“Artisanal and small-scale gold mining versus sustainability”: How COVID-19 affects the sustainability debate in the Brazilian Amazon

On 3 June, the ISC lab organized a panel on the impacts of COVID-19 on global and local (im)mobility. Panelists Luciana Massaro (UNICAMP/VU Amsterdam) and Jorge Calvimontes (UNICAMP) wrote the following blog, which captures the main points of their presentation.

Authors: Luciana Massaro and Jorge Calvimontes

The COVID-19 outbreak has made everyone aware of the fragility of our world. It has catalyzed our fears and worries, taken a toll on our bodies and minds, and defined what we can and cannot do in our everyday lives. It has become the center of media attention, and we have witnessed a worldwide shift in government policy to ensure people’s health and safety. As a result, important issues such as climate action and global sustainability have taken a step back.

One year after the outbreak, partly due to mass vaccination, the virus is losing its momentum in many countries and popular attention has begun to focus on building the post-pandemic “new normal.” Many discussions that were put in stand-by are now gaining prominence again. The debate over issues of social and environmental sustainability is finally back to the fore, but it must now address new challenges, especially for the Global South. Here, “working from home” has not constituted a valid alternative for most people, and ensuring health and safety without prejudicing everyday economic livelihood has been a key issue.

In May 2020, together with our research team of the Gold Matters project, we collected reports on how COVID-19 was affecting people locally involved in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in the Brazilian Amazon. The results of our study show that Covid-19 exposed pre-existing conflicts and revealed cooperation strategies in ASGM communities. Through the lens of the pandemic, we reflected on the complex interaction of social, economic, political and environmental factors in ASGM, tackled the core issues of sustainability, and discussed experiences that might be useful for conflict transformation processes in the post-crisis.

Photo by Jorge Calvimontes

Extracting non-renewable resources is usually considered as the antithesis of sustainability. Although gold mining hardly fit the classic definition of sustainability, at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit, it has been specified that mining could not ignore anymore the responsibility over its socio-environmental problems. Yet, whereas in many countries the debate regards “ASGM and sustainability”, in the Brazilian Amazon remains mostly framed as one of “ASGM versus sustainability”. Historically, garimpeiros (small-scale gold miners in Brazil) have been cast as bandits and tied to an image of alcohol abuse, prostitution, violence and environmental degradation. Conflicts in Brazilian ASGM stem from high levels of informal and illegal practices that cause overall deep negative impacts. Still, in Brazil alone, more than 200.000 people rely on this activity for their livelihood.

Sector transformations toward sustainability is in the hands of many actors directly or indirectly involved in this activity. From the pit worker to the politician, from the investor to the environmental NGO, each actor influences the debate according to their individual power position, desires, and interests. Garimpeiros, managers and investors refer to sustainability in a way that ensures the perpetuation of extractive activities in order to guarantee their own income. At the opposite end, other actors consider the sole existence of gold mining as an obstacle for sustainability in Amazonian ecosystems. The crucial question in this debate is who will eventually impose their future on whom.

The COVID-19 outbreak has only heated up this debate. Since 2020, the Brazilian Amazon has become a battlefield in which asymmetries have become magnified and posed new threats to the vulnerability of rural and indigenous populations. Despite the health emergency, the spike in the global price for gold has triggered a new gold rush that involves an increasing number of people, which threatens the indigenous territories and protected areas where mining is illegal. This intrusion was facilitated by the political actions of the Bolsonaro government that, on the one hand, endorsed extractive activities in protected Amazonian territories and, on the other, discouraged punitive actions by law-enforcement agencies.

Now, in mid-2021, the post-pandemic perspective offers a valuable opportunity to change our mindset on the fragility and controversies of this debate. The discussion on sustainability has become more polyphonic and it is urgent to understand how each actor is pushing and pulling the negotiation to their advantage, and which pressures are directing the transformative process towards new desirable futures. One lesson that we have learned from the pandemic is that, in order to accomplish a sustainable transformation, it is important to recognize the involvement and desires of different actors, and to encourage these actors to settle their differences and work together as a problem-solving alliance.

Dr. Luciana Massaro is a post-doctoral fellow at the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Ambientais/NEPAM, Universidade Estadual de Campinas/UNICAMP (FAPESP Grant nº 2020/07985-6) and at the Dept. of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Dr. Jorge Calvimontes is a post-doctoral fellow at the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Ambientais/NEPAM, Universidade Estadual de Campinas/UNICAMP (FAPESP Grant nº 2019/09709-9).

Gold Matters: Sustainability Transformations in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining: A Multi-Actor and Trans-Regional Perspective is a transdisciplinary research project which aims to consider whether and how a transformative approach towards sustainability can arise in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM). For more information see www.gold-matters.org.