Over the past two days the soundscape of horns, whistles, megaphones, and screaming has been replaced by the sounds of children playing on the street, emulating the conflict between protesters and police as they vocalize the sounds of tear gas explosions, city-wide sirens and emergency vehicles, repeating chants from strikers and the descriptions of vandalism and looting as reported in the local news. “Maldito!” one of the children screams as the other throws a rock at the wall as if he was a huelguista (striker) while proclaiming “¡Viva la huelga!” (Long live the strike!).


(huelguistas, some throwing stones at buildings while marching)

Last weekend we roamed freely through the streets before things escalated and as leaders called a two-day “tregua” (truce) so that protesters could rest and stock up on supplies. This weekend we are afforded another tregua, which is a relief because the city is running out of food and the cost of basic staples is significantly rising (we ate the last of our mangos and mandarins yesterday for lunch). Small stores and street kiosks have begun to sell food at inflated prices – reports have come in that 1kg of chicken currently costs about 16 soles (~5.75 USD), a tin of tuna is 7-8 soles (~2.50 USD), and mototaxi drivers are charging twice as much now that there is a fuel shortage in town. Hopefully supplies will soon arrive to town.


(mototaxi driver, apparently a risky job during la huelga)

The Peruvian Marines arrived yesterday to provide support for the national police and to guard Padre Aldamiz International Airport. Some welcome the marines with hopes that peace will be restored, while others resent the increased militarized presence in town and conclude that “para este gobierno la solucion es la represion” (for this government, the solution is repression). While the airport has received additional security protection, main roads leading to it have been blocked by large tree limbs, incinerated trash and tires, and scattered concrete chunks and large boulders. One might encounter this impasse if they are unfamiliar with backroads through town (photo courtesy of La Revista MDD):


(Avenida Dos De Mayo- a main road is blocked by a fire)

This strike is not simply another paro minero (miner’s strike); Madrediosenses (residents of Madre de Dios) have several grievances that extend beyond policies that strictly affect the mining sector. For instance, some residents have expressed anger with the lack of government support after the region experienced tremendous flooding during the months of January and February, which affected over 8,000 people, 15 educational institutions, and caused 80 million soles (~28.5 million USD) worth of damage to agricultural lands (e.g. plantains, cassava, rice, maize, and papaya) and fish farms, leaving some who invested in large plots saddled with significant unpaid debts. Read more about it here and here.

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(recent flooding in Puerto Viejo, old town in Puerto Maldonado, photo courtesy of La Revista, Madre de Dios)

Another grievance is that civic workers have received meager raises (e.g. 100 soles per month, or ~35 USD) compared to politicians in Lima who enjoy raise increases by several thousand soles. Economists celebrate this developing country whose GDP has grown significantly in recent years despite worldwide market vicissitudes and the global economic recession, but many Peruvians contend that they are excluded from the benefits of ‘development’ and ‘growth’ while inequality continues to characterize much of the relationship between Lima and its peripheries, a model described as centralismo.

national budget

(distribution of national budget, per each department)

Building on these myriad disenchantments, FEDEMIN (The Federation of Mining in Madre de Dios, the regional syndicate) has successfully built solidarity with workers from other market sectors in the region and spearheaded the ‘Indefinite Strike of Civil Society.’ Many people in this region agree that the central government’s efforts to eradicate much of the gold mining sector in Madre de Dios over recent years is leaving thousands of people with few economically viable alternatives. As one miner told me in 2013, “What am I to do, let my family starve? What other options do I have?”

children on the river

(children who live in one of the many mining riverine communities along the Madre de Dios River)

The current strike was mobilized against Decreto Supremo  N° 015-2013-IN, a decree which establishes the Régimen de Control de Combustible (Fuel Control Regimen). The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) seeks to address what they call “tráfico de combustibles” (fuel traffickers), an indirect measure to eradicate illegal gold mining operations in the region, though the government also claims that the fuel is used to process cocaine and transport it through the region. “No somos narcotraficantes” (We are not drug traffickers) has been a common chant in protests this past week. Officials claim that the new fuel restrictions will only affect illegal activities; however, tap associations claim that the economy in 12 regions will be affected (see here).


