projects

2020-2024: Frontier Settlements – Territories of artisan mining labour in Africa

This research project reveals how the extraction of the world’s underground resources territorializes through artisan mining labour.

It is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and co-hosted by the Department of Geography, University of Zürich, the Department of Human Geography, Lund University, and it is in partnership with the University of Zimbabwe, the University of Ouagadougou I, the Institut National des Sciences des Sociétés in Burkina Faso, and the Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH) based at CERUKI/ISP in Bukavu, DRC.

By extractive labour we mean the commodified work that serves to obtaining value from ‘natural’ mineral deposits. By territorialisation we mean the way such labour is socially and spatially embedded in multi-scalar extractive assemblages. In the debate on planetary sustainability, mining has come under renewed scrutiny for its environmentally and socially damaging impact. However, the discussion tends to be limited to large-scale extraction sites. Considering that an estimated 40 million people worldwide work in artisan and small- scale mining (ASM), there arises a need to assess the wider role of such arguably ‘informal’ and ‘non-industrialized’ resource (re)production in social, political and environmental terms. Our research focuses on Africa, more specifically Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Burkina Faso. The studied resource will be gold, the production of which – partially due to the ongoing global financial crisis – is experiencing unprecedented levels. We investigate the central role the mobile and often highly precarious extractive work of African artisan mine workers plays in transforming natural gold deposits into commodities. And we highlight the relations and networks through which extractive labour become embedded in the local context – notably through processes of sprawling urbanisation. In so doing, this comparative research will reveal the conditions under which extractive frontiers materialize in contexts where the commodification of natural resources is often highly contested and embedded unequally in global supply chains.

2015-2019: Archaeology of a Frontier

Archaeology of a Frontier is a joint project of MIC|C, Osservatorio Migranti Basilicata and Liminal Geographies. The project has as its main objective to expose the traces of those silenced and invisibilized trajectories on the shores of the Mediterranean that official border regimes systematically try to erase. Through the detailed exposure of various fragments, including archaeological remains, pictures, documents, video, and audio recordings, we aim to describe the anthropogeographic history of this emerging borderland at the time of its formal dissolution. Archaeology of a Frontier thus provides the evidence of a momentary presence, a testament to the impermanency of life as it has existed, like the smouldering ashes of a fire, or the traces of a camp after it has moved on.

2015-ongoing: The Black Mediterranean

The Mediterranean is currently confronting an important crisis of representation. In modern historiographies, a kind of ‘Mediterraneanism’ appears to reign that shares an implicit cartographic vision of the Mediterranean space, one that reproduces its complex topography into a single, unitary epistemological -predominantly whitening – framing and political management. In our contemporary era, one central object of that epistemological frame is the Black African migrant. Seemingly floating on its fluid waters to reach the more stable topographies of continental Europe, Black migrants (categorized single-handedly as refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people) have come to increasingly symbolize the instability and insecurity of that space, which historiographers once described with such exoticizing and essentializing certainty.

Since 2015, first sparsely, and then more systematically, I have been producing evidence on this blog of a different space that is emerging on in the European-African borderlands. On the one hand, I challenge the romanticization of the Mediterranean as a space of convivial exchange and unfettered hybridity, pointing to oft-overlooked histories of racial violence and their contemporary reverberations. On the other hand, I describe the Mediterranean Sea as a space of multiple mobilities, traversed by various frontiers and border technologies, and spanning both colonial legacies and postcolonial conditions.  With the members of the Black Mediterranean collective I share an urge to stimulate this alternative narrative, which simultaneously dislocates the whitening gaze on the Mediterranean and offers space for a diasporic community to develop in its midst.

2016-2017: New Plantations: Migrant Mobility, ‘Illegality’ and Racialisation in European Agricultural Labour Funded by SNIS

This project engages in a comparative enquiry into the triple dynamics of race, space and “illegality” in the reproduction of migrant precarious labour conditions in European agro-industrial labour markets. What are the mechanisms of differential inclusion and segregation of migrant workers in the agro-industrial labour markets? We try to answer this question through a systematic comparison of five original case studies that are currently almost uncovered by research on migrant labour in Italian, Swiss and Belgian horticulture.

