Andrea Marston

Study program:
PhD Geography
Current affiliation:
University of California, Berkeley

Andrea is analyzing the emergence of the cooperative mining sector as one of Bolivia’s most politically influential social forces.

My research project

Andrea’s research explores the surprising emergence of the cooperative mining sector as one of Bolivia’s most politically influential social forces. Mining cooperatives are groups of independent miners who labour in mineshafts and tailings that were abandoned by private and/or state actors. Although these cooperatives have existed in highland Bolivia since the 1930s, over the last decade they have become politically dominant at the national level, despite their economic marginality and poor human rights record. Undertaken with a combination of ethnographic and archival methods, Andrea’s research suggests that the mining cooperatives’ political salience must be understood in relation to their historical emergence as ex-unionized miners and their contemporary identification as both miners and agriculturalists. Mining cooperatives are able to articulate multiple understandings of what it means to be Bolivian today, and are therefore at the center of the debates over nature, race, and modernity that are currently animating Bolivian politics. Through a close examination of the Bolivian context, Andrea’s research speaks to the increasing global tendency to invoke nationalist sentiment in relation to struggles over natural resource extraction, management, and preservation.

Tell us about your research project and its central idea.

My research examines questions of natural resource extraction and land-based identities (i.e., cultural attachments to territory and/or particular land uses), particularly in the Latin American context. Specifically, I am studying the Bolivian phenomenon of small-scale "cooperative" mining, which has surged enormously over the last decade. I use scare quotes because these "mining cooperatives" (cooperativas mineras) are not cooperatively organized in any usual sense of the term: each miner works independently, profits are privately appropriated, and non-cooperative wage labour is widely deployed. At this point, there are more than 60,000 cooperative miners in Bolivia, representing between 80-90% of the total mining workforce, and they wield significant political power at the national level. In fact, mining cooperatives represent a significant barrier to attempts (driven by either the Bolivian government or other actors) to reduce or nationalize extractive activities.  

I am attempting to understand how these mining cooperatives have become so politically powerful by analyzing their historical development and contemporary practices in relation to questions of nation, nature, and identity. Bolivia is a nation that has been economically dependent on resource extraction (primarily minerals and oil) since the Spanish conquest, but in recent years there has been a push to reduce national extraction rates; this push is bound up with a revalorization of indigeneity and a reconfiguration of "natural resources" as "Pachamama" (Mother Earth). Nevertheless, resource extraction continues apace. My research argues that this continuation cannot be understood solely in economic terms; rather, struggles over what it means to be Bolivian, including differing relationships with land and nature, continue to inform economic trajectories. 

What led you to choose this research project in particular?

Actually, I was first drawn to researching mining when I was studying abroad in Ecuador in 2007. I was part of a group of mostly American students who were visiting Intag, a region of Ecuador where people have been fighting against a Canadian copper mining company for more than a decade now. As the only Canadian in the group, I was singled out to bear witness to what Canadian mining companies were doing in Ecuador. It would not be the last time. Canada has more mining operations in Latin America than any other country in the world, and when I am in Latin America I am frequently asked about Canada’s mining footprint.

I did not begin studying mining for another several years, however. From 2010 to 2012 I was working on a master’s project about water management in Bolivia, and I noticed that my informants frequently explained the lack of a comprehensive water protection act by making reference to the mining industry, which vehemently opposes any reforms that limit its access to water. When I pressed them on this, they often ended up mentioning the rise of mining cooperatives in Bolivia. It struck me that this story was quite different from the one in Ecuador, where local communities are fighting against resource extraction. In the Bolivian context, some local communities are actually fighting for continued mining, and they sometimes make deals directly with multinational companies that promise them improved equipment and better market access. I was so fascinated by this topic that I decided to study it for my doctoral research. 

What is new or surprising about your research?

