Digging Deeper: Contested Livelihoods and Sociocosmological Relations among Artisanal Miners in Laos
By Oliver Tappe
When I first visited the Lao tin mining area by the river Nam Phathaen (Khammouane province) in 2019, I was struck by the image of local villagers digging small pits and tunnels next to the roaring excavators of a Chinese mining company operating in the area. Equipped with simple tools, wearing flip-flops and no hardhats, they climbed down precarious bamboo ladders to extract the mineral. This practice also took place in abandoned mines that since the 1920s had been exploited by French colonial mining enterprises. After the Lao communist revolution of 1975, large-scale mining operations from socialist brother countries came to dominate the Lao mining economy – with local artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) persisting.
Interestingly, the indigenous mining practices today still resemble the ones described by the French travel writer Alfred Raquez more than a century ago. In his 1902 book Pages Laotiens, Raquez portrayed the landscape of the Nam Phathaen valley as “perforated like a sieve” by the small pits of indigenous miners. Since France took control of the Lao territories on the left bank of the Mekong in 1893 (as part of French Indochina), such local mining traditions had called the attention of French entrepreneurs. Indeed, the tin mines of Khammouane became the first mining industries in Laos by the 1920s. Next to the colonial enterprises, local miners continued digging for minerals or washing the sediments in the river. This combined livelihoods of agriculture and ASM characterise the lifeworlds of the Lao village communities in the Nam Phathaen valley until the present day.
My current research project explores the historical trajectories of Lao tin mining communities shaped by livelihood transitions, shifting labour and gender relations, and specific ritual practices related to the dangerous work in the mines. The precarious co-existence between ASM and the large-scale mining (LSM) sector (at present marked by Vietnamese and Chinese mining concessions) offers another perspective to study the social and environmental ruptures experienced by the people of the Nam Phathaen. By combining ethnographic field research with archival studies, this project attempts a historical anthropology of extractivism in Laos, with a particular focus on the lifeworlds of tin mining communities in the Nam Phathaen valley in the past 100 years.
A century of extractivism on different scales – between (colonial) capitalism and indigenous subsistence strategies – has left physical and more intangible traces in the valley. The impact of mining on local livelihoods, environmental degradation, and sociocultural change deserves closer scrutiny, not least against the backdrop of the integration of this remote Lao valley into the regional economic dynamics of Southeast Asia and the global economy more generally. The different, sometimes overlapping labour relations of indigenous ‘miner-peasant’ subsistence and industrial wage labour (mainly Vietnamese migrant workers) constitute another key issue of my project.
Following previous examples in the anthropology of mining since June Nash’s seminal book We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (1979), this project also explores interrelations between the extractive industries and related labour relations, and local (shifting) social and cosmological configurations. Mining is entwined with specific cosmological ideas, in particular malevolent spirits dwelling in the waters. Since flooding and landslides pose considerable risks for the villagers, ritually appeasing those spiritual entities is crucial for the well-being of the miner-peasant communities along the Nam Phathaen. I will study such ritual practices through participant observation and compare them with ethnographic descriptions noted by French colonial administrators and missionaries, and left in the archives.
As French contemporaries observed in the early 20th century, the diverse rituals and taboos around tin mining had limited the effective mobilisation of indigenous labour for the first attempts of large-scale industrial mining. As a result, French entrepreneurs recruited thousands of Vietnamese ‘coolies’ to run the Lao mines. These workers joined the many Vietnamese civil servants, teachers, and doctors hired by the French colonial authorities as allegedly more skilled and ‘civilised’. The Vietnamese, including traders who followed the work migrants, thus became a key demographic factor in the Lao towns by the Mekong. In Thakhaek, the provincial capital of Khammouane (60 km away from the tin mines), a large part of the population today shares a mixed Lao-Vietnamese origin.
Exploring the history of Vietnamese work migration to Laos is certainly key to understanding the specific social and economic configurations in the Nam Phathaen valley. Therefore, my project includes a study of Vietnamese labour mobility from colonial times to the present, including the relationship between established Lao-Vietnamese communities and more recent work migrants from Vietnam. I ask: How did generations of Vietnamese migrants interact with and integrate into the local communities in the Lao tin mining area? And what are the economic and cultural legacies of these longstanding migration patterns?
Even if present-day Vietnamese and Chinese investors play a crucial role in the Lao mining sector, currently the main export outlet is Thailand. However, this might change with the expansion of the Chinese Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) to Laos. In the meantime, while the Laos-China high-speed railway linking Kunming with Vientiane has already reached completion (despite pandemic conditions), the Lao infrastructure further downstream is still modest. For the mining areas in the Xaysomboun province north of Vientiane, the new Chinese infrastructures have already yielded increased activities of Chinese investors and entrepreneurs. It is not unlikely that Chinese mining operations will increase their business in the Nam Phathaen area as soon as effectively connected to the BRI network.
Meanwhile, the Lao villagers in the Nam Phathaen valley maintain their combined livelihoods of agricultural subsistence and regular artisanal and small-scale mining activities until the present day. However, large-scale mining operations and environmental degradation have put considerable pressure on the land base, with local household economies increasingly relying on precarious mining work. More than 90 per cent of the households in the valley engage in ASM, which constitutes about 70 per cent of the household income. Given the degraded farmland and bad water quality, a large part of this income is used to buy rice and drinking water, though.
In the next few years, I will dig deeper into the history and local lifeworlds of the Nam Phathaen valley. My research aims to shed light on local economic and sociocosmological relations, and on the entanglements between local subsistence strategies, transnational capitalism, and (ritually enacted) human-environment relations. How does extractivism affect local communities in Laos and their specific social and cosmological relations? From the French colonial intervention to the present Chinese Belt-and-Road Initiative, this project explores the sediments of corresponding social dynamics and ruptures.
Oliver Tappe is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Anthropology, University of Heidelberg, with a DFG-funded project on tin mining in Laos. His research interests include the historical anthropology of Laos with a particular focus on labour relations, migration and mobility, and sociocultural change. He is an editor of a forthcoming book, Contested Resource Frontiers in Southeast Asia, co-edited with Max Weber Fellow Simon Rowedder (to be published by ISEAS/Singapore).
Citation: Oliver Tappe, Digging Deeper: Contested Livelihoods and Sociocosmological Relations among Artisanal Miners in Laos, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/39285