2013-2018: The impact of mineral governance on miners’ property rights: a comparative case study from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Funded by Swiss National Science Foundation

The  project aims to test the validity of the ‘resource curse’ paradigm through a comparative case study analysis of transnational mineral governance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It specifically concentrates on the transformation of the rights of use and access to natural resources enacted through the classification, standardization and formalization of these rights in selected mining enclaves in Katanga and South Kivu (Eastern DRC). The focus of the project will be on one specific set of minerals (tantalite, tin ore and tungsten – the three T’s) and their regulation through the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi). In doing so it assesses the way this reform process impacts on the performance of mineral markets in both mining areas, and what impact this has on the institutional choice patterns of mine workers. In sum the study aims to provide more insights into the political ecology of natural resource markets in countries emerging from protracted armed conflict, specifically detailing (1) the transnational dimension of economic regulation and (2) its impact on the institutional choice patterns of direct natural users of natural resources in the specific case of the DRC.

2013-2015: The precarious and multiple spaces of youth displacement in eastern DRC funded by FAFO

This analysis concentrates on the dynamic space of forced displacement in the extremely fluid and uncertain context of political transition in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. It specifically zooms in Eastern Congolese youth, a subgroup that has played a preponderant role in violent restructuring during the region’s protracted war. African youth are frequently portrayed as in-between and almost non-citizens who float between childhood and adult life worlds. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), some youth played a particularly active role in armed violence by taking up arms as Mayi Mayi fighters and other armed groups. Whereas most studies focus on violent youngsters and their problematic integration into post-war society, this analysis consciously takes the perspective of non-combatant youth, trying to answer the question in which places non armed displaced youngsters are trying to construct and imagine a better life. In the aftermath of such a long and violent conflict (1996-2003), and considering the current obsesion with youth bulges in post-war reconstruction policy, it seems indeed a legitimate question to ask what is becoming of these non-combatant youth in terms of capacities, practices and structural conditions. In particular, this analysis concentrates on the often multiscalar space in which this youth displacement occurs, between physical borders, cities and rural hinterlands, and between individual attempts to making a living and imagining a proper life. Besides its strong geographic methodology, this analysis subscribes to a much wider effort to elucidate the underlying dimension of identity and life making in the political economy of post-warfare, which brings about certain constraints and possibilities. This (inter)subjective dimension of livelihood restructuring during and in the aftermath of war has often been neglected in dominant livelihoods and policy research. The general aim of this analysis, therefore, is to offer insights into the ways young people who have been forcebly displaced by armed violence are trying to construct an autonomous place among multiple registers and hallmarks.

2013-2015: The city ghettoes of today Funded by ECF

The ghetto according to Franco LaCecla is “a boundary, a space, where (…) you are in front of a dislocation, a displacement. The border to those inside and those outside represents a feeling of loss, but it is also a mirror of each other’s identity, a threshold that allows us to refine our identity and filter others.” Using this definition, the ghetto itself bears many parallels to the artistic process, an act of creation which helps to define one’s identity and distinguish it from others. After a preparatory period, the project will involve 9 international activities (one kick-off meeting-debate in Sep.2013, 6 ten-day workshops in 6 European cities (Bologna, Milan, Helsinki, Warsaw, Paris, Berlin) run by artists from different artistic backgrounds from all over Europe in, one conclusive activity in Warsaw in 01.2015 and one evaluation meeting with partners in 02.2015. The artistic workshops will be run in migrant districts of those 6 cities and will be prepared in collaboration with a network of organisations working on the themes of migration and art in the selected areas.

