Sally Babidge examines indigenous politics and resource extraction in northern Chile

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Sally Babidge

22 September, 2021

“I think one of the things that anthropologists do best is to examine assumptions. It's through this examining that we are trained to not take things for granted and to explore all the banal aspects of life...and to question how they make up the violence, or the conditions of inequity in society.”

Sally Babidge

Sally is a cultural anthropologist whose work explores indigenous identity, politics and the anthropology of resource extraction. Her early work examined Australian aboriginal kinship systems, specifically in Charters Towers in north Queensland, Australia, where she was involved in preparing research for native title claims. More recently, Sally has been working in northern Chile in the Salar de Atacama where she works with the local Likanantay and Atacameño people and examines their relationships with the resource extraction industry, namely Minera Escondida – a mining company that operates open pit copper and lithium mines in the Atacama Desert. Sally’s work is instrumental in arguing that the effects of groundwater extraction in the Atacama Desert are strikingly unclear due to a lack of long term and transparent monitoring and therefore she argues ‘can we use uncertainty about impact to argue against impact?’

Sally’s passion for the discipline of anthropology is contagious and her unique ability to translate complex social phenomena in ways that are accessible to broad audiences is a true testament to her ability to - in the words of anthropologist Michael Jackson – engage with anthropology as a kind of ‘philosophy with its feet on the ground’.

Sally you’ve had such a diverse career in anthropology and I'm really looking forward to having a yarn with you about your experiences shortly, but first, I wanted to ask you how you came into anthropology; what made you want to be an anthropologist?

When people ask me this, I often tell them that it was by accident. I was away when I was supposed to be choosing my first-year subjects in the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia many years ago and my mother went in to enrol me and she chose the subjects for me. She chose anthropology. When I came back to see what subjects I had and saw anthropology, I was like, ‘what's anthropology?’ and she said, ‘it's about people, you like people?’ [laughs] I said, ‘yeah, okay’. I changed some of the other things that she enrolled me in, but I kept anthropology and I kept doing it, even though I was getting really bad grades in first and second year. It took me a while to really get it, you know, because I was originally really keen on being an historian, I always loved history. I found that I really loved talking to people about their history, so doing a lot of oral history work and so on, but the historians I knew at university weren't so keen on me specialising in oral history for my honours thesis, but anthropology was willing to accommodate this. So, I kept history and anthropology together and I kind of always have since then, but anthropology gave me the ability to talk to people about their experiences, their understanding of the past and their understanding of their world. Suddenly it became clear to me that anthropology was where I was keen to be. 

During your early years as an anthropologist, you were involved in preparing research for a number of native title claims, and you've been engaged in this work on and off for many years now. I wanted to ask you, as an Australian anthropologist, was working in this space just a natural progression for you, or were you always interested in landed justice?

Kind of a bit of both. After an honours degree at the University of Western Australia it was clear that there was work for junior anthropologists in the native title and cultural heritage space. That's pretty rare for somebody with a Bachelor of Arts to get some work straight after their undergraduate in the named professional area of their degree! Plus, it was work that meant I would be out in the field and talking to people, so I was excited about that. I worked for three and a half years after honours in that space as a junior researcher working for various consultants and organisations. This was kind of freelancing work because I didn't work for any organisation at that time. I did work with one consultant for a couple of years in a fairly full-time role because we were working on a particular claim that went on for a while.

Then my PhD was associated with native title as well. So, it was an industry PhD set up by Rosita Henry from James Cook University with the Central Queensland Aboriginal Land Council, which is no longer in existence.  The Land Council needed a PhD student to do some long-term research in an area where long-term ethnography didn't exist - which was Charters Towers in north Queensland. So, the ethnography and research I did during my PhD fed into the research for the native title claims in the region. It was an ingenious idea for getting some research done for the claims up there. Peter Walley, who passed away a few years ago, and Bruce White were the two anthropologists at the Central Queensland Land Council who made this deal with James Cook University.  What I really liked about that was that it was a PhD, but it had an applied outcome. So, you know, I wasn't a great student as an undergrad, but I became really passionate about this area of work during my honours and PhD years, plus the PhD was an opportunity for me to get more training. You know, you kind of reach a ceiling after honours where you feel that you need some more training. I started asking myself, if I'm going to lead a team of researchers, I want more analytical training, I want more time to think through the literature and I want more time to think through the kinds of critiques that I'm half forming. While I was working there was no time to do any of that. So, I did my PhD to be a better applied researcher, but then I stayed in the university.

