In recent decades, gold mining has moved into increasingly remote corners of the globe. Aside from the expansion of industrial gold mining, many countries have simultaneously witnessed an expansion of labor-intensive and predominantly informal artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Both trends are usually studied in isolation, which contributes to a dominant image of a dual gold mining economy.

Counteracting this dominant view, this volume adopts a global perspective, and demonstrates that both industrial gold mining and artisanal and small-scale gold mining are functionally integrated into a global gold production system. It couples an analysis of structural trends in global gold production (expansion, informalization, and technological innovation) to twelve country case studies that detail how global gold production becomes embedded in institutional and ecological structures.

Sara Geenen and Boris Verbrugge edited the volume Global Gold Production Touching Ground: Expansion, Informalization, and Technological Innovation. They and contributing authors present their case studies below.

The Philippines: State-Sanctioned Informalization

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Boris Verbrugge

When I started my PhD on small-scale gold mining in Mindanao, in the Philippines, a consensus existed among scholars that poverty and the crisis in subsistence agriculture were pushing people into small-scale gold mining. During my field research, I encountered many small-scale gold mining operations that involved individuals or small groups of workers that were trying to recover a few grams of gold by panning in rivers and creeks, or by digging small holes in the mountainside.

Yet alongside these small mining operations, there were also bigger operations, which are referred to locally as “medium-scale” mining and which defy existing definitions of small-scale gold mining as a low-tech activity with limited productive capacity. The interesting thing about these mining operations is not just their advanced state but also the fact that they remain fully informal despite being operational in some cases for nearly three decades. The argument that poverty is the primary driver of small-scale gold mining may well explain the unrelenting supply of workers, but it fails to account for its advanced state in countries like the Philippines.

To account for the transformation of small-scale gold mining in the Philippines, we need to adopt a longer-term perspective. While the decades after the second World War were seen as the golden era of industrial mining in the Philippines, by the 1980s the mining sector was in crisis due to a combination of political uncertainty, fledgling global mineral demand, and widespread resistance to mining. This crisis created space necessary for an expansion of small-scale gold mining as a growing number of laid-off mine workers, but also engineers previously active inside the companies, started to work independently. Investments made by local elites and increasingly also by Chinese and Korean investors, allowed small-scale gold mining far beyond subsistence level to an activity that sometimes mirrors corporate gold mining.

Yet a crucial point about small-scale gold mining is that its comparative advantage lies in its ability to mobilize cheap and flexible informal labour. The evolution to more advanced medium-scale mining activities went hand in hand with the emergence of new and highly unequal revenue sharing arrangements, and with the concentration of power in the hands of a few.

In short, what happened in the Philippines was not just a sudden expansion of small-scale gold mining, but a process of informalization in the mining sector as a whole, embodied by a shift from capital-intensive large-scale industrial mining to informal gold mining which relies on the exploitation of cheap labour. It was this argument that served as an inspiration for this book, which similarly attempts to apply a structuralist analysis to gold mining. But this time at a global level.

Ghana: A History of Expansion and Contraction

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Robert Jan Pijpers

My chapter traces the history of expansion and contraction in Ghana’s gold mining sector. It pays particular attention to the emergence of new actors, technological innovations, and political dynamics. In doing so, the chapter places the contemporary acceleration in gold mining in a longer mining history. In addition, it shows how the complex social spatial situations that characterize mining environments are articulated in particular political, social and economic developments at specific moments and across multiple skills, but also in time. I’ll give some examples of this.

The chapter discusses for instance how the cross-Saharan trade that lasted roughly from the 7th to the 14th century, the introduction of the camel as a means of transport during that period, and later also the arrival of Europeans, gave new and better tools to an already well-established gold mining sector. When those Europeans, Portuguese, Dutch and British, were initially mainly interested in trading gold, they increasingly ventured into mining itself, and their shafts were often literally built on top of earlier locally operated mines.

Colonial interests in gold mining also sparked new forms of migration, both international and local, and led to new laws and regulations such as the Mercury Ordinance of 1933, which prohibited the sale of mercury, seen in this picture, to local miners. Such measures were introduced to slow down artisanal and small-scale gold mining which became increasingly competitive to European operations.

In the late 1900s, cyanidation techniques were introduced in the large-scale mining sector in Ghana. This caused a shift from underground to open-pit mining, as illustrated here. As a result, large-scale mining needed more land, but less labour. Subsequently, a good amount of the labourers that lost their jobs moved into artisanal and smal-scale mining.