2007-2011: MICROCON Funded by European Commission

Violent conflicts are frequently perceived as a form of state and governance failure. Conflicts often offer the opportunity for new classes of local and regional strongmen to challenge political powers. In most conflicts, a number of actors (militia-leaders and members, political elites, businessmen, petty traders, but also households and groups) have tried to improve their position and to exploit the opportunities offered by a context of internal conflict. The result is that relations between populations and politico-military or economic elites are reshaped by violent conflicts. Rather than simply disrupting or destroying the local social and economic fabric, conflicts create new opportunities for some even as it takes them away from others. Even more, in a context of weak state administrations, certain non-state actors can be witnessed to provide valuable public goods. The question then is, to explain how these dynamics of violence have led to the formation of new forms of power and control and what these new forms of local governance include: To what extent can actions of violent political or economic entrepreneurs promote order and provide public goods?  What do these ‘new forms of governance’ include, who do they integrate, who is leading them? What impact do these stateless patterns of power have on processes of formal state-building?

Recent Posts

Toxic Borders

How farm workers are wrecked by a corporate food regime in South Italy’s migrant ghettos

This post is the somewhat longer version of a blog contribution I posted on Border Criminologies, as part a collaboration with the journal Geopoliitcs to promote open access platforms. As always, feel free to distribute or react in the box below.

Caporalato Capital

On a particularly hot day of August 2018, I met Idrissa*. I was talking to one of my acquaintances in the ghetto of Borgo San Nicola*, a run down and abandoned ruin in the middle of the fields of Basilicata, South Italy. Idrissa, who was visibly inebriated, asked me for money to buy him a drink. I asked him to wait. I had met Idrissa a few times before: a young man from Burkina Faso, he lived in a ramshackle room on a farm in the vicinity of the ghetto. Since a couple of years, he had been working as a day labourer on South Italy’s food farms, picking tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables under the boiling sun. My acquaintance, who had come from Burkina Faso to Italy ten years earlier, asked Idrissa if he had finally decided to accept the work, he had offered him: a day of picking tomatoes in neighbouring field. Idrissa shrugged, standing aloof for a moment in the sun. Then, he answered: “my fate is in the hands of God.” Severely, my acquaintance responded: “your fate may be in the hands of God, but K. does not live in heaven, you know” – after which he left and drove off in his second-hand car. 

In Italy, there are tens of thousands of young men like Idrissa. They represent what the labour unions call Italy’s vulnerable agricultural labour force: subject to severe labour exploitation, and marginalized socially and spatially, their number has risen exponentially over the past twenty years. According to FLAI-CGIL, around 180.000 of the plus-minus 400.000 ‘foreign’ (without Italian nationality) workers in this sector meet these criteria of vulnerability and marginality; around 40 percent being refugees and asylum seekers – mostly young men from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers by far exceed the formal hires the Italian government permits through its so-called ‘Flow Decrees’ (Decreti Flussi), in 2023 around 83.000, 44.000 of which concern so-called seasonal labour. Instead, agri-food workers are typically recruited through all kinds of mediating infrastructures that sustain the operations of contemporary supply chain agri-food capitalism: illegal gangmasters (in Italian caporali), ‘cooperatives of convenience’, and, in a growing number of cases, migrant reception centres. In Idrissa’s case, the piecemeal work was offered to him through a tight hierarchy made up of K., a Burkinabè intermediary (commonly called capo nero) and their Italian superior (caporale). 

ghetto of Boreano II – before the eviction (google earth scan)

Yet while the illegal gangmasters are often fetishized in the media and in decision-making circles as the main culprits of labour exploitation in agri-food chains, my recent research with Domenico Perrotta shows the functionality of this infrastructure as a grey space that sustains and reproduces inequalities in agri-food labour markets. Furthermore, the persistence of caporalato capitalism goes paired with a concentration of capital in what Philip McMichael calls the ‘corporate food regime’ (even if the discussion remains open on the terminology).

In Europe, for example, scholars have noted a growing monopolization of food production, distribution and marketization by a few powerful players who tend to dominate the entire value chain of agri-food business. As dominant players in global food markets today, supermarket retailers typically avoid direct involvement in production. Instead, they prefer to specialise in controlling marketing and supply chains through quality standards, branding and logistics while they outsource production towards smallholder farmers who are able to diversify risks and subject their production to the conditions imposed by their clients. This has led to a steep dispossession from below: the growing concentration of farm property in the hands of private smallholders whose production is tied exclusively to the retailers’ supply chains. Recent global crises – of the Sars-CoV-2 or Covid-19 virus and the war in Ukraine in particular – have made this tendency even more visible: research by the via Campesina network, by Oxfam and by UNITE conform this tendency of land property concentration: compared to 15 million firms in 2003, only 9.1 million companies currently farm 157 million hectares of land, equivalent to 38 percent of agricultural land in the region (according to Eurostat 2020 data). Italy is a typical case of such dispossession: between 1990 and 2022, the total agricultural surface (superficie agricola totale: SAT) per agricultural firm has expanded from 7.6 hectares to 14.5 hectares, while in during 1982-2022, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped from 3 to little more than 1 million.

