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Extractive Frontiers: Narratives and Discourses

Exploration, Storytelling and Frontier-Making in the Colombian Andes

Exploration, narration et création de frontières dans les Andes colombiennes
Exploración, narración y creación de fronteras en los Andes colombianos
Anneloes Hoff


This chapter shows how the speculative (pre-)lives and afterlives of resource extraction are put together through corporate narrative and imaginative practices. It shows that the expansion of extractive frontiers is not merely driven by abstract and asocial market forces, but that deeply social practices of storytelling and imagination are also vital for making mining exploration possible. Drawing on 15 months of fieldwork in Colombia, it discusses the spectacular narratives surrounding the exploration campaign of South African gold mining corporation AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) across the Colombian Andes. The chapter examines how corporate storytelling unfolds through corporate processes and individual narratives, and shows it to be integral to conjuring Colombia as the ‘last Andean frontier’ for gold exploration in the international investor’s imagination. Corporate narrative and performative practices were not only crucial to attracting and sustaining investor interest, but also served an important internal function in shaping the professional identity of exploration geologists and corporate identity more broadly. At the same time, the chapter shows that frontier expansion and the capitalisation of mineral finds are uneven and speculative processes, with room for alternative stories.

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The chapter is based on fieldwork funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC award no. ES/J500112/1). For valuable feedback on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Filipe Calvão, Matthew Archer, Asanda Benya, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Paul Gilbert, and two anonymous reviewers.

1. Introduction

1Minerals are critical for the transition to a post-carbon future. They are crucial for renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines, solar panels and batteries, which require significant amounts of copper, lithium, nickel, zinc, rare earths and other minerals (IEA, 2021; World Bank, 2020). The rising demand for these ‘transition minerals’ has led analysts to anticipate a ‘next mining boom’ (The Economist, 2022), in which the mineral requirements of meeting global carbon reduction targets will spur the search for new deposits, leading to a further expansion of mining frontiers into areas once considered too difficult or dangerous to invest in (Ali et al., 2017; Bebbington et al., 2018). Growing demand and rising commodity prices are a key part of what shapes and sustains the imperative for further mineral exploration and extraction. Yet to understand how such abstract and asocial market forces drive frontier expansion, we should be careful not to overlook the deeply social practices that enable them. In this chapter, I draw particular attention to the ways in which storytelling and imagination render mining exploration possible.

2In studying ‘the narrative and performative aspects of corporate practice’ (Rajak, 2011, 93), this chapter draws on and contributes to anthropological work on corporations that seeks to shed light on the social and moral practices and sentiments that animate them (Dolan and Rajak, 2016; Foster, 2017; Rajak, 2011a; Sawyer, 2018; Welker, 2014). Attention to the social dimensions of corporate practice is crucial for advancing a grounded understanding of the functioning of corporate capitalism. Furthermore, in attending to the performative nature of the processes through which geological substances in the subsurface are rendered into exploitable resource deposits, and territories are rendered into extractive frontiers, the chapter contributes to scholarship on the politics of geology, in particular work on ‘resource making’ (Kama, 2020; Richardson and Weszkalnys, 2014; Weszkalnys, 2015).

3This chapter focuses on the exploration campaign of AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) in Colombia during the early 2000s, and on the narratives surrounding this campaign at the time and afterwards. AGA is a South African transnational mining corporation listed on the Johannesburg, New York, Australian and Ghanaian stock exchanges, and one of the world’s leading gold producers. I draw on my ethnographic study of AGA in Colombia (Hoff, 2020), for which I conducted 15 months of fieldwork, in part ‘inside’ the company, and in part among members of an anti-mining movement that had formed in resistance to the company’s activities. In this chapter, I particularly draw on my fieldwork with the personnel of AGA’s so-called Greenfields department, the section of the company focused on the discovery of new deposits. This fieldwork involved informal conversations and semi-structured interviews with employees, most of which were exploration geologists of varying levels of seniority. In addition, I base my analysis on a large number of publicly available corporate presentations and industry-oriented publications. The dynamics of mining exploration described in this chapter are characteristic of greenfields exploration, which is the exploration of previously unexplored or underexplored terrain, as opposed to near-mine or ‘brownfields’ exploration. This process typically starts with a broad regional outlook and narrows down to smaller target areas on the basis of findings in previous stages. At the beginning of the process, the probability of success is low and the risk for investors very high. With each step, this risk decreases, though only a very small proportion of prospecting programmes—geologists typically speak of less than 1 or less than 0.1 per cent—eventually become mines. This type of exploration is most commonly carried out by ‘juniors’: smaller mining companies focused on resource speculation and exploration, rather than on extraction. If successful, juniors usually sell their discoveries to ‘majors’ for further development. For majors, working with juniors is a means of isolating or mitigating the substantial risks associated with greenfields exploration, financial as well as political, and of leveraging previous findings. Anthropological work on mining exploration has typically focused on juniors (Gilbert, 2020; Kneas, 2020; Tsing, 2005), and this chapter contributes a more unusual account, of a major’s approach to greenfields exploration.

4In the chapter, I examine the stories surrounding AGA’s greenfields campaign in Colombia to show how narrative, imaginative and performative practices are integral to the making of resources and mining frontiers, as well as that of corporate and professional identity in the extractive industries. In the first part, I focus on the ‘outward-oriented’ narratives that, I argue, helped conjure Colombia as the ‘last Andean frontier’ in corporate, shareholder and investor imagination. In the second part, I provide insight into ‘internal’ practices of storytelling in AGA’s Greenfields department, and show the importance of these practices to the self-understanding and identity of exploration geologists, as well as to corporate identity more broadly. In these different ways, the chapter elaborates how extractive activity is rendered possible through narrative and imagination. At the same time, it highlights that the capitalisation of exploration success is not a given, and that in the highly uneven and speculative process of frontier expansion (see Weszkalnys, 2015), alternative stories are also possible.