Yes, I can appreciate that. It’s tricky when you want to explore the literature, but time is of the essence.

Yeah, you just don't have the time. I considered the PhD as an opportunity for more training opportunities and to get better at representing Aboriginal people’s rights, especially Aboriginal women's rights, and their connections to land.  As a female junior researcher in Western Australia, I was often contracted to gather all the literature, do all the filing and whatever else, but then I was also expected to talk to women about their connections to land, you know, there was that gender separation for work tasks, and I kept thinking, this isn't right, I'm the junior person here. I was concerned that I wasn’t adequately representing women's connection to country. I kept thinking to myself, am I doing this well enough? So that became a major drive in me getting further training.

Yeah ok, that’s interesting about those gender roles. So, some of your earliest fieldwork was done in the remote town of Charters Towers in north Queensland, Australia. I understand that two of your books: Written True Not Gammon; a history of Aboriginal Charters Towers, and Aboriginal Family and the State came out of your research up north. Can you tell me a little bit about the research you were doing at that point?

Yeah, so that was my PhD research. So, the book, Aboriginal Family and the State was very much based on my thesis. The other work, Written True Not Gammon was written with co-authors, Patricia Dallachy and Valerie Alberts, who are Aboriginal elders from Charters Towers. That book came out of a sense I had that I had done a lot of historical and ethno-historical work for that area which I wanted to make more public. So, we put this book together. We were aiming the book at a year nine level of literacy so the older people who might have only got a basic education could also enjoy it. It was a really fun project because I had funding from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and so a number of Aboriginal elders became involved and people were able to choose which photographs would be included in the book. A group of elder women were especially involved in workshops about how the book would be structured and that was a really satisfying way to make, what started as academic piece of work, accessible to more people.

Sally with Aunty Patricia Dallachy and Aunty Valerie Alberts (authors of Written True Not Gammon)

Yeah, for sure! That’s great. So, then you took a bit of a directional change and after your doctorate, you started working in far north Chile in the Atacama Desert, what inspired you to take this new research direction, and what attracted you to conduct research in Chile?

So, after I finished my PhD  I was continuing my research in Charters Towers and I was there one day and one of my friends said to me, ‘I was watching the Discovery Channel the other day’, and you know this was about 2005 or 2007, and they continued saying ‘and I realised that the Irish have had it just as bad as us because they were all oppressed by the English as well’ they said. It was kind of a joke, but it made me think about the idea of the recognition of rights of indigenous people in an international context. I was thinking that one of the problems about Australian anthropology is that it's very inward looking. It's very Australia focused, and I had been thinking about this for quite a while. But this became a catalyst and I thought, I'm going to try and work somewhere else. I had lived in Chile when I was a kid with my family and I thought, well, you know, I've got some unresolved questions about the history and so on, and I'd like to go there to see if I can follow up on those questions.

The project in Chile was focused on considering the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples in comparative perspective and about expanding my understanding of anthropology as a discipline; to understand how anthropology is done elsewhere. I was interested in this question; we have an idea of how these extractive industries work in Australia, but what happens over there? I was interested to know to what extent are Australian mining companies recognising the rights of indigenous peoples in Chile?

Yeah, ok. That’s interesting. So, your work over in Chile has been exploring the ecological and social effects of water, and specifically, groundwater extraction by the copper and lithium mining industries in the southern Salar de Atacama. Can you tell me a little bit more about this research that you're doing?