Boreano II – after the eviction (google earth scan)

After having commodified the land as a resource for capital’s gain and exploiting it with ever-more insidious techniques of fertilization, seed and crop modification, global agri-food corporations are now intoxicating the planet even further through their deliberate precarization of human labour. During the pandemic, the question arose why agri-food production is not being automated more than it is today. While governments around the globe proceeded with the closure of territorial borders to prevent the corona virus from spreading and negatively affecting national economies, we all witnessed the importance of precarious migrant labour to keep agribusiness going. In Thailand, thousands of migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos returned home at the height of the rice growing season, leaving the country’s large monocultures unattended. Australian horticulture industries saw their labour force evaporate due to Covid visa restriction. Fearing a shortage of 80.000 workers, the British farmers’ Association launched an appeal to constitute a Land Army. To support agricultural production, European agri-businesses were actively trying to recruit students and pensioners to replace the foreign labourers from Eastern Europe. Speaking of a shortage of 200.000 workers, the Italian association Confagricoltura demanded the establishment of “green corridors” to facilitate workers’ mobility. Agribusiness’ calls for assistance ultimately prompted the European Commission to include agricultural workers in the category of “indispensable workers” within its Guidelines issued on 30 March 2020.

Despite these measures, however, the vulnerability of agri-food workers continued to rise during the pandemic, to the extent that several medical and socio-judicial organizations denounced the lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers from the part of European governments. In Italy, MEDU and MSF criticized the government’s lack of interest in the health of seasonal workers. In Germany and Italy, meat processing factories and industrial slaughterhouses became prime places of contagion because of the close proximity of migrant workers and lack of protection measures. Yet, while these contagions highlighted the vulnerability of the corporate food regime as well as our global capacities to guarantee access to food in a time of viral crisis, this narrative does not emphasize enough the toxic labour regime that channels and captures workers’ lives: in order to keep workers tied to the land and to their precarious labour conditions, agribusiness increasingly depends on the spread of toxic borders. 

My recent article for Geopolitics shows two complementary dynamics in this context. One of these concerns the territorial stratification of the agricultural workforce. In the context of agri-business, I note how, by this time, the political technique of territorial residency (in short: of residence papers) has become a deliberate instrument of labour disciplining and control, more concretely, to territorially stratify and carve up the labour force. This stratification often assumes a racialized gender dimension. In the context I have studied, which is the South of Italy (but for a wider, comparative perspective I refer to the project I coordinated during 2015-2018), I see two interrelated trends. 

Stratified Borders

On the one hand, migrant workers are forced to internalize the effects of their geographic segregation. In short: while agri-businesses actively exploit their labour, state governments deny workers their fundamental rights to health, to unemployment and social benefits. Concretely this means that non-EU workers (so, workers who do not have a European nationality but still make up the majority of the active labour force in this sector) are increasingly trapped between their need to have territorial residence papers renewed and the impossibility to do so outside the channels imposed by corporate capital. In Italy, informal migrant workers (including asylum seekers and refugees) who want to regularize their status as workers are obliged to demand their residence papers through their employers. This is also the main reason why a majority of working refugees in agriculture has preferred not to choose this bureaucratic trajectory (during the last round in 2021-22, only 15.000 regularization demands were filed by farm workers).