(a medium-size boat carrying large cylinders of gasoline, taken during a trip up the Madre de Dios River in 2013)

In 2012, 147,840 gallons of gasoline were supposedly sold for vehicles in the region. According to these figures, each vehicle in Madre de Dios consumes the absurd amount of 110 gallons per day, an estimate inflated by the informal fuel market. I began to learn about this issue during preliminary dissertation research in the region during 2013 (one  motorista told me about parts of the Interoceanic Highway where he used to stop at night and wait for someone to come out of the bush to sell him fuel).


(miners in Laberinto hauling gasoline and other mining equipment to the boat launching area, taken during fieldwork in 2013)

How does this new fuel decree relate to mining? Most of the machinery used in gold mining runs on small or mid-size motors that require gasoline to operate. For example, Chupaderas, which use two motors to move water and slurry through plastic hosing and pvc pipes, burn through a 50-gallon cylinder of gasoline every 12 hours.

charancera worker

(caranchera operation on the Madre de Dios River, taken from fieldwork during 2013)

During fieldwork last year, I often sat at the top of the terraces overlooking the Madre de Dios River and monitored the supply boats going up and down the river. A cargo completo (boat that carries maximum capacity) usually contains several dozen crates of Cusqueña beer or 50-gallon cylinders of gasoline, both of which ‘fuel’ mining, but in different ways.


(boat carrying several 50-gallon cylinders of gasoline to mining towns on the Madre de Dios River)

In an interview with El Comercio, the High Commissioner on Affairs of Mining Formalization and Interdiction of Illegal Mining and Environmental Remediation, Daniel Urresti, said, “[W]e will cut off the blood of illegal mining.” The strategy is two-fold: (1) to regulate fuel through a checkpoint on the Inambari bridge, which divides Puno, Madre de Dios, and Cusco; and (2) to create a register for buyers of mercury and arsenic (which are used to separate gold from other materials) to further regulate access to crucial mining supplies. This ‘chemical inputs’ strategy compliments recent military interventions in the region. Just last year, the military destroyed 897 mining operations in Madre de Dios, including many gringo balsas and chupaderas (these are different mechanized and semi-mechanized mining methods of primarily alluvial gold extraction). The government still has its eye on over 4,000 operations in the large deforested mining landscapes of Mega 11, La Pampa, and Huepetuhe.


(large, now-illegal dredger, taken in 2010 before the ban on alluvial mining went into effect)

Much remains unknown regarding how the government plans to address the manifold grievances of people in this region who are currently striking, but one thing is for certain – the move towards formalizing the mining economy is not reversible and the government will continue to aggressively address illegal mining activities (see here for a description of the difference between informal and illegal mining, and here for an infograph from SPDA, the Peruvian Society for Environmental Rights). Many people in the region support the government’s efforts to tackle issues associated with illegal mining, including deforestation, mercury contamination of waterways and food sources, loss of biodiversity, and numerous social problems such as human trafficking, prostitution, child labor, and debt servitude.

For others, the problem is more complicated and the solutions are not so clear; one salient pattern I have identified after conducting ethnographic interviews with over 100 people in the region from 2010-2014 (many of which have worked in ecotourism or in other conservation-based lines of work) is that gold mining has played a significant role in sustaining households and providing education for children and young adults. For many people who endure the hardship of temporary work contracts in other market sectors, gold mining can provide quick, reliable cash injections into the household to pay for basic needs. As part-time work in mining becomes a less viable livelihood strategy, people hope the government will help to provide alternatives – this hope unifies many people regardless of their position on mining, and it is one reason people have taken to the streets to petition their government.


