Author: Alberto Valz Gris, PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Development, Politecnico di Torino.
Processes of urbanisation cannot be understood as exclusively spatial projects. In the specific case of the Argentinian Puna plateau, the socio-spatial dimension of becoming urban strongly comes to the fore. Beyond the clear and even cartographically distinguishable expanding network of material facilities[i] lie much more invisible (and invisibilised indeed) processes of social transformation.
The way in which both public institutions and private entities operate here with respect to the use of natural resources is marked by two legal obligations. First, according to the Argentinian Constitution of 1994, native communities legitimately own the land upon which they reside. So mining companies—lithium extraction included—need to secure approval from a certain community before even exploring the natural resources falling within their legal territorial boundary. Second, the provincial legislation forces private companies to employ a certain percentage of the local population. Within this legal framework, the provision of salaried labour to a rural community becomes the main means of exchange. Often times access to a full time work schedule reduces native people’s daily obligation towards taking care of a landscape upon which their survival depends—progressively translating their social position from villagers to citizens and implying a much wider shift within multispecies relations. Some of my encounters have described this shift as pan para hoy y hambre para mañana[ii]. This project is naturally claimed by local authorities in a positive developmentalist framework proved by, for example, falling unemployment rates. As Svampa (2006, quoted in Tomasi 2012) has highlighted for the Argentinian context, a common etymological root connects “civilisation” with “urbanisation”. Moreover, the wider project of citizen-making is further entrenched by other practices such as the provision of micro-credit schemes for the constitution of local firms which provide services to the mining operations, giving the new urbanites access to an entrepreneurial pathway.
In a recursive and accelerating fashion, the induced project of making an urban citizen comes in turn to materially constitute urban space itself: together with the provision of a stable income and the ability to purchase previously inaccessible goods and services, companies are well known in the area for donating certain items within the negotiation phase. Pickup trucks, concrete blocks and metal roofing, for example. Mediated by social practice, these material elements themselves further contribute to making the Puna ‘urban’.
But if human labour—upon which material existence depends—is the means of exchange within this framework, one question has been emerging often throughout our conversations: what is the spatio-temporal limit of this process? On the one hand, the projected duration of these mineral deposits has not been estimated by third-party entities. On the other, the increasing automation of the wider mining industry sheds light upon another, maybe more radical form of urbanisation already experienced in the area by the mechanisation of other mining activities such as salt extraction: displacement from the countryside to the provincial urban centre as soon as human labour is substituted by labouring machines and specific agro-pastoral practices are forgotten. How does the altiplano look in the times to come according to these processes?
Svampa, M. (2006). El dilema argentino. Civilización o barbarie. Buenos Aires: Editorial Taurus.
Tomasi, J. (2012). “Materialidades urbanas en tensión. El pueblo de Susques desde comienzos del siglo XX”. Anales del IAA, 42 (2).
[i] See previous article http://urbanlegacylab.net/mobile-ethnographies-of-urbanisation-2/
[ii] “bread for today, hunger for tomorrow”