In the past 10 to 15 years, new capital and technologies, mostly Chinese, have entered the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, as can be seen in this picture. This has not only increased the skill and speed of mining itself, but also the skill and speed of environmental destruction. This has led to a country-wide ban on artisanal small-scale mining in 2017. Although other dynamics and interests are likely to have been at play as well. To wrap up, Ghana’s gold mining sector has experienced a succession of moments of expansion and contraction, sometimes occurring simultaneously, depending to which part of the sector one looks at.

As my chapter shows, these processes and the specific social-spatial situations that are negotiated across the gold production system are articulated in an increasingly complex web of local, national and global developments, and involve what seems an ever-growing number of actors.

Brazil: Forever Informal

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Marjo de Theije

Gold mining in Brazil has always been largely informal. Efforts on the part of the national government to formalize gold mining were always ambiguous. Agencies like the federal environmental agency IBAMA find resistance on the part not only of miners, but also of local communities and elements of the regional elites. And sometimes the resistance comes from the highest political authority in the country, the president of the Brazilian Republic. Last April, the IBAMA director responsible for inspection in protection areas was sacked after the broadcast of IBAMA agents burning excavators and other mining equipment they found in indigenous territory.

In my chapter in the book I describe how the figure of the small-scale gold miner, the ‘garimepeiro’, is deeply rooted in the country’s historical, cultural imagery and is positively seen as a type of pithy developer of the riches of Brazil. President Bolsonaro identifies with this enterprising and free-spirited figure and portrayed himself as a defender of the interests of the garimpeiros.

The dismissal of the director was not an isolated action. In his political project, Bolsonaro legitimizes large groups of informal miners to overrun the boundaries of the native territories and conservation areas in order to mine there. The garimpeiros do not need formal approval or documents. They need not be formalized to receive support for their activities. The authorization for the mining is informal, but effective.

Indonesia: Adaptation and Differentiation in Informal Gold Mining

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Matthew Libassi

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest gold producers, in part due to a rapidly growing artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector. In my chapter I focus on one specific case of small-scale gold mining in a region called the Pongkor region of West Java.

I focus on three different moments of transformation in Pongkor. Moments where the arrangements of gold production changed and adapted to shifting conditions. One of the features of this is the expansion and adaptation of small-scale mining alongside industrial mining.

ASGM in Pongkor was stimulated in part by the activities of an industrial mine. Later the spatial orientation and division of labour in Pongkor were reorganized to more easily avoid conflicts with the industrial mining operation. So, as made clear throughout this volume, formal and informal spheres here were always entangled.

I also considered a theme of technological innovation through the introduction of gold cyanidation technologies to Pongkor in the late 2000s. This technology has intensified ASGM activities and has expanded their reach. However, they simultaneously led to a differentiation of non-mining participants. Cyanidation is a larger-scale technique that requires significant capital and lends itself to consolidation of the various steps in the gold production process. While many wealthy mining bosses have benefited, more typical miners, stuck using the less efficient but cheaper mercury processing, often have not.

So, in Indonesia, new mining technologies are thus aiding the expansion and informalization of global gold production, but with distinctly uneven local effects.

Uganda: Gold as a (Trans)National Treasure

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Eleanor Fischer, Lorenzo D’Angelo, Ronald Twongyirwe, Esther Van Camp

We explore how the global gold production system touches ground in Uganda. We do this by focusing on the way entrenched inequalities undermine the potential for equity in the formalization of mineral rights. Again, it’s a very interesting context, because historically and indeed today, you have large-scale transnational mining companies working in the country. Somehow, this has created a space for artisanal and small-scale gold mining, in what is today a very dynamic sector, that is rapidly differentiating itself.

Now government is anxious to encourage formalization of artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and recent changes to policy and legislation facilitate this process. What we do in our chapter is explore how this falls in practice and we set this against three background factors which contribute to heightened interest in gold, increased pressure on land, and on gold deposits in localities across the country. The first is the regional gold trade, which is embedded within Uganda. The second is Uganda’s move into industrial gold refining, leading to a so-called gold boom, but predominantly based on gold imported into the country. The third is investment in gold mining production by small-scale and medium-scale investors, by financial elite and foreign, many Chinese and Chinese capital, but not exclusively, in fact investors come from a range of countries.

