In the late 19th century, when French colonialists were exploring the rich tin reserves of the Nam Phathaen valley in central Laos, they noticed the lively mining activities of the local population. To their frustration, Lao artisanal miners resisted being recruited as a regular workforce. Not only did agricultural subsistence absorb local labor for most of the year, complex mythologies and ritual taboos also prevented the villagers from engaging in year-round mining. The first part of this presentation investigates local livelihoods and labour relations before the emergence of industrial mining with a particular focus on the role of sociocosmological relations. The second part addresses the economic and social changes induced by the growth of the colonial mining economy and the corresponding migration movements. The French administration encouraged large-scale recruitment of Vietnamese migrant labor which significantly altered the social and demographic structures in the Lao tin mining region. Moreover, the growing mining sector produced new economic opportunities and, arguably, sociocultural changes, as well as environmental transformations that has affected local livelihoods until the present day.
The analysis of such diverse aspects of tin mining in colonial Laos targets the human-environment nexus of miner-peasants’ livelihoods. By including sociocosmological relations and shifting labor regimes, this case study sheds new light on the political ecology of past and present artisanal mining in Southeast Asia.