An Energy Assemblage in Practice

Aihwa Ong and Stephen Collier formulated the concept of Global Assemblages as a response and alternative to universalizing concepts thought up to make sense of what they call global forms, abstract entities such as bioscience or finance that have global dimensions and expressions. Rather than providing a rigid framework for understanding local contexts from a global perspective, seeing global forms as global assemblages situates them as always located in a specific situation. An assemblage is an ensemble with heterogeneous elements, leaving more space for the existence of the unexpected and contextually specific elements. As part of an assemblage, “forms and values of individual or collective existence” become subjects of “technological, political, and ethical reflection and intervention” (Collier and Ong 2008: 4). An assemblage “is the product of multiple determinations that are not reducible to a simple logic”; it is always emergent, “heterogeneous, unstable, partial, and situated” (Collier and Ong 2008: 10).

This series seeks to open windows into such “specific situations” and illuminate instances in which “forms and values of individual or collective existence” interact with “technological, political, and ethical reflection and intervention.” Drawing on ethnographic encounters, it seeks to bring into focus the ways in which people living around the world’s largest salt flats engage with and relate to the ambitious national project of lithium exploitation. In this way, the series aims to draw attention to the stories usually left untold within the global assemblage joined together around lithium.
This first contribution in the series will introduce the territory around the Salar de Uyuni and the ways in which people make their livelihood in and around it.

At a breathtaking 3663m above sea level, the salt flats of Uyuni, as they have come to be called over the past decades, stretch out, a white wasteland covering more than 10000 square meters. It’s hard to imagine life flourishing here. Hundreds of giant cacti reach  toward the sky on islands on the Salar and the mountain ranges around it. Millions of flamingos pass through every year, using the area as a breeding ground. Humans have also called the area home for thousands of years, the earliest archeological finds dating back some 15000 years.

Historically, the inhabitants of the “Lípez,” as the region was called before it split into different administrative districts, were agriculturists and breeders of hardy camelids. There was also a long tradition of the “Trueque” (barter) for some centuries. Llama caravans would take blocks of salt – called Panes de Sal (Salt Breads) – to faraway places and exchange them for other goods. From the late 16th century onwards, the mining of salt also became important in the processing of silver, increasing its importance for livelihoods around the Salar. With the construction of railway lines, from the late 19th century onwards, the distance between the Lipez and other parts of the country was diminished and several settlements sprang up along the tracks.

Today there are several ways of making a living in and around the Salar. Between the different kinds of mining, quinoa cultivation, livestock breeding, and an ever-growing tourism sector, many people are returning to live in the area. The region is also home to thousands of Vicuñas, slender and shy relatives of Llamas, which cannot be domesticated and produce one of the most expensive kinds of wool on this planet.

In this series, you will get to know some of these ways of life through encounters with inhabitants of the villages that surround the Salar. Every other week, I will take you on rides through the white wasteland in several-decades-old buses or 4X4 Land Rovers, on walks through dusty villages, or along railway tracks stretching out through the muddy outskirts of the salt flats, or invite you to participate in a chat with salt miners or village authorities over a few handfuls of coca leaves.

Collier, S.J. and Ong, A. (2008). Global Assemblages Anthropological Problems. In Global Assemblages (eds A. Ong and S.J. Collier). doi: 10.1002/9780470696569.ch1