jake atienza

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The extractive industry is one of the most lucrative yet destructive modes of anthropogenic production. Operating in a legislative and political framework, mining companies leverage the need for economic development in countries across continents, leaving behind barren land. Since the 16th century, corporations such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) have made a fortune trading in natural resources. Mining companies, both international and local, continue this legacy by wielding significant but often invisible economic and political power. Drawing from fieldwork in Brazil, the Kingdom of Tonga and the Philippines (2018 – 2019), I explore relational narratives and legislative connectivity with specific instances of commodification. I also examine the tension between different multi party stakeholders (ecology, residents, miners, government etc.) and unpack colonial and mercantilist business models still used 400 years after the birth of capitalism. I do this through speculative mapping and modes of data collection including interviews, archives, videography, and sound recordings. Based on initial findings from my field work, this still on-going research ultimately aims to locate the extractive industry in the broader, contemporary trajectory of colonialism’s transformational power. 

This text was presented alongside video material during a public seminar at the end of a research period as a Visiting Scholar at the East West Center on February 19th 2020.

2. introduction

Much of the theoretical grounding of this project's early work lies in Ziltener and Kunzler’s research on the Impact of Colonialism, a comparative work on the “impacts of colonialism in Africa and Asia”. The authors assert that “… much of the history of the capitalist world-economy is a history of colonialism, consisting of repeated and more or less successful attempts by the core to create a periphery, to control it politically in order to exploit it economically”. It further hypothesises that “the control of mining was one of the key interests of colonial powers, and large-scale mining had a huge impact on the local population". This process, is argued, "triggered considerable urbanization, social distortion, and the advent of new forms of sociability and political activity” (2013).


To bridge the historical context of mining and colonialism as a considerable force in shaping social and political activity, one can look at struggles over land ownership and land-use and the subsequent power dynamics that it displays. According to Global Witness, 2018 saw the deaths of 164 people defending their land against industrial activity. The organization's report found that, on average, three people per week were killed for defending their land and the environment, driven by industries like mining, logging and agribusiness.

Two of the places I have visited during my field work rank at the top three of this list: the Philippines and Brazil. With at “least 30 recorded deaths” in 2018, the Philippines has replaced Brazil for the top position. This accounts for “18 percent of the 164” total deaths in the same year. There were 20 recorded deaths in Brazil, down from 49 in 2016. 


The threat posed to landowners, activists, journalists, environmental lawyers, and Indigenous People, provides a surface-level yet complex insight into the the power of land ownership, land extraction, and the business of environmental commodification. It makes accessible the interest of mining companies to protect what they consider theirs. Beyond the geographic transformation of mining it illustrates the power of the corporation to influence community and function and shape legislation in favour of corporate interest. 


As Michael Buer writes in A History of Capitalism 1500 - 2000, capitalism, since its emergence in the 1500’s, has been described as an actor, a system or a complex social logic, “able to transform the world around it at the same time as it is able to transform itself”. I operate under the presumption that all of these forms of capitalism co-exist. Within the trajectory of fifteenth and sixteenth century European colonial expansionism, the emergence of capitalism saw the “establishment of huge corporations and establishment of monetary and financial networks, operating” globally (2002).


The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or the Dutch East India Company, embodies the transformational nature of capitalism as a contemporary phenomenon. Founded in 1602, it is considered the world’s first and among the most valuable multinational corporations. In Administrative Adaptability: The Dutch East India Company and Its Rise to Power, Daniel Gerstell states that the company’s success can be widely attributed to Europe's “…growing demand for East Asian spices” in addition to the company's unique administrative governing capabilities (1991). While remaining a "revenue-seeking commercial enterprise", its capacity as a political entity is what gave it authority in Dutch trading posts which later became Dutch colonial territories. Through "state backing, both financially, and politically" the VOC was indeed "an official arm of the Dutch state" (Gerstell, 1991). 


In Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (2004), Antonie Anghie asserts that law-making, is a central component of the colonial process. The author observes that the “…control of territories by companies established for the explicit purpose of making money meant, inevitably, that the territories were administered simply for profit”. My research builds on this work by narrowing down on mining corporations as key stakeholders in the perpetuation of colonialism as a contemporaneous phenomenon. 


My research functions within these concepts of capitalism and the corporation as major components of the colonial process. Further work lies in narrowing down on the role of the extraction of natural resources as a fundamental factor in the emergence of systems of oppression and marginalisation. My field work in Brazil, the Kingdom of Tonga and the Philippines, commenced the process of narrowing down on the role of the mining companies, as actors in this process. This research is still on-going and requires further clarification, conceptualisation and problematization of this premise.