2. New Frontiers

  • 1 AGA in its current form was formed in 2004, when AngloGold, a subsidiary of the South African trans (...)

5At the turn of the millennium, AGA sought to expand its global portfolio.1 The price of gold and other minerals on the global market was on the rise, driven by the demand of China and India’s growing middle classes for gold jewellery, as well as gold’s appeal as a hedging investment at a time of global political uncertainty (see also Ferry, 2020). AGA’s reserves, however, were in decline, as were those of many of their industry peers (Danielson, 2005). In order to ensure it would be able to continue operating in the long term, therefore, the company sought to shift its focus away from its dwindling South African reserves to ‘new areas with potentially higher risk profiles’ (AGA, 2005, EP9). It developed a globe-spanning exploration programme, which it called its ‘New Frontiers’ strategy, targeting jurisdictions as diverse as the Philippines, Mongolia and the DRC (AGA, 2004).

6The term ‘New Frontiers’ invokes the idea of uncharted territory, ‘empty land’ awaiting discovery and development, reminiscent of Turner’s (1921) depiction of the nineteenth century American West as a wilderness to be colonised and civilised. Such an imagination of frontier lands often has an erasing effect, as critical scholarship on resource frontiers has noted: it strategically overlooks the presence of people with a long-standing relationship to the land and its subsoil minerals, a relationship that existed long before the entrance of new forms of exploration and exploitation (Luning, 2018). The frontier concept nevertheless continues to be widely used in mining scholarship, but in a ‘post-Turnerian’ way, to critically examine the changing territorial dynamics following the arrival of new forms of extraction (Rasmussen and Lund, 2018). In this chapter, I build on the idea that resource frontiers are not simply ‘out there’ to be discovered, but that they are actively ‘made’. As Mattias Rasmussen and Christian Lund put it, a frontier is ‘not space itself’, but rather ‘something that happens in and to space’ (2018, 388).

7Anna Tsing describes the frontier as a ‘zone of not yet’—‘an edge of space and time […] not yet mapped, not yet regulated’ (2005, 28). One such ‘zone of not yet’, which AGA’s ‘New Frontiers’ strategy targeted, was Colombia. In contrast to other Andean nations, it had not been explored with modern technology due to the protracted armed conflict that had plagued the country since the 1960s. An industry journal referred to Colombia as the ‘last Andean frontier’, which ‘in the international race by majors to replace their reserves […] represents a true elephant hunting opportunity’ (Global Business Reports, 2011, 80, 82). ‘Elephant’, here, is industry lingo for ‘major long-life orebodies with reserves of at least five million ounces’, the type of mineral deposits AGA’s exploration strategy targeted (AGA, 2005, EP9). In this chapter, I explore how Colombia came to be imagined as this ‘last Andean frontier’ for gold exploration.

8Anthropological work on exploration and speculation in the extractive industries highlights that narrative and imaginative practices play a crucial role in the making of extractive frontiers. Frontier-making, this scholarship reveals, is animated by the imagination of resource potential. In her analysis of oil exploration in São Tomé and Príncipe, Gisa Weszkalnys considers speculation about resource potential ‘an observation of potentiality’ through which exploration becomes possible (2015, 623). For a site to become a resource frontier, the possibility of future discovery must be made imaginable. Companies involved in exploration play a key role in marking out these ‘conceptual fields of space and time within which potential exists and exploration can occur’, as David Kneas notes in his analysis of copper exploration and the junior mining sector (2020, 277). While eventual mineral extraction depends on the actual resources present in the subsoil, what is most important during the exploration phase is not the material deposit, but the imagined one—the ‘articulation of resource potential rhetorically instead of empirically’ (Kneas, 2020, 277). This resonates with Tsing’s characterisation of frontiers as ‘both material and imaginative’ (2005, 29): the frontier brings together the materiality of the resource and the imagination of its potential.

9Mining exploration starts as a speculative enterprise, which requires significant investment before the presence of a mineral deposit can be reliably confirmed. To attract this investment, greenfields exploration programmes seem to need to emit an air of promise, opportunity and adventure. As Tsing puts it, ‘the possibility of economic performance must be conjured like a spirit to draw an audience of potential investors’ (2005, 57). Gold, in particular, seems to possess a ‘mythic power’ to inspire excitement and incite a ‘gold fever’ in investors (Ferry, 2020; Taussig, 2010; see also Weszkalnys, 2013). In her discussion of the Bre-X scandal, which involved a gold prospecting company fraudulently claiming an enormous gold find in Kalimantan (Indonesia), Tsing highlights the speculative drama the company cultivated around its (non-existent) discovery to attract investment for further exploration. Such ‘self-conscious making of a spectacle’, ‘a performance, a dramatic exposition of the possibilities of gold’, she argues, is ‘a necessary aid to gathering investment funds’, not only for a sham such as Bre-X, but also for non-fraudulent endeavours, as a ‘regular feature of the search for financial capital’ (Tsing, 2005, 57). The mining exploration industry thus involves what she calls an ‘economy of appearances’, in which dramatic performance serves as a prerequisite for economic performance. In Marieke de Goede’s words: ‘the magical storytelling of investment opportunities […] performatively constitutes “real” economic performance, in the form of measured international capital flows, investments, stock prices, etc.’ (2005, 8). While this is particularly true for junior mining companies, dependent as they are on the attraction of venture capital, in the following sections I show that the greenfields exploration programme of mining major AGA involved a similar generation of hype, which served to legitimise investment in high-risk exploration strategies and to entice investment in further exploration.

