Refusing extraction: Unearthing the messiness of activist research

Teresa A. Velásquez

Fig. 27.1 Two women walk through the Kimsacocha wetland slated for gold mining; in Quechua, Kimsacocha means ‘three lakes’

How do ethical research agendas align with the internal heterogeneity of social movements? If activist research methodologies seek to produce forms of knowledge that advance the political goals of our collaborators, what happens when they refuse to participate in what we believe to be an ethical research process? I ask these questions as a way to tease out the tensions experienced between me and my collaborators that occurred during field research.

In July 2013, I returned to the Southern Ecuadorian Andes to conduct research return: the sharing of findings with participants to seek their critical feedback. Having conducted fieldwork between 2008 and 2010 among anti-mining activists, my impressions were messy: scientific studies of water pollution sparked a local movement against a proposed Canadian-backed gold mine, but gender and racial/ethnic differences divided the movement in antagonistic ways.

Having agreed to participate in my earlier fieldwork, Rosita – one of my closest collaborators – refused to participate in the research return workshop. In this essay, I take the case of Rosita’s refusal as a multi-layered feminist practice. In focusing on an act of refusal, I show how my failure to conduct research return among a group of women anti-mining activists is a story of the political conditions that entangle ethnographic research with processes of extraction, i.e., extractivism.

In 2013, I visited some of my closest informants – Doña Patricia, her two daughters and their neighbour Rosita – all of whom form a women’s anti-mining group, to seek their participation in a research return workshop. Doña Patricia’s home is a modest two-room house nestled in a flat valley surrounded by rolling hills. The zigzag fences created a patchwork of green and brown grassy pastures, demarcating those farms that had irrigation and those that did not. This was an area dominated by dairy farmers – some rich, some poor – who supplied milk to regional and national producers. The women in the group had come together against a proposed gold mine project located upland in their watershed.

They shared the same political goal but were a socially heterogeneous group that varied in ethnic ancestry, access to markets, education and age. Although not all the women were mothers, the organisation used the language of ‘motherhood’, cast in biological and environmental terms, to oppose the proposed gold mine: they defended ‘Mother Earth’ and sometimes represented themselves as madres [mothers] who worried about the mine’s impacts on children. Doña Patricia and the others quickly and enthusiastically agreed to participate in a research return workshop, which I referred to as devolución. The root word of devolución is devolver, an adjective that means to give back or return something to its original place. It comprises a little-written-about aspect of activist research methods that values collaborative knowledge production (see Hale 2001). Through research return, I sought to be accountable to systems of privilege and power that structure ethnographic field research (Lewis 1973).

Fig. 27.2 In the Azuay province of Ecuador, Andean peasant farmland relies upon the Irquis river, fed by upland streams where a gold mine has been proposed

Fig. 27.3 Where the Irquis river runs through the parishes of Victoria del Portete and Tarqui, large landowners, including the hacienda pictured here, have predominant access to irrigation water

Several days after our initial agreement was reached, Doña Patricia’s daughter Ceci phoned to tell me that Rosita, relying on her authority as president of the women’s organisation, had called off the meeting. According to Ceci, Rosita believed that the women in the group would have to stand up and provide some sort of testimony that I would document and take away with me to the USA. I called Rosita to talk through and clarify what I was hoping to achieve. After all, I had done extensive interviews with Rosita and thought that if I could just explain devolución in local terms of accountability (rendir cuentas) she would understand and, ultimately, want to know how I had incorporated their interviews into my study. My goal with devolución was to seek the women’s validation of my research results in the hope that it could be used in ways to support their political agenda. But Rosita refused.

I was struck by the image that Rosita conjured of the devolución. She had evoked a public performance in which the information would circulate beyond her control. While most anthropologists would consider presenting one’s research to the community in their native language an ethical act, I suspect that for Rosita the opposite was true. I wondered if Rosita feared the circulation of information within her community. Did she worry that certain information considered private would be made public, or perhaps that she would lose control over the political narrative about the women’s group?

Rosita knew that I had been a doctoral student whose writing would be read by a largely English-speaking audience. During my initial fieldwork, she invited me to her home and maize patch many times and granted me two formal interviews. Her refusal to participate in return research belied the collaborative relationship I thought we had developed. Rosita never fully explained her refusal to hold a women’s devolución workshop. Instead, she translated her concerns with the workshop into an idiom of extractivism – a term with negative implications that we both understood.

