Seeing water: Slow resistance and the material enigma of extractive effects on society and ecology

Sally Babidge


This article reflects on ten years of ethnographic work investigating concerns about mining industry-produced environmental and social change in hyperarid territories experiencing long-term drought. The ecological and social effects of groundwater extraction by the copper and lithium mining industry in the southern Salar de Atacama are not immediately detectable, since water, the saltpan, and the desert provide few clues, and the political and economic conditions of water in Chile render it fractured between surface and subsurface, fresh and salt. In public accounts, water belongs to a radical present: there are few environmental reports of water’s past before groundwater was profoundly subject to mining, and ecological impacts from aquifer extraction are apparent only after exhaustion has occurred. This article takes a narrative approach that reflects on what may be achieved by “slow resistance” and discerned from accumulated ethnographic witnessing.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/715788