Broadly we argue – in an all too familiar story for formalization processes in Sub-Saharan Africa and in many parts of the world – that some artisanal and small-scale gold miners are gaining from these processes, with increasing security and mineral rights, the ability to capitalize, access to markets, relations with government, but many other people within the broader sector, particularly poorer people, service providers, labourers, are excluded from these processes. So inequalities are played out in terms of economic power, gender, …

In conclusion, we find that if gold is really to be a national treasure, as Museveni has declared it should be, then really government needs to invest in broad-based development of the sector, so it benefits very many people who depend on it for income and employment.

Colombia: Legal Loopholes Behind Illegal Gold Trade

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Maria Eugenia Robles Mengoa, Alexandra Uràn

In this chapter, we will demonstrate that contradictions in Colombia’s mineral resources governance have resulted in a series of legal loopholes which are now being used as a window of opportunity for the illegal commercialization of gold. Our analysis has focused on the understanding of the global dynamics that have led to an increase in gold production in Columbia, and how these dynamics have had an impact on and adapted to local contexts. Ethnographic research from mining areas located in the regions of Chocó, Marmato, Remedios and Segovia allow to trace the path of illegal gold commercialization.

When mapping this path, we could observe the appearance of different actors, such as armed groups, criminal bands, intermediaries and public servants, participating in the illegal trade of gold. Having identified the legal loopholes, the chapter explains the nature and kind of involvement that each one of them has in this chain.

It also portrays the forgotten context of mining communities and explains how that plays a role in facilitating the gold trade with the use of violence, coercion, or political power. We zoom into the rivers and mine pits in these small-scale artisanal mining areas and follow gold on its way up to the Colombian international distributors, from where gold will be finally cleaned and ready for exportation.

We have found that ways to introduce use large volumes of informal or illegal gold to the international market, have used legal loopholes, such as overlapping of mining cartels, a lack of control and monitoring of produced mining volumes. All these legal loopholes are important, because they show the magnitude of the mismatch between what the regulator dictates in Colombia, and what actually happens on the local level.

Burkina Faso: Global Gold Expansion and Local Terrains

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Sabine Luning

This chapter elaborates how the recent arrival of global mining capital in Burkina Faso exemplifies core characteristics of the theoretical framework of the book. Some factors are key for understanding how transnational industrial mining touched ground in Burkina Faso. I show how gold mining crystallizations evolved through the mining cycle as an interplay between on the one hand the structural features of the projects during the exploration companies and major gold producers, and on the other, characteristics of the local circumstances in which mining companies seek to operate.

Just a few words about the local reactions to large-scale mining. The chapter describes a process in which at first relations appear quite open and full of promises, in which actors have great expectations and offer, as autochthones should, hospitality.

However, further into the exploration stage, contestations emerge between locals, all claiming stakeholder positions as real autochthones. In the stage of building and extending the mines the tensions in company-community relations are becoming extensive and adding to these dynamics. Local residents become increasingly disappointed and assertive and artisanal miners start to resist gold mining by the industry outright.

From 2014 onward this gets amplified in political turmoil, leading to the ousting of the president after 27 years in power. Mining becomes dynamite, in what at first seemed a hopeful strengthening of civil forces against an authoritarian regime and overpowering mining capital. Unfortunately, since 2016 Burkina has more and more become the terrain of terrorist violence and criminal alliances. At present, gold mining appears to be implicated in crystallizations of a much more darker sort. As a source for fueling violent conflict and destabilization as well as a target for terrorist attacks. Let’s hope that these tides will turn.

Guinea Conakry and Burkina Faso: Innovations at the Periphery

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Cristiano Lanzano

When French anthropologist Georges Balandier visited the gold mining areas near Siguiri in eastern Guinea in the 1940s, his imagination was captured by the variety of tools used by local miners: pick-axes, calabashes and sieves, of which he drew a sketch that he later included in his book, Afrique ambiguë.

Many of those tools are still in use today. But obviousy a lot has changed in the technological landscape over the years. Sluice boxes, ball mills, explosives, and water pumps have made their appearance and changed the organisation of gold production.

In my chapter, I compare two recent cases of technological innovation taking place in two different mining regions of West Africa, eastern Guinea-Conakry, and western Burkina Faso. After 2012, in Guinea, partly as a consequence of increased flows of migrants from neigbouring countries, new techniques were introduced, that allowed miners to target primary deposits and be able to process the hard rock ore extracted at greater depth. Local authorities and customary institutions traditionally entrusted with the organisation of mining had to adapt their role to the acceleration, intensification and mechanization of production.