Rosita’s evocation of extractivism reveals the awkward relationship between collaborators and anthropologists. While some scholars suggest that ethnographic research and the political agendas of activism may be mutually constructive, in my experiences such mutuality was complicated by the political conditions under which both set of actors labour. For instance, my initial research plan in 2008 did not exclusively focus on anti-mining activists, but then everyone wanted to know which side I was on. Some people silently eyed me with suspicion; others were more vocal and demanded to know my intentions. In an effort to earn trust, I let my political views guide my research. I aligned my research with the defence of watersheds from mineral extraction, hoping to use my research to support the rights of farmers who could be displaced by an industrial gold mine upstream.

As I learned in practice, the decision to politically support farmers did not take into account that anti-mining groups were internally fragmented and had competing political agendas. The movement’s heterogeneity enabled connections with research that, in their partiality, maintained differences among our agendas. At times my enactment of ethnographic knowledge enabled a connection with the women’s group, while at other times, their activist embodiment of refusal underscored the differences between the women’s political agenda and my practice of anthropological research.

At the start of my fieldwork in 2008, the women’s group allowed me to volunteer with them. I co-organised an international women’s anti-mining conference and several popular education workshops on a variety of topics related to environment, health and human rights. Through these events, I documented the process through which, as one woman put it, the diverse group of women learned ‘how to speak’. Learning how to speak enabled them to craft their own narratives against mining, grounded in their unique position as agrarian women who defended human and non-human life. They spoke on radio shows, marched in streets, staged protests at government offices and travelled throughout rural areas to share their knowledge about the effects of mineral extraction.

Fig. 27.4 Riot police confront peasant women blocking the Pan-American Highway in a protest against a proposed gold mine

In learning ‘how to speak’, their activism challenged the pervasive sexism within an anti-mining movement that was organised by male-dominated communal water boards. While the water-boards were democratically run, Rosita and Doña Patricia told me that they would never be elected to the leadership because of their lack of formal education. In the rural Andes, women are not explicitly barred from participating in water board meetings or holding office, but they become excluded through a common perception that men ‘know what to say and how to say it’ (Bastidas 2005: 160).

Fig. 27.5 A women’s group member holds a picket sign attached to stalks of maize reading ‘This is produced with healthy water no contamination’

Formal education and the ability to ‘speak’ becomes a rationale that reinforces gender asymmetries in community politics. The women’s group challenged exclusionary political practices by rejecting the masculine standards of speech that can stir up a crowd. A former president of the women’s group prided herself on ‘speaking’ at a rally. She told me that it did not matter if the words came out ‘good or bad’ as long as she spoke.

When mining conflicts erupted, tensions over the gendered organisation of politics came to the fore. In an interview, Rosita recounted that in 2007 the anti-mining movement blockaded the Pan-American Highway and, in the face of mounting police repression, became split over the decision to continue to protest or to participate in a government dialogue. She criticised Luis, then president of the communal water board, for deciding to participate in a government dialogue. She and other women in the group believed that such dialogues were efforts to manipulate and pacify the movement. In a verbal confrontation with two men from the water-board, Rosita challenged Luis’ decision. In response, the men involved defended Luis’ actions and called her ‘stupid’. Rosita believed that Luis often acted in self-interest, ‘to become big, like Herod [from the bible]’.

Rosita and a group of women maintained their membership with the community water board, but politically aligned themselves with the National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Life and Sovereignty (CNDVS, by its Spanish acronym) – a radical, pro-peasant anti-mining group with Marxist-feminist leanings that favoured street protests over state dialogue. Within CNDVS they established a women’s group, Frente de Mujeres Defensoras de la Pachamama [Women Defenders of the Pachamama] and routinely identified themselves as defensoras [defenders].

Fig. 27.6 Peasants organised by the communal water boards converge upon the city of Cuenca to march against legislation that would permit mining in upland watersheds

I met Rosita through my work with the women’s group. In April 2008, she and other members of the CNDVS staged a road-blockade on the Pan-American Highway. She was violently arrested – hit, dragged and stepped on by police before being shoved into a paddy wagon. My writing and research skills became useful to the organisation. I wrote a popular news article about the protest and arrests and documented her story for a human rights legal petition.

Our agendas were not, however, always so closely aligned. Shortly after the protest, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum organised a consultation meeting with civil society organisations to discuss a draft mining law. While the activist groups rejected the invitation, I opted to attend because at the time I believed it was an important opportunity to understand state discourses around mining and get a better sense of what kind of ‘civil society’ groups participated in such events.

The event was held in the city of Cuenca on the side of town where rural peasants came to sell their products and in a building that formerly housed an important state agrarian modernisation programme. At the start of the meeting, a group of protestors outside could be heard yelling ‘You don’t sell the Motherland (la Patria), you defend it’. I stood up to look out of the window and I saw the women’s group alongside some of their male allies from the CNDVS. From down below Rosita saw me in the window. At a meeting the following day, she and others were upset with me. They said that I was wearing a tie.