10Corporate meaning-making in the production of extractive frontiers involves the imagination not only of potential, but also of its counterpart: risk. Typically, companies and investors assess the risk of investing in a certain frontier territory on the basis of tools such as ‘political risk’ rankings and ratings. In his ethnographic account of London’s junior mining market, Paul Gilbert (2020) discusses the imaginative work that goes into the construction of such rankings and ratings. Rather than viewing them as purely calculative devices, he treats them as ‘technologies of the imagination’ (see also Bear, 2015; Sneath, Holbraad and Pedersen, 2009), and highlights their capacity to produce images of territories as stable or unstable in the investor’s imagination. For Gilbert such technologies ‘animate speculative activity oriented towards opening up new resource frontiers’ (Gilbert, 2020 18), and serve to attract and allocate capital to speculative projects. In the next sections, I draw on his insights to explore the role of corporate storytelling in the imagination of both potential and risk in Colombia.

3. País minero

11A team of AGA geologists first visited Colombia in early 1999 (AGA, 2016). At the time, only a handful of foreign gold mining companies were active in the country, all of them juniors. Even though no large-scale industry players were active, artisanal, small- and medium-scale gold mining was an important economic activity in Colombia, and has been throughout its history (Álvarez, 2016). In the country’s recent history, mining has played a significant role in fuelling Colombia’s armed conflict, as illegal gold mining and drug trafficking were the most important source of income for various illegal armed groups (Rettberg and Ortiz-Riomalo, 2016). This conflict had also prevented large corporations from entering the country.

12In November 1999, AGA established its first joint venture in Colombia, with US-based junior Conquistador Mines, which had been active in the country since 1996 (AngloGold, 1999). Working with juniors was a central aspect of AGA’s ‘New Frontiers’ strategy, enabling the company to share financial risk, leverage previous exploration findings made by junior companies, and attract experienced geologists previously employed by these juniors (AGA, 2004). AGA’s decision to become active in Colombia had industry-wide significance, as it diverged from the common practice of majors leaving the risk to juniors. It signalled to the wider international investment community that a reassessment of the perception of Colombia as a ‘no-go area’ might be warranted (see Harris, 2006a). As a director of Greystar Resources (now Eco Oro), another of the few juniors active in Colombia in the late 1990s, stated when AGA’s move to Colombia first became public: ‘[t]he fact that Anglo, the world’s largest gold miner, is prepared to put its money into Colombia sends a positive sign to the investment community at large. […] With more exploration there will be more investment, and more interest in the country’ (BN Americas, 1999). His statement calls attention to the important role the behaviour of industry peers plays in corporate risk assessment. In Colombia in 1999, the security situation on the ground had not changed substantially, and would in fact worsen over the next few years, but the fact that a mining major signalled that the country was stable enough to risk a major investment started to change the image of Colombia in international investors’ imagination, and placed the country more firmly on their radar.

13As early as in the second quarter of 2000, AGA reported to shareholders it had obtained ‘highly encouraging results’ in Colombia (AngloGold, 2000). Similar excitement speaks from a corporate report on an early field visit to the area in the department of Tolima where the company would later make its most significant discovery. It narrates how two North American AGA geologists gathered rocks along a creek near an old artisanal mine that was no longer operational, where they found several boulders that indicated the presence of another gold source further upstream. They were keen to continue following the creek, but Conquistador’s security guards, who accompanied them, urged them not to go any further (AGAC, 2008, 10). At the time, the guerilla movement FARC controlled the area, and North American white men gathering rocks in a remote rural area were likely to attract suspicion. They risked being kidnapped, as had indeed happened to personnel of Canadian junior Greystar Resources in another part of the country two years earlier (Harris, 2006a). The geologists would have to wait for over five years before they could visit the area further upstream.

14In the meantime, while the company still considered field visits too dangerous the Greenfields team prepared its Colombian exploration strategy on the basis of desk research, drawing on its initial field visits as well as geological information from the Colombian government and Canadian juniors. Even though the team had hardly been able to spend time on the ground, at the end of 2003 ‘the decision was made to focus the majority of the South American exploration budget on the “new frontier” of Colombia, given the interpreted high prospectivity of the country’ (Lodder et al., 2010, 23). AGA also moved its exploration office for the Americas from Lima to Bogotá (Harris, 2006b).

15Political and policy changes following the turn of the millennium were also of great significance to making Colombia imaginable as a mining frontier. During the 1990s, in the wake of the ‘Washington Consensus’, many Latin American countries reformed their mining legislation (Bury and Bebbington, 2013; Hogenboom, 2012). The current Colombian Mining Code (Law 685 of 2001) is a late product of this neo-liberal wave. It prioritised international investment through tax incentives and by opening the process of obtaining mining titles to foreign corporations (Echavarría, 2014; Vélez-Torres, 2014). In a newspaper interview on the subject of the legislative reform, the Minister of Mining argued that ‘if good mining conditions are not put in place soon, [Colombia] will no longer be competitive, and natural rivals, especially within the region, will attract the capital that Colombia will definitively lose’ (El Tiempo, 2000). His statements echoed the findings of a World Bank report, which concluded that in order to attract international investment Colombia needed to follow neighbouring countries and reform its mining legislation (World Bank, 1996, 7). Under the new mining law, the Colombian state remained the owner of the subsoil and its resources, but handed over control over production to the (international) private sector, while taking on the dual role of regulator as well as facilitator and promotor of extractive activity (UPME, 2006). Especially in this latter role, the state’s narrative and performative practices, in conjunction with those of companies such as AGA, were crucial to conjuring Colombia as a gold mining frontier.

