Heap of Stones, Cavity in Earth

Heap of Stones, Cavity in Earth

By Christopher Alton

Last night, I left the seaside town of Arbatax in the province of Nuoro after spending much of the past week crisscrossing the island in a rented car. The serpentine drive from Arbatax to Barumini, where I find myself today, cuts through highland sections of dolomite limestone, sandstone, granite, schist, and basalt formations with dramatic changes in elevation. I am now back in the interior of Sardinia, where the June sun hangs overhead like a heat lamp and the coast feels a world away. I am here to visit Su Nuraxi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a settlement from the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization. With over 7,000 archeological sites uncovered, these distinctive settlements symbolize the resilience of Sardinian habitation after waves of conquest and colonization by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, the House of Savoy, and the Italian Republic. Contrary to the Orientalist image of Sardinia popularized by D.H. Lawrence, who once wrote, “it is a strange, strange landscape: as if here the world left off,” (1) the outside world has long targeted Sardinia for its rich geology and strategic position in the Mediterranean. First inhabited between the thirteenth and sixth centuries BCE, this settlement predates these invasions, and in its stone we can read a suitable metaphor for the persistence of human habitation. But despite this afternoon’s sightseeing, my time in Sardinia concerns a much more recent influx of foreign interests.

In 1997, gold mining began at four open-pit sites in the hills overlooking the town of Furtei, 18 km south of Barumini. Initially and briefly owned by an Australian firm, Canada-based Sargold Inc. soon took over mining operations in what was an unsatisfactory tenure. The mine consistently yielded lower returns than promised and losses of $5 million in 2008 brought an end to the venture, at this point as part of a consortium with Vancouver’s Buffalo Gold Inc. The Canadians abandoned Furtei, leaving behind tailings, sometimes described as “Cyanide Beach,” (2) perched at the head of a major watershed. As part of the team for the Canadian pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture, I am in Sardinia coordinating with local authorities to feature this site in the exhibition, investigating the global scope of Canadian mining and the deeply social, material, and urban nature of resource extraction. Given the increasing attention on Canadian mining operations, from the standpoint of Canadian design, the initiative is twofold: to describe the complex and deeply historic struggles surrounding the Canadian state and mining, and to explore multiple means of representing these spatial processes themselves as urban processes.

Image 1: Dunnage bags of gold ore from Furtei, Canadian Pavilion, 2016. Photograph by Zannah Matson

While supported by the regional ministry and a Cagliari-based transport firm, the safe removal and shipment of ore is logistically challenging and requires carriage via truck to ship, ship to barge, barge to forklift, and forklift, finally, to pavilion (see Image 1). The ore clumps together when moist, oxidized, rust coloured, and staining. When it dries, it crumbles to a finer consistency. In these states the composition of unprocessed ore feels extremely distant from the consumer products it generates, just as the open pit from which it is dug is detached from the cities where we live, work, and play. Bringing such materiality to the heart of Venice’s Giardini, to the centre of the architectural world, fuses two ends of our living world too often held in abstraction. 

Demonstrating the integral relationship between urban life and extractive processes remains under-theorized and under-represented within architecture, urbanism, and design. Given that Canadian legal, administrative, and cultural life is deeply indebted to mineral extraction, Canadian mining is often set within a discourse of extractive imperialism that considers no geography too precious to be commoditized. Using the materiality of the ore itself as an installation in Venice, the story of Furtei—and thousands of sites like it—encourages a revisitation of what constitutes a “Canadian” landscape and challenges orthodox concepts within urban studies in Canada.

The gold mine in Furtei is one of only a handful in Western Europe. At the highest point of the concession, one looks over the Campidano plain and the towns of Furtei and Sanluri (see Image 2). Now, rock trucks sit idle and cattle graze freely nearby. After the short period of gold extraction in Furtei, the environmental aftermath now registers in geological time: this period of gold mining has generated long-term, demanding consequences on the regional environment. The productivity of these hills as farmland and the health of the watershed are now threatened. Together with the stranded ore pile, the oxidized pits of red and yellow stain the rock face and the tailings pond sits precariously atop the watershed. The result is an image of the industrial sublime that may fit comfortably alongside any contemporary landscape representation, now that Edward Burtynsky is as synonymous with Canadian identity as the Group of Seven. Of the former, the University of Toronto’s Emily Gilbert suggests:

…[These images] open wilderness narratives to questions regarding the impact of technological change on the landscape. In so doing, they provide an alternative axis for considering the landscape–identity nexus at the heart of constructions of Canadian identity. Instead of glorifying wilderness locations, these works demand that the relationship between nature and technology be interrogated, and the importance of nature to human survival be reconsidered. (3)