3. methodology

This work seeks to further apply epistemological skepticism to modes of production, specifically mining, and notions of contemporary iterations of colonial processes. Initial questions that have guided my research revolve around the classification of areas either designated for destruction or preservation, the flow of capital in relation to resources extraction, ownership of land, and the sector’s legislative framework. At this stage, the thematic areas that define the conceptual framework are; (1) The contextualization and correlation of instances of intimidation and resistance; (2) the economy as intervention and; (3) the legal system as an imposition.


I employ a range of qualitative research methods in an attempt to examine and scrutinize the current areas of research. Specific methods include; site visits, structured interviews, video & sound recordings, observation, primary literature review, and secondary literature review.


Site Visits


Between November 2018 to July 2019, I conducted field work at various sites in three countries; Brazil, Kingdom of Tonga and the Philippines. Access to mining sites was possible through invitations by respective contacts in each of these countries. 

Table #01: Site Visits 2018 - 2019


Structured Interviews


Structured interviews have been carried out throughout the exploratory phase of this research. While a number of thematic areas guided the scope of interviews (e.g. land ownership, mining life cycle, extraction process, policy-making, land displacement), the expertise of each interviewee guided the ultimate scope and duration of a given interview. While most interviews were sit-down interviews, others were conducted on-site during a site visit. 


Table #02: Interviews: Brazil 2018

Table #03: Interviews: Kingdom of Tonga 2018 - 2019

Table #04: Interviews: Philippines 2019


Recordings: Audio & Video


The documentation of mining sites and interviews through sound and video recordings is the primary method of data collection. As a source of primary data, I will further explore how this material can be presented as findings. I am interested how this method can serve as a form of collecting evidence of corporate activity and its impact on stakeholders and physical spaces. This has partially guided the secondary sources that furthers the research.




Observation has been applied during site visits and meetings with mining companies and government officials. This method is especially relevant during informal conversations or when permission for audio/video recording is neither granted nor inappropriate. Recording conversations or sites may at times prohibit a stakeholder to disclose information or may put pressure on him/her to disclose freely without the presence of a device. 


Primary literature review


Primary sources serve the purpose of mapping out how the mining corporations function within the legal framework of their respective country. Examples of these sources are; copies of land leases, contracts, Environmental Impact Assessments, court proceedings, and GIS generated maps. 


Secondary literature review


The review of literature is fundamental in gaining an academic grounding of the key areas of research. It also allow to probe and further research that already exists concerning mining, colonialism, capitalism and political ecology.  



4. Field work

Below are highlights from my field work in Brazil, Kingdom of Tonga and the Philippines between October 2018 and July 2019. The focus, for the purpose of my presentation, was to present various forms of corporate power based on narratives encountered at mining sites and geographies impacted by mining activities.

4.1. brazil

In 2015, 50-60 million m3 of mud was discharged when Samarco's iron mine dam – called Fundão, broke (Segura). On record as the worst environmental disaster in Brazil, residents of Bento Rodrigues found themselves permanently displaced. Dozens were reported missing and 19 people were killed (United Nations Environment Program), putting pressure on the company Samarco Mineração s.a., which owned in equal parts by Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton Brasil Ltda. and Brazilian company Vale. Four years after the incident, the jointly operated venture has approved $44 million to restart mining operations after receiving all necessary environmental licenses. Set to start operations this year, the mine will have the “capacity to produce between 7m to 8m tonnes of iron ore pellets” per year (Sanderson). 

Situated in what’s known as the Iron Quadrangle, an area rich in “gold, iron, aluminium, manganese and other metals”, the state of Minas Gerais, which translates to State of General Mines, still reigns as the mining capital of Brazil. Combined, the mining industry contributed to more than “17 per cent of the state’s revenue” in 2017 (United Nations Environment Program).

I interviewed Hernani Lima, a Mining Engineer and Director of the Faculty of Mining at the State University of Ouro Preto.  Lima had published an article surveying mining sites in Brazil, with a specific focus on mine rehabilitation. The interview addressed the complexities of the mining sector in the state of Minas Gerais and the Fundão dam spill in Bento Rodrigues. Asked about the power wielded by mining companies, Lima focused on the "economic power" held by mining companies and the social license they need to operate especially in lieu of incidents such as Samarco's Fundão dam spill.

fundao dam spill, BENTO rodrigues (2015)

The town of Bento Rodrigues is an hour and a half driving from  land already owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale prior to the Fundão dam spill. On the drive there, several signs declared the land as “Strictly Forbidden”, Private Property of Vale. Ultimately not found responsible for the damn break, Samarco was held accountable for financial compensation and relocation of the displaced people of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixu, and Gesteira. Until this day, former residents of Bento Rodrigues are not permitted to stay overnight although visits, accompanied by the Civil Defence who guard the area, are permitted (Giomar). The displaced residents of Bento Rodrigues are set to move to Vale owned property, totalling 348 hectares, in the Municipality of Mariana in the state of Minas Gerais.

