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Abstract

Digital data — including technologically-mediated data generated by blockchain-enabled traceability — is performing an increasingly integral role in extractive operations, but scarce attention has been paid to the structuring effect of these digital technologies or the socio-economic spatiality of data-driven mining operations. Drawing on extensive qualitative research (interviews, participant observation, and two sets of survey data among actors relevant to these mineral supply chains), this article advances the notion of “digital extraction” to describe the collection, analysis, and instrumentalization of digital data generated under the banner of blockchain-based due diligence, chain of custody certifications, and various transparency mechanisms, situated alongside and in support of mineral extraction. The article mobilizes concepts from political geography and political ecology to argue that digital technologies of traceability in extractive processes potentially create new forms of control and exclusion or exacerbate existing social, political, and territorial dispossession through asymmetric relations of power and knowledge in mineral supply chains. Despite industry efforts to make mineral supply chains more sustainable by resorting to digital certification and traceability, the strategic uses of uncertainty, ignorance, and ambiguity undergirding blockchain-enabled traceability systems fail to challenge existing inequalities in resource use and access or fulfill the promise of transparency and accountability.

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