From the Series: Geological Anthropology
Aminata Touré and Pape Kamara are immigrants from West Africa and residents of adjacent apartment buildings in a suburb of Paris. They were strangers until a gold mining boom in West Africa brought their lives into collision.1 Touré was raised in Kédougou, Senegal, while Kamara grew up in the western region of Kayes, Mali. Though separated by an international border, Kédougou and Kayes occupy the same geological belt—the Kédougou-Kenieba Inlier (KKI)—a gold-producing province known regionally as Bambuk. In Paris, both Touré and Kamara are active members of migrant “hometown associations” that raise money for African immigrants who fall ill in France and for development projects in their “home” villages in West Africa. In the early 2000s, Kamara’s hometown association had become an activist platform to raise awareness about the nefarious environmental and health effects of Mali’s gold mining sector. Several years later, Touré landed in Kamara’s apartment foyer while organizing Kédougou’s diaspora to rally before the Senegalese embassies in Paris, Barcelona, and New York. Their mission was to “free” dozens of people imprisoned in Kédougou, a region rapidly transformed by the opening of its first corporate gold mine, after a riot against the state’s mineral policies.
Over the past two decades, as petroleum and hard-metal mining has intensified across the global South, anthropologists have documented the unlikely coalitions and geographies that animate resistance to extractive industries on local, national, and global scales (Kirsch 2014). While Touré’s and Kamara’s activism took shape in France, their alliance was built on a shared geological heritage back in West Africa. From the suburbs of Paris, they enrolled filmmakers, human rights lawyers, and ecological associations into the making of a “protest geology,” which I define as the collective forms of activism that forge political alliances and forms of belonging bound to specific geological formations—in this case, to the gold-rich KKI.
The recent turn to geology in the social sciences has generated rich insights into how states and corporations manipulate subterranean resources to exercise power, accumulate profit, and cultivate ties between citizens and the state’s “geo-body” (Elden 2013; Weszkalnys 2015; Yusoff 2018). But anthropologists must also examine how non-state actors give political form to geology. Where do protest geologies emerge? What spatial forms do they take?
The KKI is the westernmost outcrop of the Birimian Greenstone Belt, a name given by geologists to gold-rich volcanic rock that undergirds large portions of West Africa. Beginning in the 1990s, Anglophone mining firms opened dozens of truck-and-shovel mines and exploration camps along the Birimian (Mbodj 2009). In 1996, the Sadiola mine, located in Kayes, Mali (Kamara’s home region), became the first open-pit mine along the KKI. In 2008, Senegal opened its first open-pit mine, known as Sabodala, in Kédougou (Touré’s home region). While mining firms heralded the KKI as an “underexplored” and “new” mining belt, this region has an ancient history of gold mining and trade. The KKI aligns with a geography known by medieval Arabic chroniclers as Bambuk. By the ninth century AD, villages populating Bambuk furnished gold to the West African empires of Ghana and Mali. With the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, however, Bambuk became an economic periphery as commerce was reoriented toward the coastal trade in slaves. French colonialism reinforced the region’s marginality. After Mali and Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, immigration from Bambuk to France became the primary economic engine for agrarian households on both sides of the border.
In the late 1990s, the rising price of gold activated older forms of interconnection across Bambuk. In material terms, mining companies paved roads linking villages between Senegal and Mali. Sub-contracting firms, specializing in diamond drilling and geochemical analysis, ferried back and forth across the border. Telecommunications companies installed satellites, bringing cellphone service to remote villages. At the same time, so-called “artisanal” gold mining—known as orpaillage in Francophone West Africa—expanded. New bush roads, cut open by exploration firms, facilitated transit by motorcycle to newly discovered artisanal mining sites.
In political terms, this dual artisanal and industrial gold mining economy strengthened connections among rural citizens from across Bambuk and among its diasporas in France, Spain, and the United States. Orpaillage intensified the exchange of information about new techniques for exploiting gold and the employment policies of corporate mining firms now dotting the landscape of Bambuk. By the early 2000s, residents living near open-pit gold mines in Kayes, Mali, were voicing concerns about environmental degradation around the mines. Following the tepid response of the Luolo mine to a protest in 2005, immigrants from Sadiola, a commune of Kayes, living in France carried on the protest of their brothers, daughters, and friends from Mali. Kamara was among a large group of Malian immigrants who networked with French ecological and human rights organizations and a filmmaker who documented grievances around the mines in Sadiola (de Vitry 2009; Dell 2013). Protests against the Sabodala mining operation in Kédougou, Senegal, followed suit in 2006 and 2008. By 2009, immigrants from Kédougou living in the Parisian suburbs reached out to immigrants from Mali, who shared strategies and helped to hire a lawyer to represent protestors imprisoned back in Kédougou (d’Avignon 2016). Participation in this activism cultivated a sense of belonging to Bambuk. In the mid-2000s, some immigrants from Kayes and Kédougou in France began to informally call themselves the “fils de Bambuk” (children of Bambuk). This ran counter to a tendency by West African immigrants to identify with their nation or village of origin. Over the past decade, journalists and orpailleurs in both Senegal and Mali have used social media platforms to exchange information about the gold industry, strengthening political and affective ties across the KKI.
The protest geology that emerged from Touré’s and Kamara’s apartments in Paris, and on the goldfields of Kédougou and Kayes, was nurtured by historical ties of migration across the KKI, French colonialism, and more recent emigration from West Africa. The structural conditions that nurture protest geologies are also ripe for ethnographic comparison. Consider that the West African Birimian Shield was once joined to the Guiana Shield of South America as part of the super landmass of Pangea. Separated billions of years ago, these regions share an ancient geological legacy and a more recent history of colonialism and mining capitalism. What protest geologies are taking shape in South America? Do they interact with those of West Africa? Perhaps activists in South America and West Africa—or among their global diasporas—will forge new protest geologies that announce a transcontinental political geology for our times.
1. The names of individuals have been changed.
d’Avignon, Robyn. 2016. “Subterranean Histories: Making ‘Artisanal’ Miners on the West African Sahel.” PhD diss., University of Michigan.
Dell, Matthew. 2013. “Undermining the ‘Local’: Migration, Development and Gold in Southern Kayes.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 34, no. 5: 584–603.
de Vitry, Camille. 2009. L’or Nègre. Lyon, France: Éditions Tahin Party.
Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.
Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and their Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mbodj, Faty B. 2009. “Boom aurifère et dynamiques économiques entre Sénégal, Mali et Guinée.” EchoGéo 8.
Weszkalnys, Gina. 2015. “Geology, Potentiality, Speculation: On the Indeterminacy of First Oil.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 4: 611–39.
Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.