The impossibility to acquire a resident status outside of the overburdened asylum system de facto places such refugee workers in a state of legal limbo. Migrant workers who are neither refugee or asylum seekers, but who do want their residence renewed, however, need to show a formal employment contract to do so. This feudal system – in which not free labourers but the employers indirectly determine who has a right to residency and who has not – notoriously binds the workers not just to the land but also, and increasingly, to the hand that exploits them. It is quite significant that for refugees and asylum seekers, who – as I said – constitute a growing labour reserve in Italian agri-food firms, residence papers have acquired the status of yet another racket to deal with for these workers, besides the restrained access to housing and to employment, according to a first nation-wide enquiry approved by the Italian Labour Ministry.

border waste I

At the very minimum, these data destabilize the predominant narrative around the relation between economic and political migration: as my Italian research observes, asylum seekers and refugees are frequently forced to become economic migrants out of a sheer lack of alternatives to make a living in their new ‘host’ society. The exponential denial of asylum renewal by the Italian Interior Ministry during the past half decade (from 60 to 80 percent in 2016-2018) seems to consolidate the trend, indicated by Dines and Rigo, of the refugeeization of farm labour – a term which is meant to highlight not only a numeric shift in the composition of the agricultural work force, as I indicated earlier, but also, ad maybe even more importantly, the radically conflicting grounds upon which the stratification of labour is constructed in the context of neoliberal market reforms. Speaking more widely, this trend calls us back to observation, made by Cedric Robinson and other Black Marxists in the 1980s, that capitalism is very well capable of coexisting and articulating itself alongside other modes of production Despite many crucial differences between now and then – the replacement of slavery with other forms of unfreedom being one of them – race often remains a key factor of differentiation between worthy and unworthy lives in the contemporary after-lives of early modern plantations. 

On the other hand, in fact, I notice both a systematic externalization of the cost of labour reproduction towards workers who remain racially segregated as a consequence of the tightening grip of agribusiness on agricultural labour. In an economy that is still largely sustained by small-to-medium family enterprises, at least in Italy, famers households typically enjoy the benefits of social welfare through their formal, perennial employment. But, as my study shows, this comes at a high price for non-family members employed in the enterprise. Migrant workers instead continue to pay for their own reproduction through the expansion (both economically and geographically) of an informal economy that serves to cover the needs that are not taken care of – nor by capital nor by the state. 

border waste II

An emblematic illustration of this dynamic is the spread of the ghetto – a designation Sub-Saharan African workers use to define their temporary labour camps, constructed with makeshift materials, and usually far removed from the infrastructures of modern urbanity. In the Mediterranean context, such sites are often invoked as an extreme form of social marginality, if not as hotbeds of organized criminality. Because of their exponential growth (the Labour Ministry report estimates their number around 150, hosting around 10.000 informal migrant workers), during the past decade, such ghettos have increasingly become a thorn in the eye of public administrations who, with varying success, have started to eradicate and evict them. The solution state governments offer is a merely logistical one: in order to host agri-food’s temporary labour force, planning efforts have concentrated on the construction of tent and container camps managed through the Red Cross, Caritas, and other emergency organizations. Despite the active use of territorial residency as an instrument of labour discipline (since 2014, following the new Housing Plan, squatters get their residence papers formally denied – and seasonal workers can only renew their residence papers when they reside in a formal labour camp), a majority of migrant workers in Italy’s agri-food zones refuses to live in state containers and prefers instead to dwell in the ghetto. This is also why many ghettos across the country are temporary only by name, since many of the goods and services that are neither offered by public administrations nor by corporate capital, are operationalized here. In the ghettos I visited, a loose hierarchy of intermediaries was responsible for organizing food and sex work, alongside the accommodation and servicing of seasonal workers; transport, electricity, and water supply all were paid by the workers themselves. 

border waste III

From here on, the lesson to be learned is pretty straightforward: even if public administrators continue to designate migrant workers ghettos as free zones situated outside the perimeters of the formal market economy (and even of modern civilization) my research shows how these are quite fundamental places that bear the cost of a labour force no-one situated within these same perimeters is willing to pay for. In that way, however, migrant ghettos continue to act indirectly as a subsidy to agri-food retailers who reap the largest profits of the food crisis we are told to be living. In my view, deconstructing the toxic narrative of this crisis – as a crisis of sustenance, and thus an emergency that requires more food to be produced, at ever greater speed and with ever expanding exceptional measures – becomes a priority not only in human but also in planetary terms. This dimension, which I call natural racialization, I will now turn to in the last section of this post.