16When AGA started its Colombian exploration campaign, Colombia had just elected a new president. Álvaro Uribe would be in power from 2002 to 2010. He sought to change Colombia’s image as a country plagued by narco-violence and guerilla kidnappings to that of a stable and attractive investment destination, in particular for mining corporations (UPME, 2006). Uribe implemented a conservative security policy aimed at weakening the FARC through a systematic, US-backed military counter-insurgency operation. The policy successfully weakened the FARC and, in the eyes of many Colombians, restored security and stability in many parts of the country. This increased stability, however, came at the expense of marginalised communities. Many vulnerable people, in particular from peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, fell victim to extrajudicial killings and forced displacement by the Colombian army and paramilitary groups (Isacson, 2010; Rojas, 2009).

17Uribe actively sought to present Colombia as a ‘país minero’ (‘mining country’) to international investors. To reassure investors, and mitigate the risk that the presence of armed groups constituted from an investor perspective, his government offered military protection to mining, oil, energy and construction companies—the industries most frequently targeted by guerilla groups (O’Connor and Bohórquez Montoya, 2010). Uribe also gave several performances aimed at the international mining investment community, which were crucial to making Colombia imaginable as an investment destination. In 2005, he gave a long speech at the ‘Feria Internacional Minera’, an internationally oriented mining conference in Medellín, telling investors how he sought to make Colombia ‘a country of great investment attraction, which will be fashionable not briefly, but for a long time’ (Uribe, 2005, authors translation). A Canadian newspaper noted how Uribe ‘wasn’t on the official conference program, but showed up to deliver a remarkable three-hour discourse, challenging delegates to tell him what needs to be done to make Colombia more attractive for miners’ (Harris, 2006a).

18The way the narrative on Colombia in the international investor community gradually started to shift is illustrated by international mining industry journals from this period. Articles from around 2005 to 2010 typically highlight the country’s great gold mining potential alongside an improving security situation for foreign miners, with headings such as ‘Colombia’s troubles pale next to golden opportunities’ (Harris, 2006a) or ‘Colombia’s untapped gold potential lures wary miners’ (Danielson, 2008). In an often spectacular tone, they talk about Colombia, a ‘country once dangerous from civil war’ and ‘a pariah for most mining investors’ (Harris, 2006a), now ‘rapidly becoming a sought-after destination for mining investment’ (Harris, 2007), and quote mining analysts speaking of it being ‘very probable that there exist large undiscovered reserves’ and ‘gigantic potential to develop gold mining activity’ (Harris, 2006b). In the words of Canadian industry journal The Northern Miner, ‘One of South America’s historically richest gold-producing nations appears poised to regain a crown that was stolen by years of endemic corruption, crime and warfare. Colombia is finally awakening from the social and political nightmare that robbed it of foreign direct investment for the last many decades’ (Vaccaro, 2009). The interest Colombia was generating was, for instance, clear at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference in 2007, one of the largest international mining exploration conferences, where a presentation on Colombia was ‘standing room only’ (Hoffman, 2007). According to a Canadian embassy representative, ‘Colombia is the poster child of the mining world and people are excited to come and work here now’ (quoted in Harris, 2007).

19A further indication of the shift in the way investors imagined Colombia was the country’s inclusion in the Fraser Institute’s Annual Survey of Mining Companies in 2006. This survey ranks a selection of countries based on their ‘attractiveness’ in terms of geological potential and regulatory framework, based on the perceptions of industry professionals, and plays a significant role in making new ‘frontier territories’ legible to international investors (Gilbert, 2020). Colombia did not rank highly, according to the survey likely due to ‘years of turmoil and bad publicity’ (Fraser Institute, 2007, 6), although it topped its regional competitors Venezuela and Bolivia. One of the analysts leading the survey commented that he was ‘personally not sure whether this reflects today’s situation, or whether miners with memories of the recent past are not aware of the very great improvements that have taken place in Colombia’ (McMahon in Hill, 2010). Even so, the fact that Colombia was considered of sufficient interest to be included in itself indicates a significant shift in the investor imagination.

4. Mining Title Bonanza

20The reform of the Mining Code, combined with the growing interest in Colombia, led to a strong surge in applications for mining titles—the concessions through which the state gives a person or company the right to explore the subsoil of a certain area. The state agency in charge of granting and controlling these titles at the time was the Colombian Geology and Mining Institute, Ingeominas. Before 2001, Ingeominas granted 80 to 100 mining permits per year. Under the Uribe Administration, it granted 7,869 mining titles in a period of eight years, thereby increasing the number of hectares of land under mining concession from 1.13 million to 8.53 million (Osorio, 2010). Colombian media referred to this fast-paced process of title applications, and the speculation that ensued, as the ‘mining titles bazaar’ (feria de títulos mineros).

21As the first mining major to invest in Colombia, and aided by the timing of the legislative reform, AGA was in an ideal position to stake its claim for mining titles. It referred to this position as its ‘first mover advantage’. In what an industry publication called a ‘blitzkrieg staking program’ (Harris, 2006b), AGA applied for a very large number of titles. Exact figures are unclear, but according to a 2007 corporate report, AGA applied for an area covering 13 million hectares, which it reduced to 3.7 million hectares after initial exploration activities (AGA, 2008, 2). An article by the lead geologists involved speaks of systematic reconnaissance exploration ‘covering about 10.5 million hectares’ (Lodder et al., 2010, 19).