A field visit to Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional, or CSN, Engenho mine was arranged by Hernani Lima. The total land area of the Engenho mine is around 3 x 15km, with a depth reaching over 900 meters. CSN is the “second largest exporter of iron ore in Brazil […] with reserves of more than 3 billion tons. The company owns the Casa de Pedra and Engenho mines, it owns the Pires processing complex, it has shares in the MRS railway and a terminal for the export of iron ore in Rio de Janeiro. (Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional).


Although under the Brazilian constitution all mineral resources belong to the state, mineral deposits at the Casa de Pedra are fully owned by CSN. Based on the holding of what’s knowns as Manifesto de Mina, it provides a party, in this case CSN, “full ownership over the mineral deposits existing within its property limits” (Securities and Exchange Commission).


4.2. Philippines

Claims of harassment, intimidation by citizens are instances that suggest the power of mining companies in Cebu. Not for nothing, the Philippines is considered one of the most dangerous countries for reporting on environmental issues and human rights. In my field work, instances of intimidation and harassment of citizens displaced by mining activities provide insight into the power of the mining companies and the civil protest that emerges from it.

naga landslide, Naga CITY (2018)

On September 20, 2018, a landslide in the City of Naga, Cebu Province, occurred. This is around 18 km south of Cebu City, the provincial capital. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources responded by ordering a temporary ban on quarry operations in eight regions for a period of about 3 to 4 weeks. 


Plaintiffs, representing the victims and their families who were killed and those who lost their houses as a result of the landslide filed a case against the government and mining corporations. The case was filed by 39 plaintiffs and not-for profit organization Philippine Earth Justice Center Incorporated. The defendants were 3 mining companies, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau Regional Office VII, the provincial government of Cebu and local government of Naga City (Cabrido). Documents released by the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines(SEC) show that the mining companies are subsidiaries of Cemex, S.A.B. de C.V. - one of the world's largest cement companies "listed on the Mexican Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange" (2019).


The Cebu Regional Trial Court ruled to dismiss the environmental class suit on November 12 2019 due to a “failure to state a cause of action” further stating that the case was “not a proper class suit”. Out of the initial 39 individuals who filed the case, only 17 went on to continue with the lawsuit. That means, there were only 17 plaintiffs and that 22 individuals were dropped as party-plaintiffs. The court judged that these remaining 17 plaintiffs were not representative of the over 8,000 alleged victims of the Naga Landslide in November 2018. They can only sue for their respective claims (Seares).


My interviews in Naga City and Sibonga show that residents had been voicing their opposition against mining since 2016 when quarry operations were ongoing. Social media has been a platform for protest and communication between residents, plaintiffs and their legal representatives. After the court decision on November 12, and around 3 months after my interviews, 4 residents have been sued for Libel by the mayor of Naga City. 

In the neigboring town of Sibonga, rumour has it that land has been bought by a company for quarry activities and a cement factory. This land, allegedly, has been purchased by both a local family and a Taiwanese businessman (Bacaltos). 


When asked about who will benefit from mining, Gina Patalinghug, councillor of the municipality of Sibonga, without naming names, explains how the mining sector provides an opportunity for personal economic gain by local politicians (2019).

Municipality of sibonga


4.3. kingdom of tonga

Given that all oceanic and land based territory is owned by Tongan royalty, it is prohibited from sale or exploitation. Tongan land laws reflect their cultural system of governance. Land can only be inherited from one generation to the next, from father to the eldest son. Yet, through land leases, other family members, including women, lease land to safeguard real estate of their own. On this land, Tongans are free to utilize land however they see fit. This includes quarrying which provides the necessary resources, aggregate and sand, to construct roads, houses, public buildings and seawalls (Pale). 

In the Kingdom of Tonga, the mining sector is considered an important part of the island nations economy. The sector, primarily the quarries providing Limestone aggregate, is utilized in the construction industry. However, according to Taniela Kula, Deputy Secretary of the Tongan Geological Services under the Minister for Land and Natural Resources, the government claims to not have any data about the sector’s economic value, the amount of resources extracted or where the revenue goes (2019). As the country increasingly turns its land into commercial space, it is undergoing a process of economic transformation. 


Implemented in 2014, the Guideline for Quarry Development from the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, acts as a legal framework for managing the country’s quarry developments. The guideline states to ensure that “… proposed quarry developments are assessed and approved with sustainable consideration of the environment in mind”. The document identifies 7 requirements for developing a quarry. These include; letters of consent, operation plan, approval of application  and an Environmental Impact Assessment. 