Image 2: Pit, Furtei, & the Campidano Plain, 2016. Photograph by Christopher Alton

A nostalgic wilderness myth can be put to rest once we recalculate and represent environmental complexity and the human engineering of our world. As physical extensions of Canadian foreign policy, these types of landscapes exist equally in Honduras, Tanzania, Val d’Or, and Athabasca. As urbanists, traditionally engaged in issues of site and place, we are positioned to reconcile the global and financial scales of intervention. And yet, these issues must first be acknowledged by architecture and urbanism as sites worthy of intervention (see Image 3).


“Mineral-Driven Conquistadors”

"The gold mines of Furtei were a way to get to the stock market.”

—Furtei Mayor Luciano Cau, Cyanide Beach, 2012. (4)

As two ends of the hinterland–heartland relationship that have long motivated the spatialization of Canadian territories, the regional composition of staple production has been extended to the global scale. As well, through the erasure of local ways of knowing, these extraction projects become a mode and a method of development that has roots in the settler-colonial project. The mine, with its particular settlement form and landscape aesthetic, is born as well from financial speculation. Understanding mining as a constituting urban life implicates both the mineral deposits underground and a trading floor many thousands of kilometers away. 

The site at Furtei exemplifies the complex struggle to retain and assert autonomy over a geography impacted by waves of invasion and cultural exchange for centuries—only in this case, control is exacted through the supremacy of the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). With 75% of the world’s mining operations based in Canada, most of which are financed through the TSX (5), the story of Furtei—and thousands of sites like it—are emblematic of a Canadian economic strategy that exhibits a global mode of resource urbanism and landscape production. Development has been “driven by stock-market speculation” (6) throughout Canada’s history and resource exploitation abroad represents a rescaling by corporate Canada, carried out by firms including Sargold Inc. and Buffalo Gold Inc. Increasingly, scholars (7) are describing Canadian mining interests as presaging foreign policy, as a model of resource imperialism disguised as development. (8) Political Scientists Todd Gordon and Jeffrey R. Webber have written of the symbiotic relationship between Canadian mining companies and the state, placing their critique within an imperialist framework, mechanized by dispossession:

The activities of Canadian mining companies and the Canadian state—the latter typically defending the former—must therefore be analyzed within the broader dynamics of global capitalism and, in particular, the relations between countries of the global North and those of the global South. (9)

At this scale of global mining and development, hinterlands are operationalized and new, marginal geographies are brought into the imperial orbit of Toronto, a city whose material wealth is founded on the exploitation of minerals and communities, and the metabolism of resources and societies.

Alain Denault and William Sacher’s 2012 book Canada Inc: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries is a comprehensive review of this legal and administrative dynamic. The epicentre of Canadian mining is Toronto’s Bay Street, where its promotion and protection is facilitated. The city is aided by the the government of Ontario and the federal government, making it the “nerve centre” of the global extractive industry. Denault and Sacher describe Toronto, with its “corporate lawyers and academic apologists, geologists and geological instrument manufacturers, bankers, brokers, and financial advisers,” (10) as an entire culture and climate that promotes exploitation overseas. At the global scale of extraction, Toronto is the twenty-first century’s major metropole. Importantly, this climate of resource speculation mirrors Canadian confederation, a conflation of speculation and legislation that continues to this day. The legal and political backing that exists has made Canada the “springboard” of an industry “that has always remained colonial in its conceptions of economic activity and profit making.” (11)

This imperialist Canadian global mining culture is “seen outside of bounded territorial definitions,” where Canada operates as “an independent actor within a broader imperial network” exercising power by flexing its industry know-how around the world. (12) While primarily located in the Global South, with Latin America representing the majority of Canadian foreign direct investment, there are now few corners of the earth that the TSX has not penetrated. Canada’s role as an imperial power is independent from American interests, with its own class of capital that competes with American power. (13) As described by David Harvey, (14) “New Imperialism” relies on neoliberal institutions in support of industry. In Canada’s case, this functions primarily through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and a corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy that pairs mining companies with NGOs to promote development and trade. Queen’s University’s Alexandra Pedersen has described this Canadian economic environment fittingly as a return of the “mineral-driven conquistadors.” (15)

At home, the extractivist project of Canadian settler-colonialism continues along with the attempted elimination and assimilation of Indigenous peoples and lands, perpetuating the mythology of an empty and vast Canadian wilderness. The historic erasure by settler society of people and their stories of resistance enables its continuation. Now a major national export, a similar logic and strategy of erasure is maintained by the Canadian mining industry whereby communities are abstracted, becoming places beholden to fluid financialization. After 2008, even though financing for Furtei fell through, Sargold’s board of directors dissolved only to be resuscitated under a different corporate banner: Augusta Resources. Predictably, another local population will soon see its hillsides turned into the ponds and pits of a speculation landscape alongside the erasure of local stories and the erection of new frontier myths.

