Sustainable Small-Scale Gold Mining? On the promises and politics of sustainable extraction

The Gold Matters project and the Infrastructure, Sustainability and Commons Lab of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam co-organized a panel on the relationship between small-scale gold mining and sustainability, taking place at the XVII International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic & Social Sustainability.

Authors: Luciana Massaro and Jesse Jonkman

Coffee-breaks, social dinners, post-session drinks… It is often in informal moments between panel sessions that knowledge is exchanged and academic alliances are struck. And yet, though we all miss in-person events, virtual conferences can surprise us by offering engaging (and more sustainable) alternatives to connect researchers. This was certainly the case at the recent XVII International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic & Social Sustainability, which was virtually hosted on 24-26 February by the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

The 2021 special focus was “Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability: Policy Solutions for the Climate Emergency” and the Gold Matters project joined forces with the Infrastructure, Sustainability, and Commons Lab (Institute for Societal Resilience, VU) in organizing the panel Sustainable Small-Scale Gold Mining? A Theoretical and Empirical Vista into the Transformative Practices of an Environment-Destroying Economy.

The panel, chaired by Marjo de Theije (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), counted on the contributions of Eleanor Fisher (The Nordic African Institute), Sara Geenen (University of Antwerp), Jesse Jonkman (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), and Luciana Massaro (State University of Campinas, Brazil). It examined recent developments in small-scale gold mining and asked whether and how transformative alternatives in the sector can emerge. By teasing out the surprising ways that small-scale gold mining and sustainability interact, the panel explored several questions: Through which technological practices do miners seek to curb the ecological harms of their labor? What is the role of the material environment in shaping these practices? How do miners reinforce, reconstruct, and reject environmental guidelines by national governments? Can we actually invoke the notion of sustainability in regard to an activity like gold mining?

Each researcher offered a different perspective on the delicate issue of sustainability in small-scale mining, as the following descriptions of their presentations illustrate.

Jesse Jonkman: Environmental politics in Chocó, Colombia

Jesse opened the panel by discussing small-scale gold mining in Colombia. His presentation set out that in the case of Colombian extractivism, sustainability is not a neutral trope of nature preservation but a heavily politicized discourse that serves to define and negotiate the boundaries of political community. Central state representatives invoke the alleged unsustainability of small-scale miners to explain away their political exclusion and legitimize a property regime that blatantly favors the—all but sustainable—large-scale mining industry. At the same time, small-scale miners themselves also recur to discourses and practices of nature conservation to claim citizenship and perform legality vis-à-vis the state bureaucracy.

Luciana Massaro: Sustainable Small-Scale Gold Mining? Goals and obstacles from garimpeiro communities in the Brazilian Amazon.

Luciana showed how artisanal and small-scale gold mining is one of the most significant economic opportunities for many communities across the Brazilian Amazon, even though it poses serious threats to the natural environment. While engaging with the notion of sustainable and responsible mining, she illustrated that despite an initially unregulated colonization of the Amazon, today Brazilian miners are willing to build a future within the legal framework. However, Brazilian regulations still present many gaps where the activity can be run informally and illegally, hindering a transformative process towards sustainability.

Sara Geenen: The gold supply chain doesn’t exist. How miners’ practices force us to rethink linearity & sustainability, and embrace multiplicity & fluidity.

Sara questioned the linearity of supply chains and argued that, when miner voices are put into the equation, the gold supply chain entails many non-linear motions. While encouraging us to think beyond easy notions of (un)sustainability, her presentation showed how in the Democratic Republic of Congo mining waste is re-processed at every extraction phase by a different group of workers. Furthermore, Sara drew attention to how mining communities interpret the exhaustiveness of gold, and pinpointed the cultural practices that allow mining communities to prevent overextraction.

Eleanor Fisher: Transforming Matters. Mining practices within worlds of extraction

Eleanor added another layer to the discussion by showing how sustainability arguments about small-scale mining include asymmetries of knowledge, power and agency. She underlined the necessity to include the voices and agencies of miners in political debates, and acknowledged the importance of gold’s materiality in expanding “people’s notions of the conceivable, desirable or unwelcome futures.” Delving into the intricacies of small-scale mining in Uganda, she proposed that a heterogeneous scenario of practices incorporates technological innovation and takes sustainability into account. Meaningful transformation requires putting miners’ agency and perspective to the fore.

Through the lens of sustainability, Marjo de Theije guided the discussion by following an imaginary thread that connected one presentation to the other. She challenged the presenters to reflect on the influence of politics on transformative changes and to explore how sustainability can become a political tool in the hands of miners. Subsequently, each researcher gave their opinion about miners’ agency in performing sustainable practices, the contentious relationship between miners and state governments, and the futures that the sector may face.



Dr. Luciana Massaro is a postdoctoral researcher at the Núcleo de Estudos e Pesquisas Ambientais/NEPAM Universidade Estadual de Campinas/UNICAMP and at the Department of Social & Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Dr. Jesse Jonkman is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social & Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.