Tahiri Hokafonu is the Head of Islands and Ocean Ecosystems at the Department of Environment. Off the record, Hokafonu shared that gaps in the mining sector can partially be attributed to the exertion of political influence among those who have esteemed positions (2019). In the video below, Hokafonu discusses how self interest from members of the government influence the decision making process for mining approval and mining activities in the Kingdom. 

Malapo, Toloa & Pelehake

An example of the exertion of political power, is the case of Etika Cocker, CEO of the Ministry of Trade and Economic Development. Etika Cocker submitted LIDA Holdings Ltd Environmental Impact Assessment on the 17th of December 2018 for proposed quarry operations. The same document was rejected and returned with comments from the Department of Environment due to unsubstantiated data (Cocker). Nevertheless, on the 4th of December of the same year, the same project was approved and granted an official Letter of Approval signed by the Head of Natural Resources Division (Kula, 2018). 


In my review of court documents on the capital island of Tongatapu, I have found that there are numerous legals cases, past and pending, involving quarry operations. These include cases where land has been rendered useless after aggregate was removed without permission from the landholder or cases where quarry operations were taking place without land leases. 

5. Preliminary conclusions

The cases of Brazil, the Kingdom of Tonga, and the Philippines, reflect the multiplicity of capitalism as described by Michel Beaud in The History of Capitalism 1500 - 2000. In Brazil, the presence of three stakeholders (the corporation, government and community) was made visible on a scale that sets it apart from other countries. In the Philippines, these same three stakeholders are in conflict, visibly competing for space and power. Then in Tonga, these components become very blurred in a sector that is relatively young compared to Brazil and the Philippines. Section 4. Field Work, has offered an account of my observations, anecdotes from interviews and documentation from site visits to mining areas. My work lies in further analysing interviews and conducting further primary research in order to make substantial claims and outline patterns among these relational narratives. More specific research, including literature review, needs to be done on the initial areas of research; intimidation and resistance; the economy as intervention and; the legal system as an imposition. This research requires further problematization of the linkage between the corporation and the extraction of natural resources in shaping systems of oppression and marginalization.


6. Works cited

Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional. 2020. http://www.csn.com.br/conteudo_eni.asp?idioma=1&conta=46&tipo=59541

Aliganga, Arlene P. Personal Interview. Resident of Naga City. DD MMM. 2019


Anghie, Antonie. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Bacaltos, Lionel. 2019. Personal Interview. Mayor of Sibonga. 

Bauer, Michel. 2002. The History of Capitalism 1500-2000. Choice Reviews Online. 2002. 

Cabrido, Benjamin A. 2018. Plaintiffs vs. Cemex Holdings Philippines Inc., Apo Land and Quarry Corp., Apo Cement Corp., Mines and Geosciences Bureau Regional Office VII, City Government of Naga and Province of Cebu. 

Cocker, Etika. 2019. Assessment of Environmental Impacts of Limestone Quarrying Operation at Pelehake - 'Etika Cocker for LIDA Holdings Ltd. 

Giomar, Kennedy. 2018. Personal Interview. Civil Defence. 

Hokafonu, Tahiri. 2019. Personal Interview. Department of Environment

Kula, Taniela. 2019. Personal Interview

Kula, Taniela. 2018. Subject: Guideline to Quarry Development. 

Lima, Hernani. 2018. Personal Interview. Director of Faculty of Mining, University of Ouro Preto. 

Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources. 2014. Guideline for Quarry Development from the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources

Pale, Savelina. 2018. Personal Interview. Department of Land Administration, Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.

Patalinghug, Gina. Personal Interview. Councilor of the Municipality of Sibonga. DD MMM. 2019


Samarco. Samarco mineração S.a.financial Statements at December 31, 2018 and 2017 and Independent Auditor's Report. 2019. https://www.samarco.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Samarco_Financial-Statements-2018-vf.pdf. 


Sanderson. Nov1. 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/f91dbb6e-fc7c-11e9-a354-36acbbb0d9b6

Sears, Pachico A. 2019. Seares: RTC ruling on Naga landslide didn’t resolve issue of cause and liabilityhttps://www.sunstar.com.ph/article/1831796

Securities and Exchange Commission. 2004. Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1049659/000129281404000060/sid_20f.pdf

Segura, Fabiana R. et al. “Potential risks of the residue from Samarco's mine dam burst (Bento Rodrigues, Brazil)”. Nov. 2016

Tahiri. Personal Interview. Department of Environment, Government of the Kingdom of Tonga. DD MMM. 2019

United Nations Environment Program. Germano mine storage facility failure. 2017. https://www.grida.no/resources/11418


Ziltener, Patrick and Kunzler, Daniel. 2013. Impacts of Colonialism - A Research Survey 1. Journal of World-Systems Research.