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GOLD MATTERS: launch of NORFACE/Belmont Forum project on sustainability transformations in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining

An international and multi-disciplinary research consortium spent two days at Leiden University for the launch of their ‘GOLD MATTERS’ project, funded jointly by NORFACE and Belmont Forum. The project 'Sustainability Transformations in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining: A Multi-Actor and Trans-Regional Perspective' explores whether sustainability transformations are possible in artisanal and small-scale gold-mining. We asked Professor Eleanor Fisher (University of Reading), dr. Marjo de Theije (VU Amsterdam) and dr. Sabine Luning (Leiden University) to tell us more about their research project.

Sustainability transformations

The ‘GOLD MATTERS’ project focuses on artisanal and small-scale gold-mining, considering whether sustainability transformations are possible. Among others, the project will explore what is actually meant by sustainability transformations. Eleanor Fisher, lead of the Project, explains: “Focusing on artisanal and Small-scale mining is a tricky proposition for funding on sustainability transformations, giving association with negative social and environmental impacts, but part of our argument is that if you can’t apply this thinking on sustainability transformations to a very tricky area like artisanal and small-scale gold mining, how valuable is that concept in the first place?”

Kick-off at Leiden University

Anthropologists, a mining engineer, a physical geographer, NGO professionals, and artists travelled to Leiden for the official launch of the project. Fisher, Luning, and de Theije stressed these two days were all about building a team for strong collaboration, exploring research ideas and planning practicalities. They discussed which topics or themes all of them can address at their various research sites, and which methods this would require.

Mobility and new technologies

Research for the GOLD MATTERS project will be carried out in three regions: the Amazon Basin, West Africa, and East Africa. In those regions, small-scale gold mining is a very mobile phenomenon. “In the first place, we want to look at the mobility of people who introduce new technologies and ideas”, then, as Luning describes “we’re very interested in exploring the impact of new technologies on social (re)arrangements and forms of governance. Do, for example, power relations and/or gender relations change? What kind of impact does it have on resources availability and the way how resources are governed?”

Co-designing research with mining communities

Another red thread through the project are the people living and working at mining sites themselves. “The project wants to grasp how people who live in certain landscapes of extraction envision their futures, and the dynamics that are taking place due to their practices”, Sabine Luning explains. “By collaborating with local mining communities, local people have an important role in defining what exactly should be their priorities regarding sustainability and what should be the major focus in a particular area. We have experience in handing over the camera to mining people to see what they find important to photograph. In participatory workshops, we aim to come together and bring out their visions through these methods of visualization”.

Visual research outcomes

Research outcomes in the form of visualizations can be used to have conversations within the local mining community, between communities, and between the three large areas. Marjo de Theije excitingly describes the plans for a ‘travelling pop-up exhibition’ that can serve public debates more largely. She tells, “The exhibition will move from West-Africa to East-Africa to Europe and to Brazil. It will be very mobile and flexible so it can be placed in different spaces, accessible for different mining communities, men and women, policy makers and people who fund mining operations. We also aim to use the exhibition as part of our methodology and as a way of discussing mining. The exhibition is not fixed, as content will be added, changed or removed, in keeping with the need to make it locally relevant”.

Coming to the end of our discussion, Professor Fisher added: “This is such an exciting project, with a high caliber and experienced research team, I am confident we will produce excellent social science within a topic area of importance to the 16 million or so artisanal and small-scale gold miners around the world whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on the activity.”

The project 'Sustainability Transformations in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining: A Multi-Actor and Trans-Regional Perspective' is financially supported by the Belmont Forum and NORFACE Joint Research Programme on Transformations to Sustainability, which is co-funded by AKA, ANR, DLR/BMBF, ESRC, FAPESP, FNRS, FWO, ISSC, JST, NSF, NWO, RCN, VR, and the European Commission through Horizon 2020.

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