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  • Geographies of the Underground in Latin America
  • Matthew Himley and Andrea Marston


During the first four decades of CLAG's history, the subterranean received only marginal attention in the pages of the organization's publications. The interest that existed centered mainly on the geography of minerals (petroleum included) and mineral production. Especially notable are three ten-year review articles that took the measure of geographical scholarship on Latin American mines and minerals produced during the 1960s (Minkel, 1971), 1970s (Minkel & Smith, 1981), and 1980s (Mower, 1991). All three call attention to the relative lack of geographical research (published in English, at least) on Latin American mineral geography. The reviews also suggest that those few geographers who trained their sights on the region's subsoil resources approached their studies mainly from the perspectives of economic geography, heavily interested, for instance, in the regional development impacts of resource extraction (e.g. Mulchansingh, 1983). Largely absent was a concern for the human costs or cultural politics of extraction, topics that were of increasing interest within cognate fields like anthropology (e.g. Nash, 1979). Overall, the impression one gets from the reviews is that Latin American mineral geography represented an understudied but potentially high-yield area of inquiry: for Clarence Minkel (1971), a "veritable 'gold mine' of opportunity" (p. 212); and for Roland Mower (1991), "a treasure house of Latin American research topics" (p. 209).

And yet, in CLAG publications, at least, sustained attention to subsurface resources and their development has only very recently materialized. Spurred by a confluence of factors (free-market policies, elevated commodity prices, rising demand from China and other industrializing countries, among others), subsoil resource extraction rapidly expanded across much of Latin America in the 1990s and early 2000s. Throughout this period, however, CLAG publications remained curiously silent on the topic, a notable exception being Jeffrey Bury and Adam Kolff 's (2002) article on mining expansion, livelihood change, and popular protest in the rural Peruvian Andes. Things began to change in the 2010s. Since 2011, at least eighteen articles focused on the socio-ecological dimensions, broadly understood, of mineral, oil, and natural gas extraction have been published in the Journal of Latin American Geography, many of these (though not all; see below) focusing on the contemporary [End Page 172] period. Significantly, and as illustrated by eleven articles constituting the 2018 special issue "Petro-Geographies and Hydrocarbon Realities in Latin America" (Fry & Delgado, 2018), this scholarship is notable for the critical perspectives, many drawn from political ecology, that it brings to bear on the topic of subsoil resource extraction. This work is thus reflective of a wider boom in research on what Anthony Bebbington and Bury (2013) refer to as the "political ecology of the subsoil" in Latin America.

These trends suggest that the underground is shaking its marginalized status within Latin American geography. We contend, nonetheless, that the ground beneath our feet remains underexplored terrain for geographers of Latin America. In making this claim, we are inspired by a wider flourishing of interest in the subterranean in human geography and across the social sciences (e.g. Williams, 2008; Clark & Yusoff, 2017; Melo Zurita, Munro, & Houston, 2018; Bobbette & Donovan, 2019). At the core of this wider body of scholarship is a (re)conceptualization of the underground as a dynamic socio-natural space: one that both constitutes and is constituted by a range of human activities, from labor to literature, geological mapping to spelunking. Drawing on this expanding interest in how underground spaces are incorporated into sociopolitical life and in turn transformed through these encounters, we now outline what we consider important and productive lines of future research on the geographies of the Latin American underground. These are: (1) the history of earth science in Latin America, and this science's role in the creation of political territories and communities; (2) embodied encounters with the underground, through activities as varied as caving, mining, tourism, and tunneling; and (3) the engineering of the underground, and the relationship of subterranean infrastructures to aboveground social dynamics.

political geographies of earth science

Understandings of the underground are neither static nor universal. A now significant literature on the history of earth science and its lithosphere-focused...


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pp. 172-181
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