Well, BHP Billiton was the first company that I looked at to understand what their relationship was like with indigenous communities. In the Salar de Atacama, their relationship is based on the material fact that BHP is the majority operator of the biggest copper mine in the world, Minera Escondida and in order for them to process the copper, they extracted - and have done for about 30 years - about 1200 liters per second of groundwater from territory that the Piene indigenous people understand as their territory. So, I was interested, first in that relationship between Piene and Minera Escondida because it was the first ever negotiated agreement for development benefits that was signed between an indigenous community and a mining company in Chile. It was this agreement that I was particularly interested in. I was interested to understand what their relationship was like, I mean, it’s one that's structured by a legal document, but then how does it look on the ground?

So, initially I was interested simply in the socio-political and micro-political relationships between these entities - the company and the community if you like. But once I started doing my fieldwork, it became very clear that while that was an interesting question to explore, the most important thing in the Atacama is water. Water is an incredibly scarce resource, it's hardly present on the surface of the land.  More recently, what's become even more important, is the lithium mining industry on the Atacama salt pan is a saltwater extraction industry rather than freshwater. The lithium mines extract salt water to mine lithium, which of course we know, goes into electric cars, our devices, into lithium batteries and so on, so lithium is a key component to ‘green energy’. So, you have this kind of wonderful and terrible paradox, right? While the extraction of lithium is used for green energy, the extraction process is also having a significant environmental impact on the ground in these places where lithium exists. So, you have two things; you have the lithium industry on the Atacama salt pan that has - since about 2014, or 2015 -been the cause of a lot of ecological conflicts, and then you have the copper industry, which has been for many years, the most important mining industry in Chile, especially in the region where I work. So, these two extraction industries both rely on water, but water of very different kinds. One is an incredibly salty, thick brine that's extracted from the salt pan and pumped out for evaporation, and the other one is fresh groundwater from deep underground aquifers. However, this groundwater is really important to the local indigenous people as it feeds the small areas of pasture that people rely on for their animals, their food crops and for a good life.

Yeah, and you talk about this as being the ‘unseen’ impacts of extraction. You've done a lot of work with the Likanantay and Atacameño people, so can you tell me how they perceive the impacts of mining?

So, groundwater is a problem everywhere, not just in the Atacama, but groundwater is a scientific problem. Scientists talk about how it's understood as this ‘bottomless resource’ and that’s how it’s been treated until more recently, and it’s difficult to regulate because it can't be seen. What was interesting to me was that there were significant amounts of data being produced about groundwater, but none of it was trustworthy, even the government regulators didn't trust the data. So, one of my earlier papers on this was called ‘Sustaining Ignorance’ and it's basically about how Minera Escondida, in particular, creates a kind of ignorance by presuming to manage their environmental impact from the extraction of groundwater. What I mean by ‘ignorance’ is that the extent of groundwater extraction by the company is not well known because the company itself was the only one producing scientific data on its own impacts.

The Likanantay and Atacameño people I work with know about groundwater in a general sense and they have a knowledge of where the paths are to find water and there's all sorts of really interesting stories about that. But the technology doesn’t even exist to provide us with more extensive understandings of where exactly the aquifers are and because of the way science has operated in this region, the impacts of groundwater extraction just haven’t really ever been studied properly. In that paper, I talk about these factors of ignorance that have suited the mining companies very well because they've been able to extract at a low cost and with very little resistance. So, my question at the end of that article is, can we use uncertainty about impact to argue against impact? So, if we don't know exactly what's going on, but we know that over 1200 litres of groundwater is being extracted per second, can we use the uncertainty of this impact to argue against impact?

That’s a really thought-provoking point Sally. In one of your recent papers, you describe a moment after you’ve met with the new boss of Social Relations and the company hydrologist from Minera Escondida and you’re questioning whether your arguments about “malevolent corporate intentions” were well founded or not, because you weren’t expecting the hydrologist to be so certain about their ability to avoid environmental harm. But you write that “in reflecting on this experience what comes to my mind is an insight into the potential seduction of certainty”. What struck you as being problematic about this certainty?