Image 3: Tailings Pond, Furtei, 2016. Photograph by Christopher Alton


“A Territorial Version of the Town-Country Relationship” 

Was a similar erasure required here in Furtei when gold mining arrived? Are these patterns present even in this corner of Europe? In her ethnography Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism, Tracey Heatherington describes a socio-cultural milieu that replicates postcolonial processes where Sardinian Indigeneity is a cultural politic mediated by relationships with Rome and Brussels. (16) At Furtei, Toronto and the TSX draw Canada and Sardinia into these global assemblages, which serve to reinforce frontier mythologies. Sardinian marginality is assumed because of its “uncontaminated and pristine” Mediterranean culture, which itself came to be seen as “backward” in relation to modern Northern Europe (17):

Here, romantic visions of Sardinian identity find roots in the harsh, beautiful mountains and high plains where indigenous islanders sought relative safety and independence from the various intruders and conquerors who landed upon their shores again and again. (18)

Heatherington argues the discourses of colonialism and Indigeneity are woven into this Mediterranean society, describing how “salient historical contexts of colonial power and contemporary contexts of political economic marginality emerge forcefully.” (19) Sardinia is also marginalized within Italy where, as part of the Mezzogiorno, it became defined in contrast with the industrial north. (20) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Heatherington found that some locals have a “romantic affinity” for the Native American experience, identifying closely with the theft of land that facilitates modernisation projects:

On the one hand, it spoke to the issue of cultural authenticity, implying deep connections to precontact wild landscapes. On the other hand, it evokes a colonial experience of cultural and material loss. (21)

From the perspective of Canadian capital, Furtei is more familiar than not. Indeed, capital creates and requires a frictionless terrain, social and environmental difference be damned. Describing the extraction process itself as a form of urbanization, political geographer Martín Arbodela explores the contradictory tension emerging from mining operations, “as particular morphological expressions of the contemporary urban condition.” (22) According to Arbodela, urbanization with respect to commodities is driven by two dialectical tendencies: homogenization and fragmentation. The former involves “material and institutional arrangements aimed at producing a frictionless, homogeneous space for the movement of raw materials across borders” while the latter results from a concentration of capital “but also from the geological unevenness intrinsic to mineral deposits, which invariably translates into territorial and social difference.” (23) Arbodela cites Henri Lefebvre’s belief that these tendencies produce “disintegrating” national space while “consolidating” worldspace. (24) New political subjectivities are born from these paradoxes.

Image 4: Gold mine pit, Furtei, 2016. Photograph by Christopher Alton

Interpreting Furtei’s contradictions and asking how a site’s complex material and social ecologies can be made present when global extractive dominance registers as Canada’s central motivation for the twenty-frist century will require Canadian designers to consider the responsible representation of these processes and interventions within these geographies at home and abroad. For the theorist Antonio Gramsci, himself born on the central plains of Sardinia with a worldview formed by observing the struggles of local miners, the nested scales of colonialism, marginality, and the poverty of southern Italy are the result of:

[…]hegemony of the North over the Mezzogiorno in a territorial version of the town-country relationship—in other words, that the North concretely was an “octopus” which enriched itself at the expense of the south, and that its economic–industrial increment was in direct proportion to the impoverishment of the economy and the agriculture of the South. (25)

In a recent panel discussion, The Mining Injustice Solidarity Network described Toronto as the “Belly of the Beast,” extending “the reach of its tentacles through the global mining industry.” (26) This is the new Canadian landscape, our gift to globalism (see Image 4).