LA HUELGA INDEFINIDA DE LA SOCIEDAD CIVIL (Indefinite Strike of Civil Society)


(Indefinite Strike of Civil Society)


(protesters march down blockaded streets)

As I write these notes, gunshots can be heard from multiple locations around our hostel. Sirens echo off building walls. Engines rev in the background as mototaxis speed down the streets to escape the dangerous conflict between protesters and riot police. Earlier this week miners littered the streets with tacks and nails to deflate the tires of mototaxi drivers who were not observing the miner’s strike—and that was when things were “pacifico” (peaceful). Today, crowds of protestors flooded the swelteringly hot streets of Puerto Maldonado, hurling rocks toward national police armed in riot gear, who responded by deploying canisters of tear gas (I did not anticipate I would be searching online how to use vinegar to mitigate the effects of tear gas, but fieldwork is apparently full of surprises, starting with the tsunami warning in Lima the first day we arrived to the country).


(riot police in the plaza de armas in Puerto Maldonado)

I walked down the street and caught a glimpse of the scene before hurrying back to our hostel to seek refuge. I snapped a few photos of a fire in the middle of the street and two older Andean women passed by, speaking Quechua (their native language) to extend an invitation for me to join the protest. To their surprise, I replied in Quechua, declining their offer and politely wishing them a happy day. Amused that a random gringo on the street would reply in their native language, they further encouraged me to join the protest, “Jamuy, qhari!” (come with us, man!), they maintained.


(protestors down the street setting fire to tires and trash)

Earlier this morning I woke to the sound of SWAT police as they announced their presence through megaphones, patrolling our street— apparently a harbinger of things to later come today. Now we are sequestered in our room, eating sweet potato chips and mandarins awaiting news from Lima and hoping a resolution is passed to restore peace to the region. This, I am learning, is just one aspect of what it is like to be a denizen of Puerto Maldonado, a city occupied and militarized by around 5,000 miners and 800 national and local police engaged in violent conflict. Many locals are disenchanted with the strike and want it to end. Schools are closed. Streets are blockaded.  Some miners have even been throwing stones through glass windows and doors – minutes ago they just passed our hostel and we could hear the raining down of boulders and rocks. A man ran past the buildings on our street yelling, “Cierra las puertas, gente!” (Close/lock your doors, people!). Car parts are burning in the middle of major roads and our fear that the strike would descend into violence finally came true this afternoon. Things escalated after reports last night that two protesters were killed in the nearby town of Mazuko, where police had been looting earlier this week. La Revista de Madre de Dios, a local news organization reports (translated into English):

We call all our citizens who take appropriate security measures, not to risk their lives crossing the streets in any type of vehicle, the protesters take it as provocation, do not allow children, elderly or pregnant women out of their homes, it is preferable to take guard since the police are already throwing tear gas canisters, so have buckets or containers with water ready, cloths or wet rags with vinegar. Try to stay closed somewhere in your house, otherwise go to a safe place (neighbors, friends, family). Everything for the sake of our integrity.

We have been residing in Puerto Maldonado in the southeastern Amazonian region of Perú for exactly one week. Our arrival was timely –just a few days after the start of La huelga indefinida de la sociedad civil (The indefinite strike of civil society), organized jointly by the regional and federal mining syndicates, FEDEMIN and CONAMI, respectively. These kinds of strikes are responses to a series of developments at the national level, including decrees to criminalize informal mining and military interdictions in the region since 2011 (for more on this subject see the page (http://theobrero.com/gold/). This strike in particular was elicited by a decree to control fuel entering the region and other efforts to formalize miners by the imminent deadline of April 19, 2014, an impossible task in this frontier region. There is a lot more contributing to this particular strike (e.g. politics in Lima, charges that the region is complicit in narcotrafficking, etc.) which I will expound upon in my next field note.