Well, the point there was that it was problematic because, I guess I was being seduced by the intersubjective relationship there, you know, this conversation with the hydrologist was very friendly. She assured me that they were doing all that they could to mitigate risk, and you know, as anthropologists, we put ourselves into these situations where we engage faithfully with people; we seek to engage people on their own terms, and I think there's an aspect of ethnography that is problematic for engaging with powerful people. I could see that this was problematic, but I could also see that the hydrologist really believed in what she was saying. So, when I came away from the meeting, I was still in that moment where I was engaging with her on her own terms, and I felt really uncomfortable about it. I felt conflicted because I could see she was just trying to do a good job.

Yeah, that sort of personal interaction changes things, doesn't it? It puts a face to an otherwise homogenous company.

I think it’s important to keep track of your impressions about the resonances of a conversation by comparing those initial impressions with the reflections you have afterwards. I think it's an interesting kind of methodological reminder of all the ways that we as researchers are subject to the research process as well and why we need to be mindful of this.

Yes, absolutely. It’s difficult isn’t it because you find yourself at the intersection of multiple perspectives, aspirations and agendas and I can imagine it’s hard to remain grounded in that space, particularly when you are dealing with very powerful people, as you've just mentioned.

This links also to the question of certainty and uncertainty in terms of scientific certainty regarding our understandings of groundwater, because it’s a rejection of objectivity; it’s a rejection of the idea that you can be certain about the impacts of groundwater extraction. It's a rejection of the idea that this object, in this case, groundwater, can be known with certainty, that it can be delimited in ways that suit extraction for example.

Yeah, that’s interesting. There are also different ways that people are going to perceive impact, right? I mean the mining company might be really confident that they have the answers to avoiding or mitigating impact but their solutions to this may not be what the local people want. Their strategy for mitigating impact may be to fill these aquifers with water taken from somewhere else once they’ve extracted all the groundwater, and what are the issues with doing this? Will this affect the spiritual elements of the groundwater? Is water from somewhere else going to be the same as the groundwater that has existed in these aquifers for millions of years? Will it contain the same minerals and spiritual qualities? I’m interested to hear whether this is something that the local people are concerned about?

Minera Escondida did some serious environmental damage to an area called the Salar de Punta Negra which is another salt pan further to the south of Peine. So, they sucked up all the groundwater from that area in the late 90s, early 2000s and they were told that they had to repair the damage. So, they just pumped all this water back in the aquifer, but it’s like what you're saying, this water they put back in didn't really work. You know, these salt pans and these remote hyper arid ecologies are not well studied, they're not well known and so the idea of artificial recharges fixing groundwater damage doesn’t really work. As I was saying before, groundwater is not well known so it’s difficult to understand the impacts of these artificial recharges.

Likanantay and Atacameño people say that what Minera Escondida did was rubbish and that it hasn't fixed anything. Even the small number of studies that have been done around that program of harm reduction and environmental reparation show that it went very badly. Yeah, so by most accounts, that's gone very badly. People imagine groundwater aquifers as tanks but water is never still, water moves, it leeches in and out. So, this idea that you could refill the ‘tank’ of an aquifer does not make much sense.

I'm not a scientist, by any means, but I can imagine that groundwater that has been sitting in the earth for that long would soak up a number of rich minerals and would become more valuable in a sense to water that has just been extracted from somewhere else. You’ve described elsewhere that given Peine’s location on the southern end of the Salar, it is more subjected to the impacts of copper and lithium mining and, subsequently, the community have become “expert[s] in articulating their interests in extractive politics”. Can you describe how the local indigenous people are engaging with corporate mining entities and how they are adopting a “slow resistance” approach to contesting extractive activities?

I say experts in articulating their interests, and I say that because you know, people have been responding to the mining industry for a long time. From the late 19th century, some people left their communities in order to work as miners, so many know what the mining industry is like. From the 1980s, the lithium industry was established in the salt pan in front of them, so they are very familiar with this industry. From the late 90s, early 2000s, the copper mining industry, Minera Escondida, was set up in the mountains to the south and was extracting groundwater from their territories very early on. As I said before, the Likanantay and Atacameño people made one of the first legal agreements with Minera Escondida in the late 90s, so people have a strong sense of what the mining industry is capable of and over the years people have contested the industry in different ways. Likanantay and Atacameño people’s expertise has been developed by the long-term and generational experience that comes from working in the industry. Across generations there have also been different ways that the community has responded to the mining industry, and this continues to evolve.