Indeed, I had worn a cowl-necked double-breasted knit jacket to the government consultation forum, which, in their view, stood in for a man’s tie. My body was that of a minero, a masculine term that can be applied to women. The term is a gendered critique of mining supporters who align themselves with a masculine, imperialist endeavour. The women’s group made hard distinctions between themselves as radical anti-mining activists and male/imperialist pro-mining groups. They used this distinction to question my affinity to their cause. I was in drag. I was suspected of betraying the organisation. Yet, without having attended the government dialogue I would have not learned that multinational mining company employees positioned themselves as ‘ciudadanos’ (national citizens) who called on the government to control ‘radical environmental groups’ obstructing mineral projects. A couple of months later, rumours broke out that I was a mining company informant and in September 2008, I was asked by CNDVS leadership to cool off my collaboration.

I regained a relationship with Rosita, but she would eventually ask me to exclude her from future research. Her refusal set an ethnographic limit just as other possibilities opened up. My ongoing commitment to collaborative research was enabled by the development of important relationships with urban and foreign anti-mining activists. We established the Quizha-Quizha collective, a solidarity group that hosted documentary and panel discussions on mining, carefully tracked concession maps for community leadership and organised a fundraiser for a threatened activist and member of the Defensoras group. In the following year, I expanded my collaborators to include the communal water boards that brought together men and women against the mine project.

My relationship with Rosita evinces the ways that the endeavours of ethnographic research and activism diverged and underscores the different ways in which we were positioned. Our relation reveals the potential for ‘awkward dissonance between feminist practice and the practice of the discipline’ of anthropology (Strathern 1987: 277). Rosita’s criticism of my attendance at the mining dialogue exposed the ways in which activists and ethnographers are differently positioned in the field. Jack Halberstam points to a ‘shadow’ feminism in which ‘subjects refuse to cohere; subjects who refuse “being” where being has already been defined in terms of a self-activating, self-knowing liberal subject’ (2011: 126). By rejecting the government’s proposal in mining policy, Rosita and the activists with whom she was protesting refused to collectively represent themselves as knowable political subjects. As Audra Simpson describes in Mohawk Interruptus, refusals enact representational sovereignty in historical contexts where ethnographic knowledge and government legibility entrench the settler colonial state (Simpson 2014). By refusing to participate in the mining dialogue, the defensoras enact a politics of refusal that underscores the relationships between territorial defence and sovereignty in the representational field. Rosita drew upon the same practice to negate participation in the research return workshop and thereby set limits to the circulation of information that would construct women as ethnographically legible subjects. Defensoras practice a form of grassroots feminism that dynamically connects speech and speaking with refusals to speak and be spoken about (Velásquez 2017).

Fig. 27.7 The Defensoras enact a refusal to speak and eat in protest against the criminalisation of CNDVS activists; the yellow sign reads ‘Down with the fascist and repressor government in service of imperialist miners’

At once collaborating and refusing to collaborate, Rosita’s actions can be interpreted in the words of Donna Haraway (cited in De la Cadena 2015): ‘we do not need a totality in order to work well. The feminist dream of a common language…is a totalizing and imperial one’, (33–34). Rosita and the women’s group enact different kinds of feminist practice: speaking at crowds, blocking streets with their bodies and refusing to be ‘appropriate’ subjects. Feminist practices have implications for politically aligned research, enabling both convergences and divergences between activism and research. Refusals signal a partial connection that emerges under conditions of political division and heterogeneous activist practices. A commitment to work within circuits of partial connections embraces the awkward and messy relationships that energise and confound politically aligned ethnographic research while also enriching methodological possibilities. Embracing the tensions between alignments and refusals as a collaborative research method allowed me to explore anti-mining activism from the perspective of multiple, differently positioned groups. Now, my occasional visits to Rosita entail easy conversations about life, love and delicious gossip that will never make it to a published page.


I would like to thank the Defensoras of Ecuador, especially Rosita. The essay was greatly improved by the colleagues who read generously and commented insightfully: Christine Labuski, Emily Yates-Doerr, Joan Gross, Melissa Biggs, John Bodinger de Uriarte and James Maguire.


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Strathern, M., ‘An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology’, Signs, 12.2 (1987), 276–92.

Velásquez, T. A., ‘Enacting Refusals: Mestiza Women’s Anti-Mining Activism in Andean Ecuador’, Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 12.3 (2017), 250–72.