining statistics. I followed my intuition to reach a new understanding of a gold rush.

Through an ethnography of gold that examines the movement of people, commodities, and capital, Shifting Livelihoods shows how resource extraction and artisanal, small-scale, and multinational gold industries reshape a place. The book argues that gold enables forms of shifting livelihoods. Shifting livelihoods is my translation of rebusque, a metaphor for the fluid livelihood strategy adopted by forest dwellers and migrant gold miners alike, as they seek informal work amid a drug war. The effects of a gold rush on rural people, corporations, and politics are on view in what I hope is a readable account of daily life in a regional economy dominated by gold and cocaine.

Shifting Livelihoods: Gold Mining and Subsistence in the Chocó, Colombia (University of Washington Press, 2020, 219 pages) is available from the publisher, and wherever books are sold. The Preface is available online. A talk on Shifting Livelihoods, given for the New Brunswick Media Co-op, is available online.

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