22AGA obtained its titles through a complex web of tax haven–based holding companies and Colombia-based subsidiaries, as well as separate subsidiaries created for joint ventures with other mining companies, which together provided the capital needed for its exploration activities in Colombia. From 2003, it operated through a Colombian subsidiary called Sociedad Kedahda, in 2007 renamed AngloGold Ashanti Colombia. Critics claim that AGA used a different name ‘to acquire a large number of mining concessions throughout the country, while keeping a low profile’, as the name of a well-known multinational would attract more societal scrutiny (Colombia Solidarity Campaign, 2013, 32). The company denied that it used a different name ‘to operate in secret’ (AGAC, 2013), although elsewhere, in a more general sense, it recognised that ‘we went through a phase with a lot of silence, in which we sent the message that the project was secret. The reason we did not speak was that the information [on AGA’s discoveries] was still very preliminary, not because it was confidential’ (Celedón, 2014, author’s translation).

23At the time of my fieldwork, which took place around 15 years later, the exceptionally large area to which AGA had access for exploration continued to inspire stories about AGA’s dominant position during its early days in Colombia. Greenfields employees, for instance, described the early exploration years to me as a time when AGA employed ‘almost all field geologists in Colombia’ to conduct a systematic exploration across the Colombian Andes. A corporate report speaks of ‘employing as many as 127 field geologists at a time’ (Lodder et al., 2010, 23), and an industry journal from this period notes with fascination how, ‘[h]aving taken a huge land position in Colombia’, AGA was ‘in the process of turning over every rock in the country’ (Harris, 2006c). ‘When we first came to Colombia’, a senior geologist told me, ‘they just had this new legislation for staking land. What we did was basically stake the whole country.’ The idea that Colombia was ‘AGA’s for the taking’ was also echoed by Tim Coughlin, AGA’s former chief geologist for South America, in an interview with a mining news website:

We walked into the old licensing department, and people thought we were crazy. ‘Where did you guys come from? People don’t invest in our country.’ We had the place to ourselves, it was ludicrous. There were immeasurable amounts of opportunity and resources all over the place. (Kwantes and Humphreys, 2015)

24In its communications to investors and shareholders, AGA frequently prided itself on its ‘first mover’ position and the mining titles it was able to acquire as a result. ‘AGA will continue to push its first-mover advantage and dominant land position, particularly as major competitors realise the potential of Colombia, which has not seen a major gold mine development for decades’, the multinational’s 2010 annual report states (AGA, 2011, 131).

25Within the wider international mining community, ‘AGA’s bullish entry’ (Harris, 2006b) was generally regarded with admiration. Clive Johnson, the CEO of B2Gold, one of AGA’s joint-venture partners in Colombia, commented in an industry journal:

AngloGold did a very bold thing by going into Colombia several years ago, when it was still a very dangerous place. They were able to tie up so much ground because many other companies feared to tread there. I tip my hat to them for that. (Global Business Reports, 2011, 91)

26The quote further illustrates how, in the ‘first mover’ narrative of boldness and bravado that surrounds AGA’s entry into Colombia, even the company’s decision to enter the country during a particularly violent period of internal armed conflict was regarded with admiration rather than reservation. Rather than questioning the ethical and political sensitivity of AGA’s decision, industry peers seemed to admire exactly this ostensible ruthlessness regarding the political and security implications of its arrival. An analyst’s note written two decades after AGA’s move to Colombia still reflects this sentiment:

AGA […] came in in the early 2000’s and staked all the good bits, this even as the war was in full swing [and] bombs were going off in Bogotá. The people at the mine office thought the Anglo people were crazy, which might not have been too far from the truth. (Pollitt, 2020, 7)

27AGA’s own public narrative about its decision to start exploring during the conflict did not highlight this ‘boldness’, but framed it, in a seemingly politically naive way, as a contribution to greater stability in the region:

Given the internal conflict in Colombia, AGA was well aware of the risks it faced when it entered Colombia. […] Our objective is to find viable projects in Colombia, projects that can be developed into mines which will form an economic hub in the areas where they are situated. It is our hope that this will lead to other commercial ventures being established, bringing greater stability and improved living standards to the communities concerned. (AGA, 2008, 2)

28Nevertheless, AGA’s sweeping entry also had a flip side, as my conversations with AGA officials made clear. Many employees I spoke to retrospectively saw the mass accumulation of mining titles as a strategic mistake. They considered that it had reinforced the public image of the ‘voracious multinational’, strengthening anti-mining sentiments that continue to hinder the company’s activities in Colombia to this day. In the words of a senior geologist, ‘Lots of mining titles are worth absolutely nothing when you don’t have access to the land’.

5. Speculation and Superlatives

29In 2006, the Greenfields team returned to the area where, as I described earlier, AGA geologists had previously found indications of a mineral source but had not been able to continue their fieldwork due to security concerns. In its report on the second quarter of 2007, the company started to make cautiously optimistic announcements about its find, named ‘La Colosa’, calling its interim drilling results ‘encouraging’ (AGA, 2007). La Colosa would become AGA’s most important discovery in Colombia.