Around the same years, a chemical product contributed to important transformations in western Burkina Faso: cyanide. Its effectiveness in processing tailings and leftovers from treatments was an opportunity. Especially with the slow decline and the greater resource depletion observed in many mining areas. The shift to cyanide based processing opened new possibilities for profit, generated conflicts, and reshaped the organisation of work and exchange.

As other contributions to this book show, technological change in artisanal gold mining is linked to broader dynamics of expansion, resource depletion and competition between informal and formal actors. My chapter argues that technological change continuously generates a disembedding and re-embedding of gold production in social relations. Innovations do not happen in a vacuum and we can only understand them in light of the specific political economies within which they take place.

Ghana: Controversy, Corruption and Chinese Miners

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Gordon Crawford, Gabriel Botchwey

We have done research on artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ghana over the last ten years or so. And it was very useful to think about the developments in ASGM in Ghana in the context of the global trends identified in this book. We found a lot of correspondence with such trends in the Ghana case.

Ghana is now Africa’s largest gold producer, having surpassed South Africa in recent years. This is largely due to a dramatic rise in ASGM production, which has quadrupled in just over a decade, and for the first time, in 2018, contributed to over 40% of total gold production. And we attribute this rise largely to the intensification of production that occurred through the introduction of machinery and techniques by Chinese migrant miners in the period of 2010 to 2013. With such machinery and techniques then increasingly adopted by Ghanaian small-scale miners. This mechanization has transformed small-scale gold mining in Ghana.

But our story does not end there, in fact it only begins in some ways. Because what is most extraordinary is that the highest ever production totals from ASM in 2018 they occurred when all ASM was in fact banned by the government of Ghana, due to environmental destruction, with supposed enforcement of the ban by a military task force. Now how could this happen? How can you record your highest ever production levels when all ASM is banned? Well, you can read our chapter to discover our analysis and argument, but just to say that we focus on the interrelated issues of endemic corruption and informality.

DRC: From Stones in the River to Diving for Dollars

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Sara Geenen, Simon Marijsse

Our chapter is titled ‘From stones in the river to diving for dollars.’ It seeks to bind a set of two images. These images are roughly one century apart from each other, and yet they speak to a shared history in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When the Belgians first arrived in the village of Kamituga, they were clever enough to hide the economic value of gold. They took the stones, while promising to leave the crabs and fish in the river untouched. Yet what was regarded as valueless back then, that is, a mere stone with a yellow shine to it, became valuable through an abject history of colonial exploitation in the first half of the 20th century. It was subsequently cast into the wider global history of ASGM and a steady regional decline of industrial mining.

About 100 years after the first Belgian prospectors arrived, Congolese miners assembled dredging systems in the rivers and cranked ore with crushing machines. In this sense ‘Diving for dollars’ pays attention to shifting ASGM technologies.

We see colonial exploitation, Mobutu’s liberalization policies, the successive Congo wars and fluctuating global commodity prices as historical markers against which specific formation of labour, land, capital, geology and technology crystallize into local contexts. Four gold mining crystallizations are depicted in more detail. Our chapter confirms two key aspects of the book. First, informalization as an ongoing process that is simultaneously tied to the availability of flexible labour, to demands of global capital and the retreat of the state. Second, the co-evolution of ASGM and industrial gold mining as embedded in one global gold production system.

Madagascar: Emergence and Persistence of the Hundred-Year Frontier

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Brian Ikaika Klein

Gold extraction has a centuries-long history in Madagascar, and today, between one and two million Malagasy earn their livelihoods through ASGM. My chapter contribution considers both the island’s gold mining past and present, to elaborate the particular ways in which the global gold production system has crystallized in the country’s diggings. It begins by providing a broad accounting of developments in gold mining from the 1800s to the present day. Next, it traces the sector’s trajectory in Betsiaka, one of the island’s best-known mining regions from which these images come.

Throughout the chapter, I work to illustrate how particular frontier dynamics, the predominance of informal production processes, the fragmented and contested nature of authority, and the resistance to technological complexification and labor rigidification have emerged and persisted. Despite repeated attempts by imperial, colonial, and modern state actors, along with their corporate partners, to exert greater control over the sector, ASGM-operators and the commercial networks with which they engage have continued to dominate the island’s gold economy. In Betsiaka and across the island, this is the result of particular socio-natural and political-economic conditions, including the geological character of deposits, and the crystallization of ASGM as a strongly embedded site of flexible livelihood production.

Reinvigorated interest from state and corporate actors over the past several years, is posing yet another round of challenges to ASGM-operators. But a hundred years on, Madagascar’s gold frontier endures.

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