In 1937 the British travel writer Rebecca West visited the Stan Terg mine in Kosovo. At that time Stan Terg – now part of the huge Trepca mining complex - was owned and managed by a British mining company and West is enchanted by what she describes as the ‘civilizing’ influence of the mine on the local town. She’s particularly taken with the Cornish-style mine houses, built with their windows confidently facing the road and with front gardens full of roses and sweet peas. After all, in a mining town, even in Kosovo (so the logic went) nobody need fear being attacked by their neighbours. Indeed, the Scottish general manager of the mine is proud that he employs both Albanians and Serbs and confident they will be able to work together. ‘This country’ he tells West ‘is getting over its past nicely’.
Just over 80 years later, that little settlement above the mine is ruined, the houses cratered with bullet holes, the cinema where Albanians and Serbs used to watch movies together destroyed, the outdoor swimming pool high on the hill now an empty, overgrown carcass. I stand on the main street with an Albanian miner who used to sell milk and eggs to the Serb families here when he was a child, before the war. When the weather was wet, they would invite him in. We look at the empty-faced houses, the closed shops, the skeletal remains of the coffee shop. “I don’t know what the hell happened”, he says.
While the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo was not ostensibly associated with natural resources an eight-day strike in the Stan Terg mine by Albanian miners protesting increasing discrimination against them by the Milosevic regime was one catalyst that led to the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Kosovo ten years later. Now Trepca is divided between Serb control of the mines and associated infrastructure in the Serb-majority municipalities to the north of the river Ibar and Albanian control of the mines in the south, including Stan Terg. But the complex wasn’t designed to run like this and neither side is doing well as a result. Kosovo and Serbia both consider Trepca to be essential for their prosperity and agreeing the future of the complex is the most contentious, the most heated issue still to be settled between the two.
Meanwhile people live, work and raise their families amid the collapsing mine infrastructure and the ruins of the places Serbs and Albanians once enjoyed together. The material evidence, in other words, that the promises embedded in this orebody over time – that it would bring prosperity, peace and ethnic harmony – have all been broken. And yet, policy makers in the UN and the World Bank still argue that mining can bring peace to places recovering from violent conflict.
One of the problems with this is that it is a top-down prescription for peace, and top-down peace prescriptions don’t necessarily achieve what they think they will, as Stan Terg shows. I argue that a ‘bottom-up’ approach is needed too; one that starts in the natural resource – the orebody - itself.
Because an orebody is not inert geology but woven into the ways in which people understand what a good life is, who that good life is for and how an orebody can help them achieve it. It is alive with the potential of the conflicting and converging promises we embed in it. It’s like a rhizome, sending shoots above the surface, animated by what we want it to do for us. And like a rhizome (as Stan Terg shows) it can run out of control.
As such an orebody is a place for thinking about what those promises are and where they are taking us. What sort of good life will they achieve? To quote Robert MacFarlane in his book Underland it is time to ‘force ourselves to see more deeply’ if we want to live better lives together on this planet.
Image credit: Bridget Storrie
Looking over the landscape around the Stan Terg mine it is clear that the the orebody plays a role in shaping people’s lives here. It seems to add its geological heft to a project of territorialisation that divides people and keeps them separate and means certain people can’t cross certain bridges – at least not easily – or attend certain churches or tend certain graves. There’s an FCO travel advisory north of the River Ibar where the population is now mostly Serb, and the places associated with mining are the places that are the ‘prickliest’ – hung with flags, guarded by police, difficult to access.
There’s a miners’ monument in northern Kosovo, for instance, that commemorates the resistance of Albanian and Serb miners at Stan Terg to the German occupation during the Second World War, but it is difficult for Kosovan Albanians to visit now. I stood on the bridge that connects both sides of this divided city and asked my Albanian interpreter if we could go there together and he said we can. If we borrow his friend’s car, take off the Kosovo number plates and if I do all the talking. ‘If they know I’m Albanian’, he adds, ‘the Serbs will attack us with guns and knives, for sure.’
So, the orebody appears complicit in making the conflict here intractable. It is woven into the stories people tell about how things have turned out the way they have, who is to blame and what needs to be done about it. For the Albanian miners at the Stan Terg mine the orebody is associated with an idea of future prosperity that is closely aligned with Kosovan independence and tied in with the history of the strike and the conflict that unfolded here. The story they tell is one of resistance, betrayal, sacrifice, struggle, loss, exile and their eventual return to the mine after the Serbs had left at the end of the war. That this orebody should benefit them now is the logical conclusion.