30While AGA executives spoke to investors about their drilling results, only very few locals living near the company’s exploration site were aware of the activities taking place in the steep mountains surrounding their town, Cajamarca. This changed in December 2007, when not AGA but the national newspaper El Tiempo announced the discovery to the Colombian public with an article entitled ‘Gold reserve that would be among the ten biggest in the world, discovered in Cajamarca (Tolima)’. According to the article, a South African multinational, AGA, had discovered ‘a supremely large deposit’, which it had announced to President Uribe and the Minister of Mining in a private meeting. AGA executives had asked Uribe to keep the information confidential, but ‘he could not resist the urge to talk about the discovery, and said that the deposit would require investments of over two billion dollars’ (El Tiempo, 2007). The company confirmed the ‘supreme’ size of the La Colosa deposit several months later. The first resource estimate it released, in May 2008, estimated the deposit held 12.9 million ounces of gold (AGA, 2008b). This more than doubled the estimated resources of its greenfields portfolio at the time. AGA’s Colombian discovery made waves on a global scale, as its share price on the New York Stock Exchange peaked following the company’s declaration (see AGA, 2011, 7). Over the following years the company would continue to announce higher and higher estimates. In 2012, when the company almost doubled its initial estimate to 24 million ounces, an excited analyst commented:

La Colosa, AGA’s flagship project in Tolima, has gone from big to huge. […] The size of the gold resource is astonishing: less than 2% of gold projects have a resource of over 10 Moz Au [million ounces of gold], and La Colosa has now grown to become one of the most important gold projects in the world, and the most important discovery in recent times, making it by far Colombia’s largest and most important gold project. (Colombia Gold Letter, 2012)

31The size of the deposit would eventually be estimated at over 28 million ounces (AGA, 2021), making La Colosa a key symbol of AGA’s conquest of the ‘new frontier’.

32AGA executives frequently presented their exploration activities in Colombia at large international mining industry conferences. These conferences gather large numbers of mining companies, investors and analysts, and constitute an important place for the creation and promotion of industry narratives. This makes them a key venue for corporate storytelling. The presentations companies give at these conferences may be seen as ritualised performances that serve to attract mining investment and sustain investor confidence (see also Rajak, 2011b). AGA’s presentations on Colombia typically figure slides with a map of the country, on which the company’s large ‘area of interest’ is marked out, visualising the company’s territorial dominance by showing its widespread presence across the Western and Central Cordillera of the Colombian Andes (see, e.g., AGA, 2006; AGA, 2012a). Other common elements in these conference presentations are an emphasis on the company’s ‘first mover advantage’ and its resulting ‘strong position in the world’s most prospective new gold district’ (AGA 2012a). La Colosa in particular is often discussed in superlative terms, for instance as ‘the most significant new gold discovery of the current era’ (AGA, 2009), or ‘a global tier-one deposit […] a large world-class gold resource [that is] getting bigger, and is only the tip of the iceberg given a wealth of targets in Colombia’ (AGA, 2012b). AGA’s presentations at industry conferences illustrate how, through spectacular language and visuals, the company fostered a dramatic narrative of conquest and discovery to entice investors and sustain its high-risk greenfields strategy in Colombia.

6. Greenfields Mythologising

33AGA’s narrative practices were not only directed towards investors and shareholders, but also played a vital role inside the company, especially for the Greenfields department. As I have already discussed, during my fieldwork inside the company Greenfields employees recounted legends of the early days of AGA’s greenfields exploration campaign in Colombia. This was striking, as most of these employees had not personally been involved in the heyday of this campaign, which perhaps made this period seem all the more mythical to them. In this section, I discuss two aspects of this internal ‘corporate mythologizing’ (Rajak, 2014, 259): the myth-making among Greenfields employees around large discoveries, and the internal narratives on what it means to be an exploration geologist. Both are integral to shaping corporate and professional identity.

34Discovering a deposit viable for exploitation is what makes or breaks the career of an exploration geologist. This makes the fact that AGA’s exploration team made three discoveries that could be developed into mining projects all the more exceptional. In addition to La Colosa, the team made two smaller but substantial discoveries: Gramalote, in 2007, and the more recent find of Nuevo Chaquiro or Quebradona, in 2014. On its web page on exploration, AGA proudly cites a report that recognises the AGA Greenfields team as the world’s most successful, with ‘a proven track record that includes the discovery of world-class ore bodies in Colombia at La Colosa, Gramalote and Nuevo Chaquiro’ (AGA, n.d.), showing the great relevance of the Colombian discoveries to the business at the global level.

35Large greenfields discoveries lend themselves well to mythologising. Geologists who have been involved in important discoveries typically develop a ‘discovery history’, which they disseminate in geological publications (for La Colosa, see, e.g., Lodder et al., 2010), and at exploration-focused industry conferences. Some of these events even specifically focus on storytelling, by gathering geologists who have been involved in recent discoveries to tell the exploration community about their discovery process. An example is the Australian ‘NewGenGold’ conference, which promotes itself as ‘consistently featur[ing] the case histories of most of the world’s more important gold discoveries’ (NewGenGold, n.d.). The importance of these discovery histories shows how corporate mythologising is not only integral to attracting investment at the stage when a discovery is no more than a promise, but is a key part of the business of mining exploration in a broader sense. Stories of successful discovery contribute to sustaining the quest for new frontiers by making exploration success tangible.