Wasted Lives

Natural racialization refers to the process through which migrant labour infrastructures are actively ‘naturalized’ as places of Blackness that stand outside the perimeters of white, European civilization. This process involves two complementary dynamics: after having transformed the land into a resource for capital’s gain, state governments and corporate capital actively marginalize the remnant space as either a form of ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ ‘wildlife’ that should be cherished and protected (usually through new forms of commodification) or, on the contrary, as a devalued margin, a jungle, a dangerous place that remains impenetrable for modern civilization. In the margins of the corporate food production regime that tends to dominate the Italian countryside, migrant workers proceedingly occupy this marginal space as a kind of fugitive site: a place to recast connections in a world that is characterized by brokenenness and disruption, and a place from where to invent oneself anew in a context of constant denial and marginalization. Not by surprise, in fact, the term Jungle (broussemacquis) figure prominently in migrants’ designation of these occupied places as a kind of open frontier, where outcomes become unpredictable and the contours of new life worlds being are traced. 

At the same time, government planning efforts tend to further intoxicate migrant’s life worlds through an active politics of dispersal and destruction. In Basilicata and Puglia, where I carried out my research, five large ghettos have been evicted in the past four years by state security forces, leading to the displacement of an estimated 1500 people (on top of the 1500 calculated by MSF in its 2018 report). Strikingly, this has not led to a formalization of workers’ employment or accommodation, on the contrary: the same makeshift dwellings usually re-appear within a matter of weeks, typically at the start of the new agricultural season. This constant cycle of eviction and resettlement thus contributes to a further precarization of already detrimental conditions. Next to the acute health problems farm workers face as a result of the long working hours and unhygienic living conditions (in its 2019 report on the Calabrian plane of Goia Tauro, a global centre of orange and citrus production, the medical charity MEDU observed widespread tract inflammation, mainly related to climatic conditions and the impossibility of staying in healthy environments, followed by osteoarticular pathologies associated with carrying out particularly strenuous work, digestive pathologies, in particular esophagitis and gastritis, and skin pathologies like mycosis, allergic dermatitis, and dermatosis due to a major exposure to pesticides), migrant farm workers’ living environments are frequently exposed to hazards, like fires (which have caused several deaths), mudslides and floods (as a result of rainfall and erosion). As contemporary archaeologists Hicks and Mallet note for the Calais Jungle, the naturalization of migrant lives (intended here as second-order nature) thus tends to produce a hostile environment, which, as part of Europe’s repressive border politics, functions as a debilitating mechanism, a form of slow violence that actively deforms the characteristics of migrant’s reduced living spaces and, de facto, makes these places unliveable. 

border waste IV

Towards an Immersive Geography

Contemporary archaeology offers a potentially fertile place from where to make sense of this emerging political ecology of toxic border regimes. In collaboration with MIC|C, a small, anonymous collective whose work I describe in the Geopolitics article, I have tried to pinpoint the logic of dispersal that sustains the expansion of an ecological border regime in Italy’s agrarian landscape since 2014 – the results of which we present on this website. The result is an immersive geography of farm workers life worlds that are connected through trajectories of acute marginality and labour extraction.

Scavenging through the piles of waste of evicted ghetto settlements indeed makes one acutely aware of the violent intoxication that characterizes Europe’s current border politics in the rural margins. The scaled toxicity produced through this spatial marginalization in my view indicates a stratigraphy of power that is not highlighted enough in contemporary research on territorial borders. Paraphrasing Marco Armiero, I could say that the relationship of wasting migrant life worlds produces migrant workers as a racialized group located outside the contours of formal industrial development, while including them into the techno-stratigraphy of wasted matter that piles up at the end of a deliberate process of extraction, of the land, and of the labour that brings it into fruition. Thinking of borders through waste in my view thus has the potential to foreground wasting as a socio-ecological relationship that both creates and reproduces wasted people ad wasted places in the context of contemporary supply chain capitalism. 

border waste V
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