The term ‘slow resistance’ came from a conversation I had with my colleague, Anita Carrasco, who works in another part of the Atacama further to the north. So, we were corresponding about how to understand the way in which Likanantay and Atacameño people respond to the mining industry, and we were talking about resistance. I was saying, “it's not really resistance, you know, like people have made deals with the mining companies, but they also resist”. The nuance of their involvement with the mining companies over the years makes it tricky to understand the nature of their resistance, or if it can be described as resistance at all. This term slow resistance is a pairing of the idea that an author called Rob Nixon, who is an environmental historian, wrote about called ‘slow violence’. Slow violence is the idea that environmental impacts are happening in a structural way to particular people in particular ways around the world, and especially for indigenous people, and these effects are often slow, they're not spectacular. They happen over time, and they're structural, rather than immediate. So, the idea was that slow resistance is a kind of slow and structural response to the extractive industry. It’s about the pragmatic responses by Likanantay and Atacameño people that I know, who are trying to prevent being completely overrun by the mining companies.

Yeah sure. So, your research also deals with the ethical considerations of corporate investment in community development when the nature of that investment takes the form of compensation for destruction and/or extraction. This is a big discussion that many anthropologists are having in Australia now regarding how cultural loss can be compensated? Is it possible? Or is it just liquidating culture and cultural knowledge? I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this with regards to what is happening in Chile.

Most of the indigenous leaders that I have spoken to say it's not possible. It's not possible to compensate for the destruction of territory, it's destroyed. You know, that's it. It’s very different to the contexts that I’ve worked in while being in Australia because the people in Peine have their village, you know, it's theirs, and they have their gardens, and they have their houses, so they have that ownership. They have that land to live on. They don't necessarily have rights over their whole territory, but they have this ability to live at home, in their ancestral home. But, you know, with this idea of compensation, it never compensates for the loss of territory and water, and therefore a good future. This is just what people say, you know, they're well read, they know the legislation and they are aware of the changes to legislation around the world. Indigenous people are well networked across the world, they know what's going on. But the people I’ve worked with have expressed that, “nothing replaces country, nothing replaces water, nothing replaces territory”.

What impact do you think your research has had on the communities that you have worked with and what do you think people can learn from your research findings?

I'm a pretty slow worker, so every now and then I do something useful, and hopefully it's useful for the people that I'm working with. I love the way that anthropology can be a kind of ‘philosophy with its feet on the ground’ - that's the anthropologist Michael Jackson who says that, by the way. I really liked this idea. That's why I love being a scholar in the university because there's time for that, there’s time for exploring ideas. But then I also really love being a part of useful and applied projects that have practical outcomes for people. As time has gone on and I've gained the trust of people I work with in Chile and my Spanish has become more fluent, they have increasingly asked me to do little bits of work for them, so that's really gratifying. Like they might ask me to do an analysis of an environmental impact statement that they have to respond to and other tasks they need help with, so it feels like the kind of reciprocal relationship that makes sense. As an anthropologist, I enjoy the benefit and privilege of learning about the world and spending time with people and writing about their lives and the idea is to do useful things in return.

A question I like to ask fellow anthropologists is, what do you think anthropology has to offer the future of humanity?

I think one of the things that anthropologists do best is to examine assumptions. It's through this examining that we are trained to not take things for granted and to explore all the banal aspects of life; the things that people often don't think about. For me, it's about looking at these aspects of life - these banal facets, and to question how they make up the violence, or the conditions of inequity in society. So, anthropologists are interested in the less spectacular aspects of human life; the things that people often assume to understand but never really attempt to pull apart. I think this kind of thinking can help us humans get out of a lot of ruts.

Interested to learn more about Sally’s research? Visit her academic portfolio and read her journal articles here.

Watch Sally discussing her research in Piene here


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