I think I was getting at this in response to the previous question, but essentially what is so interesting about my research is precisely the way it complicates understandings about local reactions to extractive industries. We have all heard the (truly devastating) stories about multinationals taking over and destroying indigenous territories, but we hear less frequently about complicities between private mining capital and local communities, even though the latter’s demand for economic opportunities is an incredibly powerful excuse for environmentally and socially horrific extractive practices. Of course, the same communities that are demanding such opportunities are often economically marginalized precisely because of previous rounds of resource extraction, whose boom-and-bust cycles rarely bring sustained growth to local economies. It is therefore important not to blindly celebrate community resistance while demonizing communities that seek new extractive projects, but rather to consider both through long historical and broad geographical lenses. 

In your opinion, who will most benefit from your findings?

I hope that the specific empirical focus of my research will be of use to researchers and policy-makers in Bolivia, and that the more general points I make about land-based identities and extractive histories will be useful to researchers and policy-makers around the world. As people in Bolivia and around the world consider paths away from extraction and towards alternative economies (or alternative understandings of modernity, as is happening in Bolivia), it is important to understand the ways that history manifests in the present, often generating surprising impediments to future alternatives. 

Within the next three to five years, what impact could your research have on the Canadian public policy debate?

There are two primary routes through which my research could influence Canadian public policy debates. First, my research exposes the ways that mining operations work in Latin America, and although I am not directly studying Canadian mining companies, my research offers a glimpse into the kinds of work that all mining operations do, including Canadian-led ones. Second – and I think this is actually the more interesting connection – many of the themes that I am studying in highland Bolivia could easily be translated into ongoing Canadian struggles that pit place-based identification against resource extraction in the name of "development." Here I am thinking particularly of pipeline projects, which have united many oppositional First Nations communities through the Idle No More movement, on the one hand, and spurred many other rural communities to rally in favour of economic growth, on the other hand. I grew up in a small farming town north of Edmonton, so I have an intimate understanding of both arguments. Again, I think that a long historical view and attention to the interconnections between these rural communities could help prevent pipeline debates from degenerating into unhelpful binaries that pit people against one another, even when they are all exposed to (and usually, over the long term, suffering from) Canada’s national dependence on resource extraction.

The Trudeau Scholarship opened doors that I didn’t even know existed, both in terms of my research and my professional development. First, as a doctoral candidate in the United States, I felt disconnected from the Canadian scholarly community, but now I have networks that transcend not only my discipline but also the academy. Through our semi-annual Trudeau gatherings, I developed close collaborations with colleagues at institutions around the world that will certainly continue beyond the tenure of the award. Second, with support from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, I was able to conduct extensive on-the-ground field work in Bolivia and I was able to share this research with multiple publics. There are few graduate students who have the luxury of visiting their field sites many times over multiple years, and I am grateful to the Foundation for making it easier to conduct ethical, generative research. Finally, my Trudeau mentor’s consistent reminders to think beyond and outside of my PhD have been an anchor in a process that can easily feel detached from reality. In these ways, the Trudeau Scholarship has made my doctoral research better while also preparing me well for life beyond graduation.


Andrea is completing her PhD in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research explores subterranean politics and history through ethnographic and historical work with small-scale tin miners in the Bolivian highlands. Informed by political economy, postcolonial theory, and science and technology studies, this work offers a new genealogy of “resource nationalism” that takes seriously the geological matter of the subsoil and the lived experiences of miners laboring beneath the surface. She has published parts of this research in 'Environment and Planning A' and 'Geoforum' and has a forthcoming article in 'Latin American Perspectives'. The final year of her PhD will be undertaken with support from a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Mellon Foundation.   

Prior to beginning her PhD, Andrea received an MA in Geography from the University of British Columbia, where she explored the politics of community water governance in peri-urban Cochabamba, Bolivia. She also holds a BA in International Comparative studies and Environmental Science and Policy from Duke University. She grew up on the prairies just outside of Barrhead, Alberta, and she has been running from the cold ever since.