But another story emerged during the interviews I carried out with them. Alongside the conflictive narrative of blame and accusation another much quieter, more difficult, often transgressive story emerged of deep nostalgia for the pre-war Yugoslav past, of disillusion with fellow Albanians, of curiosity about former Serb colleagues and of uncertainty that the struggle of achieving independence has actually been worth it.
The orebody is therefore a place where narratives are both made and unmade, where identities are stabilized, and destabilized, and where something tentative exists alongside the intractable stories of the strike and the conflict that are told here. While geology seems to shore up the conflict dynamic that exists on one hand, it unsettles it on the other.
And that’s something that should give a mediator pause. It’s a curiosity. Like a geological anomaly it’s a sign there may be something of value beneath the surface. There may be something worth metaphorically mining here.
Indeed, the further you travel down into the orebody the more evident this becomes. 750 metres below the troubled surface, there are no flags, no banners, no angry graffiti. Just the universal signaling system for the lift, the pipes and cables bringing power and air and a large poster advertising Rausch orange juice in the office where the miners get their instructions at the start of each shift. Apart from Me Fat Trepca Minetort (Good Luck Trepca Miners) sprayed in red on the wall, we could be under Cornwall.
And miners who worked here before the war, when this mine was mixed, describe how the ethnic identities that divided Albanians and Serbs on the surface fell away as they descended in the cage at the beginning of each shift, and how a deep friendliness and trust emerged between them underground. As one man said, “when you are inside the mine, ethnic groups don’t exist”. Instead they shared specific jokes, had certain conversations, treated each other in particular ways because they knew in an emergency it would be the person next to them who would help them, no matter who he was or where he was from. But this relationship didn’t surface with them at the end of the shift. Instead as another miner said ‘every conversation, every joke was left underground. When we got to the surface, we went our separate ways.
Deeply embedded in this orebody therefore are the echoes of the conversations and the jokes with colleagues who are no longer allowed to be in this mine, and nostalgia for the days when they were. What is buried here is the reminder that alternatives exist to how things are on the surface. That there are other possible ways of being. And – perhaps - another natural resource-related future than the one that seems inevitable.
John Paul Lederach is one of the most prominent voices in peacebuilding. He says you should look for the strategic where of peace. For Lederach, these are places where people who are different from each other, who are ‘not like minded’ and ‘not like situated’ cross and come together – riverways, markets, schools, hospitals, highways - because it is these places, the relationships they hold and the ways in which they influence these relationships that have potential for building peace. That’s partly because they engender interdependence. They throw people together in unexpected ways. They make us realize that while we may compete with other people, we rely on them too.
I think an orebody is a strategic where for peace. It has the capacity to hold together unusual relationships and it has the capacity to change them. It contains the seeds for positive social change. But an orebody is different from a riverway, a market, a school, a hospital, a highway. Unlike these places an orebody has its own geologicalstory to tell about what is happening here.
Marcia Bjornerud has written a book called ‘Timefulness. How Thinking like a Geologist can Help Save the World’ In it she writes that we have forgotten that our personal and cultural stories have always been embedded in larger, longer – and still elapsing – Earth stories. The stories the Albanian miners tell me of the strike, the conflict and of their hopes for peace are embedded in a geological story that is perhaps about a different kind of conflict, a different kind of peace and that invites a different way of thinking about what it means to live well with our natural resources.
For Bjornerud, thinking like a geologist means thinking about social change in a way that goes beyond the life of the human. It means thinking past the urgency of the ‘now’. It means thinking about the impact what we do now will have on the generations to come. What the orebody offers then is a place for reconsidering what it means to live well together not just now but far into the future – long after a mine has closed. I think this invites a longer, larger and more ecological kind of natural resource-based peacebuilding that doesn’t assume that peace will come through the prosperity that comes through mining but asks what kind of long-term future people can collectively imagine. What geo-social peace can they envisage? And how can natural resources help achieve it?
The miners at Stan Terg have a sense that they are uniquely positioned to instigate change. ‘The problems began here’ one tells me ‘So the solution can begin here too. The eyes of Kosovo are on us. The problem is we started to lose hope’.
But while natural resource-related peacebuilding might start with the miners at Stan Terg it doesn’t end with them. After all, the problem of how we live well together with our natural resources is global as well as local. We all have a story to tell about what a good life is, who it is for and how natural resources – in our laptops, our smartphones, our antidepressants, our wind turbines - can help us to achieve it. We all metaphorically cross and come together in an orebody. It’s a strategic where for all of us to consider what it means for people and the planet to live better lives together.
Top image credit: Isobel Fitzgibbon
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