Back inside the stone formation at Su Nuraxi, the temperature drops significantly and I am thankful. This and other Nurghe sites like it are settlements in honeycomb patterns that expand from a central tower, perhaps a temple or military fortification. Our guide points to the hills in the east from where the stone for its construction would have been sourced. A certain urban universal is reinforced: in the thirteenth century BCE, as is the case today, the settlement is fundamentally a product of the operationalization of its hinterland. Critical urban theory has been motivated to describe this relationship, a survey of this literature in broad strokes passes by Raymond Williams’ cultural materialism and the environmental history of William Cronon; theories of metabolism and the cyborg cities of Eric Swyngedouw, Maria Kaika, and others; current debates in “planetary urbanism”; and where extended and concentrated forms of urbanization play out and fulfill Henri Lefebvre’s vision of an entirely urbanized planet. This central contradiction—that where we build and the materiality of our built environment as dependent on material flows and resource extraction from elsewhere—troubles a bounded definition of the city and rests the idea of site inside complexity, implicating regional, and now global, scales. Here in Sardinia, this relationship is clear: the etymology of these Nurghe sites is related to the Sardinian word nurra, simultaneously expressing “heap of stones, cavity in earth,” providing a simple, barbed explanation of the commiserate relationship between country and city. And, in the twenty-first century, one idle gold mine exemplifies the scale of this global process of urbanization and landscape formation.



(1) D.H. Lawrence, “Sea and Sardinia” in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence, ed. M. Kalnanis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 56–57.

(2) Cyanide is widely used in gold mining processing. Since the Canadians abandoned the mine it has been held under the jurisdiction of Sardinian state agency IGEA S.p.A., awaiting remediation.

(3) Emily Gilbert, "Beyond Survival? Wilderness and Canadian National Identity into the Twenty-First Century" British Journal of Canadian Studies 21, no. 1 (2008): 65-66.

(4) InvestigativeMEDIA, “Cyanide Beach” YouTube Video, 25:53. Posted on Dec 18, 2012.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPALNtyFmHY.

(5) PDAC & The Mining Association of Canada, Canada’s Mining Industry: Socially Responsible Global Leader (Ottawa, ON: Mining Association of Canada, 2010), http://www.pdac.ca/docs/default-source/public-affairs/fact-sheet-mining.pdf.

(6) Alain Deneault and William Sacher, Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012), 180.

(7) See: Adam J. Barker, “The Contemporary Reality of Canadian Imperialism: Settler Colonialism and the Hybrid Colonial State,” The American Indian Quarterly 33, no. 3 (2009): 325–351; Paula Butler, Colonial extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2015); Tyler Shipley, “The New Canadian Imperialism and the Military Coup in Honduras,” Latin American Perspectives 40, no. 5 (2013): 44–61; Todd Gordon, Imperialist Canada (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub., 2010).

(8) Henry Veltmeyer, James F. Petras, and Verónica Albuja, The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? (London: Zed Books, 2014). Selected chapters. See also: Hans-Jürgen Burchardta and Kristina Dietz, “(Neo-)extractivism: A New Challenge for Development Theory from Latin America,” Third World Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2014): 468–486.

(9) Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “Imperialism and Resistance: Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America,” Third World Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2008): 64.

(10) Deneault and Sacher, 15.

(11) Ibid, 181.

(12) Shipley, 45.

(13) Tyler Shipley (2013) expands on this position and describes it as contributing to the new Canadian political economy, citing Jorge Niosi (1985), William Carroll (1986), William Burgess (2002), and Jerome Klassen (2009), among others. 

(14) David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(15) Alexandra Pedersen, “Landscapes of Resistance: Community Opposition to Canadian Mining Operations in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Geography 13, no. 1 (2014): 188.

(16) Tracey Heatherington, Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtimes of Environmentalism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 33.

(17) Iain Chambers, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 12–13, quoted in Heatherington, 44.

(18) Heatherington, 46.

(19) Ibid, 8.

(20) Jane Schnieder, introduction to Italy’s “Southern Question”: Orientalism in One Country (Oxford: Berg, 1998).

(21) Heatherington, 158. 

(22) Martín Arboleda, "Spaces of Extraction, Metropolitan Explosions: Planetary Urbanization and the Commodity Boom in Latin America," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40, no. 1 (2016): 109. 

(23) Ibid, 109.

(24) Henri Lefebvre, “Space and the State,” in Henri Lefebvre: State, Space, World, ed. N. Brenner and S. Elden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009[1978]), 255.

(25) Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 70–71.

(26) MISN: Mining Injustice Solidarity Network. “Belly of the Beast.” (panel discussion, Toronto, February 25, 2017).

As a planner with OPSYS Landscape Infrastructure Lab, Christopher Alton was Project Co-Manager & Lead Researcher for Canada’s entry to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. He studied Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto and holds a Master in Design Studies from Harvard GSD. His work explores the impact of resource extraction on urbanization and planning. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Planning at the University of Toronto, supported by the SSHRC CGS Doctoral Scholarship.