Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh


This dissertation examines how confusion and lack of access to information about subsurface property rights facilitates the rapid acquisition of mineral rights by mining interests, leaving those who live 'above the surface' to contend with complicated corporate and bureaucratic apparatuses. The research focuses on the first proposed state-run large scale mining project in Ecuador, believed to contain copper ores, and on the natural gas hydrofracking industry in three counties in north central West Virginia. Qualitative and visual methods, including mapping, are employed to determine (i.) how the geography of subsurface ownership patterns is changing, (ii.) links between changes in subsurface ownership and surface ownership, and (iii.) how these changes are facilitated or impeded by institutional and governance practices.

Rights and permit acquisitions are facilitated by state institutions, which often have strategic interests in mineral development. Accordingly, this research also considers the role of state strategy with respect to the establishment, bureaucratic management, and enforcement of vertical territory, which reflects the state’s interest in and sovereign claim over subterranean resources to benefit the nation. The research finds that the historical separation of subsurface property rights from the surface is associated with a persistent weakening of surface holder claims to land in favor of mining development, and that this weakening has contributed to the long-term persistence of absentee ownership and control over land in Ecuador and West Virginia. Viewing subsurface land deals from the perspective of those whose lives are disrupted on the surface, I conclude from this work that mundane practices such as deed transfers and local micropolitics about land use are significant factors in the lead up to larger scale violences and silences, such as forced displacement and even political imprisonment of activists opposed to extraction.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)