Aluminium from Amazonia: Unmodern encounters

Latin America Colloquium with Simon Lobach, Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Geneva Graduate Institute, Switzerland

Comment: Gertrude Saxinger, University of Vienna
Moderation: Johannes Waldmüller, Research Network Latin America, University of Vienna

Aluminium is produced through an elaborate process, requiring diverse types of resources, most notably bauxite and hydroelectricity. Amazonia has been a critical source of bauxite since the early 20th century. As of the 1960s, the aluminium industry was the critical factor behind several large hydroelectric projects in the region. However, the existence of an industrial complex directed towards aluminium production – comprising not only mines and dams, but also access roads, alumina refineries, aluminium smelters, slurry pipelines, tailing basins, transmission lines and harbour facilities – is often overlooked in Amazonian studies.

In his lecture, Simon Lobach assesses the socio-environmental impacts of this industrial complex spanning across Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela. On the basis of archival research, fieldwork in Amazonia and interactions with sector representatives, he argues that the sector created only limited employment while causing large burdens on public finances, having a considerable environmental impact and causing many traditional Amazonian populations to lose their livelihoods. Local communities’ ‘invisibility’ and their lack of registered land rights enabled the depiction of Amazonian as an empty region, while stereotypical discourses that construed them as primitive and ecologically destructive were easily contrasted with the ‘modernity’, ‘progress’ and ‘development’ that aluminium would bring.

Today, the aluminium sector worldwide has initiated a move towards ‘sustainability’. In Amazonia, we can observe the rustbelts and environmental liabilities of past production, while the production sites that are still in operation need to make considerable investments to repair their relations with local communities.

Simon Lobach, PHD, is a lecturer and a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland. His main research interests are the pasts and futures of the mining sector, which he examines from a socio-environmental angle. He obtained a PhD in International History and Politics for a dissertation on the history of the aluminium industrial complex in Amazonia. He has received an award from the International Committee for the Study of Bauxite, Alumina and Aluminium (ICSOBA) for his research on the sustainability of the aluminium sector, and his works have been published in the Journal for Latin American Cultural Studies, International Development Policy and Aluminium International Today, among others. He has previous degrees in International Affairs (Geneva Graduate Institute), Latin American Studies and History (both from Leiden University, Netherlands). Apart from his academic work, he has several years of working experience in international cooperation, especially for UNESCO and UN-Environment.

Johannes M. Waldmüller is Assistant Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Sciene, University of Vienna, and Climate Change Advisor and Project Manager at Brot für die Welt/Diakonie-ACT, Austria. He has formerly held research and visiting professorships in international environmental politics at the Universidad de Las Américas (UDLA) and FLACSO, Ecuador (2016-2021), as well as FLACSO Argentina, and is a current visiting scholar and committee member in the PhD programm of Science and Technology at the Ecuadorian Polytechnical University (EPN).

Dr. PD Gertrude Saxinger
 Department of Political Science’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity (CeSCoS), Uni Vienna & Austrian Polar Research Institute APRIFor more than 15 years, Gerti’s focus is mineral extraction in the Arctic. Currently she works on mining for critical raw materials (CRM) in the project Beyond Hot Air – Coversations around critical raw materials supply for the ‘green’ transition. A fundamental question is at the heart of her research: why deem some people on the planet less worth than others and thus must carry the social and ecological costs of mining in order to enable societies elsewhere to strive for reduced CO2 emissions through new modes of energy use.  The global distribution of negative consequences of the ‘green’ transition, thus, is in the center. The persisting (neo)colonial entanglements and questions around planetary justice, humanity and human rights, demonstrate the limits of global governance and highlight the precarious opportunities for implementing strong national/international regulations that would systemize the globally acting mining industry in a way that allows to act beyond ‘greenwashing’ or ignorance and to become a ‘good corporate citizen‘. Currently she works also on the project ‘Solidarity in times of a pandemic: What do people do, and why?’.
Kategorie: Lateinamerika-Kolloquium
Datum: 17. April 2024, 16:30–18:00
Ort: University of Vienna, NIG, Conference Room IPW (A 0222) / 2nd floor, Universitätsstraße 7, 1010 Vienna