Unearthing Capitalism: Social-Environmental Histories of Resource Extraction and Resistance
Panel V-19, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm
What can historians of capitalism gain by writing environmental and social history together? Beginning with this question, this panel explores histories of resource extraction in the Middle East and North Africa in the late-19th and 20th centuries. With increasing urgency amid the climate crisis, scholars of the Middle East and North Africa have traced how fossil fuel extraction and consumption shaped the modern world. The extraction of other mineral resources, however, has received significantly less attention. The focus on fossil fuels has sidelined other pollutants, deadly forms of extraction, and movements of resistance in sites across the region where precious metals, iron, lead, phosphates, copper, and uranium are mined. Many of these sites are geographically underrepresented in area studies literature, since they lie at the margins of conventionally demarcated regions.
Histories of extracting both materials and labor in the phosphate mines of Tunisia, copper mines of northern Kurdistan, iron mines of Mauritania, and uranium mines in Niger have much to contribute to the field methodologically, empirically, and theoretically. We argue that these extractive sites constitute privileged locations for exploring how circuits of capital, environmental crisis, and social movements have historically been entangled. Together, we investigate multiple temporalities of extractive violence impacting human, animal, and plant life. We examine how the exploitation of mineral resources shaped the priorities of imperial, national, and colonial regimes in the region, while also giving rise to zones of anti-colonial struggle and labor organizing.
Our work advances a larger project at the cutting edge of critical political economy: charting a capacious history of capitalism that connects myriad forms of human and non-human work while tracing entangled movements for social and environmental justice. Prior scholarship—on world-ecology, and on the social production of nature—has urged us to collapse the boundary between the social and the natural. This panel collapses the boundary between social and environmental history as fields. Each of these fields has its own literature, methods, and perspectives, but in sites of resource extraction, environmental and social history cannot be separated. As the earth’s mineral resources are being exploited at a faster rate than ever before, this work has become increasingly urgent.
Dr. Brahim El Guabli
Dr. Rebecca Gruskin
-- Organizer, Presenter
Dr. Mattin Biglari
-- Organizer, Discussant, Chair
Beginning in the 1890s under French colonialism, Tunisia’s Gafsa region supplied European factories with vast quantities of phosphate rock, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers. Male wageworkers, primarily from Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Italy, extracted the rock from dusty tunnels. They pulverized and washed the ore in plants built near the mining towns’ residential areas, where many of them lived with their families.
Drawing on doctors’ reports, biomedical research papers, company documents, and oral histories, this paper explores how French capitalists, doctors, and scientists imagined discretely bounded “industrial” and “natural” spaces in 1920s-1930s Gafsa. I argue that this boundary-making project relied on gendered and raced ways of tracing illness, valuing labor, and distributing the industry’s pollutive consequences. For the French-owned mining company, industrial sites were zones of regulation, where environmental degradation could be managed. But degradation could pass without accountability in spaces imagined as natural. In the decades that followed, Gafsa’s North African residents developed strategies for resistance and survival that both drew on and challenged the industrial-natural binary. They developed multiple, ecologically embedded etiologies of diseases, tracing “manufactured germs” that flowed through currents of wind and water. The result was a protracted, multi-decade, ongoing conflict over where the industrial workplace ended, how far industrial illnesses traveled, and what made polluted grasses dangerous.
Ultimately, this paper pushes for an expanded conception of capitalism that accounts for the multiple ways in which it has been ecologically embedded: not only at the systemic level, as scholars in world ecology have shown, but also in the ways that resistance and survival fractured capitalist constructions of nature. To do this, I stand on the shoulders of scholars who have explored gendered and racial capitalism in the Middle East and North Africa and in other world regions. Combining their contributions with work on the social production of nature, this paper traces histories of gender, race, class, and nature together, offering a way to interrogate relationships among these overlapping constructions to craft a broader history of capitalism. This project opens new analytical possibilities that merge approaches from environmental and social history, exploring the social production of nature while centering questions of socio-environmental justice.
Saharanism, which I defined as a universalizing imaginary about desert spaces, has created the platform and the ideational blueprint for all sorts of extractive activities to take place in deserts. Globally, deserts are depicted as spaces for extraction of minerals, petrol, sand, and, in some cases, even rare species. Their life and environments are conceptualized differently, compared to the fragility and sensitivity associated with seas, oceans, and forests. As a result, the dissemination of the idea that deserts are dead and barren stands in the way of a better articulation of their ecological liveness and socio-cultural significance. Scholars have certainly engaged with the impact of the discovery of oil on oil-producing societies, but there has not been a systematic effort to theorize how and through which process desert resources have been constructed as extractable. Drawing on a plethora of historical and literary sources from the nineteenth century to the present, this paper will develop the concept of Saharanism and explain its underlying extractive ideology. From the Sahara to the Arabian Peninsula to the Sonoran Desert, desert resources are extracted by local and transnational companies without heeding the interests of indigenous people nor the environmental impact of their extractive activities. By reading extractive endeavors in deserts against a long history of invasion, securitization, and exploitation that unfold in desertic spaces, the paper will reveal how the resulting environmental violence and extraction are intertwined in their origins in Saharanism as a desert-focused ideology. While mining or oil-drilling are only the visible part of the physical acts of extraction, conceptualizing Saharanism will demonstrate how it makes these actions and more possible in deserts.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, industrialized resource extraction, drought, and the emergence of anti-imperial revolutionary political movements occurred contemporaneously across northwest Africa. Unlike elsewhere in the Sahel, where prolonged drought entrenched new forms of humanitarian governance (cf. Mann 2015), the concurrence of environmental crisis with an influx of capital investment in mining operations produced a “moment of generativity” (Ferry and Limbert 2008) in both resource making and political processes across northwest Africa.
This paper approaches a transformative period in western Sahara through a social and political history of Zouérate, a city in northern Mauritania where the effects of all three processes converged and intensified. Zouérate formed and grew throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s as the newly independent Mauritanian state, through an internationally financed entity known as MIFERMA, began mining iron ore. As informal settlements around the miners’ and railroad workers' towns proliferated, Zouérate grew from a small colonial outpost of a few hundred people at independence to a city of 15,000 in 1969. During this time the city became the locus for two, mutually supportive revolutionary movements: the Mauritanian Kadihin, and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi anticolonial movement that operated out of Zouérate in the early 1970s while in exile from Spanish Sahara.
Conceptualizing Zouérate as a new (and qualitatively different) node in the networked social formations of the broader region of western Sahara, this paper proposes thinking of both the city and the surrounding desert environment as "revolutionary subjects," i.e., as catalysts for transformation in environmental, social and political terms.