36Inside AGA’s Greenfields department in Colombia, its discoveries were also the object of extensive myth-making, and employees avidly told and retold these tall tales among themselves. One such greenfields legend concerned the name ‘La Colosa’. Mining projects are traditionally named by exploration geologists after a landmark in the area of discovery, such as the name of a creek, estate, or mountain. This also appears to be the case for La Colosa, which is named after the creek from which the first rock samples were collected. Was it a coincidence that this ‘colossal’ discovery was made in a creek with such a fitting name? According to a greenfields legend I was told by various employees, it was not in fact the discovery that was named after the creek, but the creek that was named after the discovery. This story revolves around a Colombian geologist who was part of the exploration team that returned to Cajamarca in 2006 to take further samples, whom I will refer to using the pseudonym Santi(ago). A Greenfields employee told me (interview, 2 May 2017):

Santiago has an exceptional instinct. He is un terco [someone stubborn] but knows when something is worth going after. In Cajamarca, he could tell from the first rocks they analysed that they were after something gigantic. Did you know that they say that he was the one who gave the creek where they were prospecting the name of La Colosa? They were using an old map of the region, on which the name of the creek was not legible. All they could make out was ‘La Col…’. Santi felt that they were after something colossal, so he took a pen, and changed the name of the creek on the map by scribbling ‘La Col.-osa’. Since then, everyone has called the creek La Colosa.

37The story is a true tale of conquest, in which the gifted exploration geologist not only discovers the deposit, but, in an ultimate act of appropriation, even renames the creek where he made the discovery. According to an article by the geologists involved in the La Colosa discovery, the creek was originally named ‘La Cólogan’, ‘later renamed by AngloGold Ashanti La Colosa Creek’ (Lodder et al., 2010, 26).

38AGA’s more recent greenfields discovery in Colombia, ‘Nuevo Chaquiro’, was also the subject of many stories I was told by Greenfields employees, as many workers employed at the time of my fieldwork had been involved in this find. The discovery had been much anticipated, as it had come after several years of unsatisfactory drilling work, and was referred to by Greenfields employees as ‘the miracle of Quebradona’ (interview, 2 May 2017):

We had been exploring for several years but did not find anything significant. The process was coming to a close and we knew that eventually, we all would lose our jobs. The envelopes with our termination letters were ready, so to say. One afternoon, the Australian lead geologist came into the office, and said, ‘Everyone, stop what you are doing, I have a big announcement to make’. We all thought, there it is, we are all getting sacked. But he said, ‘Let’s go out, we’re going to celebrate. We have made an important discovery!’

39In this story, again, Santi is a heroic character:

The company had been on the brink of shutting down the project for a while, but Santi had insisted that there was something there. He managed to convince the company to start one last round of drilling to a deeper level than had previously been performed in Colombia: over one kilometre deep. It turned out that all this time, we simply had not gone deep enough. The deposit had been there all along, but it was covered under a thick layer of rock without mineralization, and we had to drill deeper to get to the mineral.

40As the heroic stories about Santi show, among the Greenfields personnel, exploration geologists who were considered responsible for key discoveries were elevated to the rank of almost mythical figures. Another revered geologist was AGA Colombia’s first president, who had played a leading role in the La Colosa discovery. The geologist who led the exploration team in Colombia at the time of my fieldwork, for instance, looked up to him as a ‘very inventive geologist’, who had ‘convinced Anglo to go to Colombia’. Interestingly, whereas modern mining exploration involves complex scientific procedures and the use of advanced technologies, the mythology around individual ‘hero’ geologists centres on their instinctive ability to sense opportunity and their audacity in pursuing these intuitions. These epic stories maintain the age-old image of greenfields exploration as a magical process of gold seeking, in which intuition and boldness are eventually rewarded.

41The stories told and retold among Greenfields personnel are central to shaping a distinct ‘greenfields identity’. Amid engineers, managers, lawyers and other bureaucrats, they allowed exploration geologists to think of themselves as the bold pioneers who venture into remote mountain areas to look for gold. A senior Greenfields manager described exploration geologists to me as ‘the adventurous types […] who dare to get on a plane and go to a country they don’t know, even if there is a war’. The performance of this greenfields identity extended beyond stories to the way Greenfields personnel presented themselves. In the Bogotá office, for instance, they walked around in sturdy mountain boots, in sharp contrast to the smart business attire worn by most of their colleagues from other departments. The Greenfields desks were also easily recognisable in the open plan office space, as Greenfields employees typically decorated their desks with mineralised rocks and fragments of drilling samples―greenfields symbols in an otherwise corporate space. Thus, narrative and performance were key to shaping greenfields identity.

42Notably, these greenfields stories are also deeply gendered. They involve a celebration of particularly ‘male’ qualities, such as being bold and unabashed, and are typically centred around a male hero figure. In contrast, the greenfields vernacular uses terms of a female origin to describe the pristine character of greenfields discoveries. Greenfields finds are, for instance, referred to as ‘virgin’ discoveries (e.g., AGA, 2011, 45), and the initial resource estimate a company releases after discovery the ‘maiden resource’ (e.g., AGA, 2014). This way, the ‘greenfields identity’ shaped through corporate storytelling is a gendered identity.

43The gendered identity of the exploration geologist was also reflected in the gender distribution of the Greenfields department, which employed very few women, most of whom worked in social roles, for instance as community liaisons, rather than in geology. At the time of my fieldwork, the department did have one female geologist, whom I will call Adriana. When she was not on field trips, she worked in the Bogotá office, where I got to know her. Whereas most women in the office dressed in a more stereotypically feminine way, Adriana had bright pink hair and a tomboyish style. When I asked her what it was like to work as the only woman on the team, she told me, ‘I already don’t notice it anymore. In my team, there is not much machismo. When you work together, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, I don’t feel it.’ It seemed to me that Adriana’s way of dealing with the male dominance of the Greenfields department was by conforming to the greenfields identity of being cool, bold and adventurous, downplaying her femininity in the way she presented herself, in the way she talked, and seemingly even in the way she thought about this. This involved a constant tension between her ignoring or even ‘undoing’ gender difference, and acting and speaking in particularly gendered ways (see also Smith, 2014, chapter 5).