(protesters throwing rocks at buildings)

Upon arriving to Puerto Maldonado a week ago, we first noticed that Puerto Maldonado was more crowded than during previous visits over the past six years, especially in the central area, where traffic has doubled and clusters of miners could be see hanging out on the streets and in the doorways and balconies of local hostels that are normally vacant. Serengazo (the local emergency police) are on the beat, but now accompanied by hundreds of national police in riot gear like helmets and shields and armed with automatic rifles and grenades of tear gas.


(riot police patrolling the streets in front of Billinghurst Bridge, the Interoceanic Highway)

A familiar scene in Puerto Maldonado is of children happily playing on the sidewalks in front of their parents’ retail stores, but everything is shut down now because of la huelga indefinida. A few days ago we were eating lunch at a restaurant located on the Interoceanic Highway (one of the only major restaurants in town that remains open during the day when the strike is active), when we suddenly heard loud voices approaching. A small crowd appeared nearby the restaurant and a few servers stood petrified with looks of terror on their faces as if an attack was looming. One of the customers immediately rose from his chair, almost knocking it onto the ground, clenching his fists as if prepared to defend himself and his company. Fortunately, the protesters continued marching down the highway and the atmosphere of the restaurant returned to normal. Everyday since then we can hear low-flying helicopters patrolling over the city.


(army helicopter flying over Puerto Maldonado)

As mentioned, last night there were reports that two protesters were shot and killed by police in Mazuko, where the strike has been more violent. A few days prior a video was leaked showing police looting the town, taking staples, burning people’s possessions –it is uncertain whether we should be more fearful of the protestors or the police, and I imagine residents here feel similarly. Hopefully soon it will be safe to return to the streets to conduct interviews and learn more about people’s conceptions of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ of Puerto Maldonado, but for now people are still walking by our hostel throwing stones at buildings.

Here is a video of the conflict in the nearby town of Mazuko (things escalate at about 1:30 into the video)

More soon…

Invited Talk: Extraction, Conservation, and Contingent Labor in the Peruvian Amazon


The newly established Continuity and Change in the Andes and Amazonia Humanities Institute Working Group and CLAS Andean Studies Working Group invited me to give a talk about my ethnographic research in Amazonia that has been ongoing for the past 5+ years. The event was absolutely fabulous and I’ve already made new scholarly connections! If you are interested in getting on the Andes/Amazonia listserv and attending upcoming talks, please email the WG’s founder, Dr. Michelle Wibbelsman (Wibbelsman dot 1@ osu.edu)


In the above image, I’m discussing native people living in voluntary isolation (specifically the Mascho-Piro) and why their popular label as “uncontacted people” is theoretically naive, historically inaccurate, and politically troublesome. For more on this subject, read anthropologist Glenn Shepard’s guest blog post over at Savage Minds. Shepard writes:

Yet they [Mascho-Piro] are hardly throwbacks to the “Stone Age,” as some media outlets present them. In fact, the Mashco-Piro are every bit as modern as, well, the automobile and the rubber tire. In the late 19th century, before John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire and Henry Ford drove the first “horseless carriage” out of his shed in Detroit, the Mashco-Piro inhabited the upper Manu River in settled agricultural villages.


WELCOME TO THE OBRERO! This first post is intended to signify a new era of my anthropological life as a PhD candidate. Several things exist around the corner:

1) I’m currently finishing a manuscript about the conceptual, methodological, and ethical issues arising from conducting more dynamic, iterative, and sometimes ‘digital’ ethnographic research (something my advisor and I have begun to call ‘hyper-ethnography’).

2) I’ve started a new manuscript using my ethnographic findings on gold mining labor in Amazonia to further develop a model of unequal exchange.

3) and finally, my wife and I are preparing to embark on a year-long trip to Andes/Amazonia Peru to complete dissertation fieldwork. Watch this site, as there will be many more things to come, including videos, audio recordings, photography, ethnographic blurbs, ethnographic reflections, and more!


A photo from the obelisk of typical traffic in Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru from the 2013 field season. This image captures the busy everyday lives of hardworking people in Amazonia. See the photography page for more images from last year’s fieldwork!