Veins of Conflict: Nature, Race, and Power in Peru’s Copper Circuit, 1884 – 1930

My book manuscript studies different kinds of environmental conflicts connected to the rise of industrial copper mining in Peru’s Central Highlands. It approaches this area as an evolving political ecology in which various actors — foreign and domestic capitalists, mine-owners, workers, state officials, and local Indigenous communities — negotiated and battled over the use and control of the local environment. Through this lens, I argue that environmental conflicts not only shaped the effect that copper mining had on the region’s landscapes, but also shifted the balance of power between groups, redistributed wealth and environmental burdens, and ultimately redefined hierarchies of class, race, and gender.

Chapter Outline

The first chapter studies struggles between Peruvian mine owners and transnational corporations over mineral veins in Peru’s mountains. It shows that domestic capitalists successfully mobilized knowledge of the local landscape, political influence in Lima, and the use of refining technologies to compete against foreign companies seeking to gain control over copper deposits. I argue that these Peruvian entrepreneurs were an organized bourgeoisie, which capitalized on the early-twentieth-century copper bonanza and radically transformed the Central Highlands’ environment.

The second chapter seeks to connect this region’s political ecology with the process of industrialization in United States’ mining industry. It does so by studying the trajectory of two mining investors (James B. Haggin and the Hearst family) who, before investing heavily in Central Peru, financed the development of mining sites in Utah, Montana, and South Dakota. This chapter argues that these investors’ foundational capital was built on the expropriation of Native-American land and the territorial control of natural resources across the U.S. West in the late nineteenth century. This transnational approach connects processes of land expropriation and environmental conflict in the U.S. and Peru.

Chapter three examines struggles over Andean water. When the company that Haggin and the Hearsts founded, the Cerro de Pasco Mining Company (CPC), began using and appropriating lakes, rivers, and subterraneous water flows, a series of conflicts ensued. Different groups in the region’s political ecology, such as water workers (aguadoras), town residents, farmers, and entrepreneurs struggled against the CPC to secure water rights and shape water-consumption policies and technologies. In some instances, the CPC imposed its will by consuming lakes and re-engineering waterscapes. In other instances, local actors posed a significant challenge to the CPC and forced the company to change strategies and reach compromises.

The fourth chapter studies conflicts over smelter pollution. The construction of the CPC’s La Oroya smelter in 1922 resulted in the destruction of grasslands, crops, and domestic animals in the Mantaro Valley. This ecological crisis, as this chapter shows, displaced Indigenous communities and disrupted the regional labor market. It also engendered political and legal battles between landowners, government-sponsored scientists, and the CPC. This chapter argues that the smoke crisis of the 1920s changed the relationship that these groups had with industrial mining and the Central Highland’s environment.

Chapter five studies migrant workers from Indigenous communities in the Mantaro Valley who traveled to work in mining centers across Central Peru during agricultural low seasons. It will examine how this ecological connection between highland valleys and mining towns, particularly in the context of growing concerns about smelter pollution, shaped the regional labor market and elicited racialized and gendered narratives about Indigenous workers by company executives, politicians, and intellectuals. This chapter will also discuss how different landscapes and work environments shaped labor organizing and, ultimately, ideas about race, gender, and indigeneity. It will show how the fledging labor movement in Central Peru, forged in the depths of subterranean galleries and amidst toxic working conditions, contested elite racial constructions that labelled mine workers as “Indians” or “Cholos.” Instead, worker associations and unions fighting for fair wages and healthy work environments ascribed to a class discourse and masculinist ideals that not only challenged elite environmental racial tropes, but also granted these workers inclusion into the emergent labor state in Peru. Altogether, this chapter will argue that the racialization of mine workers in Central Peru was rooted in the environment.


This study contributes to revising the history of industrialization and imperialism in Latin America. By focusing on the struggles and contributions of domestic entrepreneurs and skilled workers in Peru, I challenge Eurocentric narratives that present European and U.S. capitalists as the single creators of industrialization in Latin America and the Global South. Moreover, I show how foreign companies, such as the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco Mining Company (CPC), were often challenged by local actors and forced to negotiate their expansion and relationship to the environment. My book manuscript also complicates studies stemming from the social sciences on “extractivism” and the contemporary politics of mining in Latin America. This body of literature assumes that extractive capitalism was imposed to the region by North American multinational companies in the wake of neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. I argue, by contrast, that these dynamics are part of a long trajectory of capitalist transformations advanced and resisted by a plurality of domestic actors.

Photograph sources:

El Peru en el primer centenario de su independencia. Spanish-English edition. Buenos Aires: Societé de Publicité Sud-Americaine Monte Domecq, 1922.