44Greenfields identity was not only shaped from the inside, but also by other actors in the company, outside the Greenfields department. While they shared the reverence for geologists who had made important discoveries, other employees tended to highlight the cowboy reputation of these geologists. A former manager of government relations, for instance, described Lodder to me as ‘brilliant’ but ‘un bruto’ (a rogue) because ‘he went to very dangerous parts of the country without any form of protocol’ (see Welker (2014, 47) for a similar narrative on greenfields geologists by Newmont’s CSR personnel). The executive talked to me at length about how he saw ‘the greenfields geologist’, whom he found difficult to manage and spoke of as if he were discussing an exotic species: ‘a greenfields geologist is, by nature, independent, and does not want to be restricted by too many limits. To be successful, he needs to be as flexible and quick as possible’. Another manager described greenfields geologists as ‘very keen on maintaining their independence’, and had found that they tended to resist managers who attempted to impose rules and protocols. Greenfields geologists themselves saw such characterisations as a misunderstanding of what greenfields exploration really involves, and argued that colleagues who criticised the ‘greenfields way of working’ had not properly understood that ‘the skills explorationists need to have are to be agile, flexible, adaptive’. These various and sometimes incompatible stories from inside and outside the Greenfields department shaped the understanding people inside the company had of greenfields identity, which formed a controversial but essential part of the company. This identity, in turn, corresponded to the company’s image in the wider sector as a bold, visionary and at times perhaps reckless greenfields explorer.

7. Suspended Capitalisation and Alternative Stories

45In this chapter, I have argued that the study of extractive frontier expansion requires attention to narrative, imagination and performance, as this allows us to see how seemingly abstract market dynamics are embedded in, and enabled by, deeply social practices. AGA’s exploration campaign in Colombia illustrates how storytelling and imagination were key to making mining exploration possible. This chapter has illustrated how Colombia was actively conjured as the ‘last Andean frontier’ for gold exploration in the corporate, shareholder, and investor imaginations through narrative and performative practices, by both state and industry. To AGA specifically, this imagination of Colombia’s subsurface potential and the generation of hype around it were key to attracting the investment required for its extensive exploration campaign, which yielded important mineral discoveries.

46Yet the case of AGA in Colombia also crucially illustrates the other side of this argument: storytelling is crucial for advancing mining exploration and exploitation, but alternative stories to extractive frontier expansion are also possible. The spectacular narratives I have discussed in this chapter did not go uncontested, but competed with other imaginations for the country’s future. AGA’s performance of greenfields bravado on the one hand earned the company a competitive advantage as ‘first mover’ and admiration from industry peers, but the hype it generated around its exploration campaign also exposed the company to intense public scrutiny from an early stage. This turned La Colosa into a flagship project not only for AGA and the Uribe Administration, but also for a growing anti-mining movement of concerned peasants, national and local politicians, and environmental activists in alliance with international NGOs.

47The opposition to La Colosa continues to be one of the most prominent cases of mining resistance in the country. In March 2017, a coalition of anti-mining groups successfully organised a municipal referendum to ban mining in Cajamarca, the town where the project is located (BBC Mundo, 2017). A month later, AGA decided to indefinitely suspend the project, citing uncertainty in the permitting process as well as the result of the anti-mining vote (AGAC, 2017). The project remains suspended to this day. At its other projects in Colombia, the company also continues to struggle to obtain the environmental licences and permits it needs to advance into the exploitation phase (Jamasmie, 2022). This illustrates how the capitalisation of subsurface resource potential, the transformation of a discovery into an extractive operation, is not a given, even after a deposit has been found.

48Narrative, imaginative and performative practices are integral to the making of resources and extractive frontiers. While these practices are interconnected with a mining project’s viability, they do not necessarily or straightforwardly enable the actual realisation of a mining operation. Whether or not extractive frontier expansion materialises is the result of an uneven and speculative process involving (temporary) deferrals and disruptions, competing anticipations of financial gain and environmental damage, and a complex interaction of geological substances with the imaginations of geologists and financiers, assessments of financial, environmental and political risk, legal arrangements and volatile commodity prices. As Gisa Weszkalnys characterises it, the process through which resources and frontiers are made is ‘simultaneously ethically charged, materially grounded, and temporally extended into an uncertain future’ (2015, 633). In Colombia, stories and imaginations alternative to an extractive future are central to a polarised public debate on whether and in what way there is a place for large-scale mining in the country’s future, reinvigorated by the growing demand for transition minerals, on the one hand (ANM, 2021), and the election of an outspoken opponent of the extractive industries as president, on the other. Whether or not Colombia will indeed turn out to be the last Andean frontier for industrial gold mining is a story still being written.

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1 AGA in its current form was formed in 2004, when AngloGold, a subsidiary of the South African transnational corporation Anglo American, merged with Ashanti Goldfields Corporation, a company partially owned and largely controlled by the Ghanaian government. For clarity, I use the name AGA throughout this chapter, but events I describe prior to the 2004 merger concern AngloGold, which was the part of AGA that first became active in Colombia.

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Anneloes Hoff, Exploration, Storytelling and Frontier-Making in the Colombian AndesInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 15.1 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 06 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Anneloes Hoff

Anneloes Hoff is an anthropologist with over six years of experience researching corporate social responsibility in the mining sector, with a focus on Colombia and the polarised dynamics between mining corporations and anti-mining movements. She is broadly interested in the ways corporations engage with new movements, discourses, and norms of corporate responsibility, in particular the business and human rights movement. Her contribution to this thematic volume is based on research she conducted for her doctoral studies at the University of Oxford (UK).

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