From afar, an aerial view from above or standing on hillslopes, mining presents itself gradually, through roads and mine sites, exposed as lines and gashes within areas of vegetation. Different land uses co-exist, with mining part of a wider geographical and social mosaic. Deep down, underground, hidden from those on the surface, a different picture presents itself. The in-depth terrain – the noise, dust, dark, heat, water, ore, and poor oxygen. In here comes conflict, as people variously compete over access to gold matter (ore), but also creating convivialities to work underground and share gold extracted by teams. Then away from the pits come different relations, such as when women pan in the wetlands or men dredge a river. And the equipment used shapes the scale of extraction - from the vast movement of soil by men driving excavators to prepare in-depth operations, to women with basins picking up small tailings by hand. Collaboration also extends away from the mine, between men mining and women processing ore, or with land-owners and local communities giving access to gold, but so too comes conflict and tension, as residents dispute rights, and officials demand bribes.
Small-scale gold mining is one of the pieces of a complex geographical and social mosaic. In a larger view of the landscape, many activities coexist with gold mining. Agriculture, cattle-ranching, logging, taken altogether, these all produce deep landscape alterations and form the so-called arco de desmatamento da Amazônia (Amazonian deforestation frontier). The profound relationship between gold mining and environmental degradation is one of the main axes of conflict, negotiation, and action strategies between multiple actors. A crucial aspect of this relationship regards the introduction of heavy machinery that permits the removal of a larger amount of topsoil in less time than occurs when mining is by hand. This has heavy repercussions on the deforestation rate. Another environmental impact of gold mining is caused by the use of mercury during the last phases of gold extraction, which is a threat to human and ecosystem’s health. Mining terrains extend to water; riverbeds and watersheds act as connectors of mining operations, contributing to the spread of the negative impacts of mining beyond the space of the garimpo itself.
Our research sites in Uganda are in Busia District (south-east) and Buhweju District (south-west). ASGM is mainly based on alluvial extraction, although there is some hard rock mining. Small but high-grade vein quartz mineralisation in Busia makes it attractive, while Buhweju excites less interest. Combining remote sensing, ethnography, and participatory development methods helps us to capture different perspectives on the in-depth terrain. From above, hilly Buhweju is characterised by rugged landscape. Zooming in exposes mining, agriculture, settlements, and wetlands. Mining the wetlands provokes environmental alarm, unsurprisingly, but agriculture drives wetland consumption. On the ground and underground, conducting research with miners, the materiality of mining and its risks are apparent, as is the labour of extraction. In Busia, the gendered nature of people’s tasks within the terrain comes into view. This is linked to different scales, from the vast movement of soil by men in excavators preparing in-depth operations, to women with basins picking up small tailings by hand.
The underground can be a terrain of conflicts, often between large-scale and small-scale miners. On the surface it may seem calm, but in-depth connections of tunnels may lead to fierce competition over access to gold matter (ore). How to mine, who can mine, and when to mine are moral questions. Opinions and legal practices around mining always propose what is good and bad, what should and should not be done. Morality can add to conflicts, but is also the basis of collaboration. Never free of friction, in-depth working relations are the terrain for conviviality and collaboration within and between work teams, between experts in drilling (e.g., manual workers, women involved in processing ore), and between investors. Collaboration also arises between miners, landowners and local communities.
In the Jungle of Suriname, small-scale gold mining can create wide strips of mud puddles and sand heaps. The country prides itself on the fact that 90% of its surface is jungle.
The activity has changed from “garimpo manual” (artisanal) into “garimpo de maquinário” (mechanized small-scale mining). Today, an excavator operator receives a daily wage whereas the other workers (locally called “peão”, peon) receive a percentage of the garimpo’s profit, as is tradition.
During these phases, garimpeiros use mercury to separate gold from mud. The dispersion of mercury into the natural environment (through air and water) represents a risk to human and ecosystem’s health. Garimpeiros wash the gold-containing carpets from the sluice box in a big bucket.
After moving the bucket to an open pool, they add mercury to the mixture.
Then they mix it with their bare hands without any protection. The mercury captures the gold from the mud and forms an amalgam.
Garimpeiros then proceed to wash and mix the material in the pan. They are immersed up to their waist into the pool.
Amalgam is burnt to obtain the gold extracted during the day. Despite the availability of safer tools, such as retorts, this garimpeiro preferred burning the amalgam in the open air. The retort is an enclosed environment that keep toxic vapours inside, while recycling the mercury for future use.
Generally, the excavator removes overburden and stockpiles ore in the mining area. Also, the excavated material is directly pumped in pulp with water on to sluice boxes.
A typical gold processing system. The excavated material is pumped in pulp with water directly on to the sluice. Gold particles and other heavy minerals are captured by the carpets of the sluice.
One of the dredges (dragas in Portuguese) observed by Carlos Henrique during the field research in Creporizão. In this region, miners associated with a local garimpeiros’ cooperative use dredges, which are floating platforms. Amalgamation is used on board to separate the gold from the concentrated sediments.
A mobile fuel station located at a strategic point of the Crepori River. According to the garimpeiros, this location facilitates the logistics of purchasing diesel fuel.
A rabeta is a traditional boat commonly used in the Amazon. This river marks the boundary with the Floresta Nacional do Crepori, a 742.197-hectares protected area. The river constitutes a natural barrier that defines different land uses: garimpo on one side and conservation unit on the other.
Close to the Brownsweg National Park, world renowned for its rich flora and fauna, is the Krikinegi mining area. After years of intensive gold mining, the landscape hardly reminds one of tropical forest anymore; we did not see much wildlife here either.
In the last forty years since the beginning of the colonization, the Amazon has been reshaped by resource extraction, large-scale agriculture and ranching. This property-making process is related to the building of roads where people, gold and products move.
A Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) in a livestock farm. This species has been protected by law since 1994 and is a symbol for the sustainable management of forests. For this reason, landowners cut down other trees with the exception of the Brazil nut tree.
From far above, one sees land marked by rugged terrain. Gold mining and small-scale agriculture occur in the valleys, including the wetlands; hilltops are studded with woodlots. A relatively “coarse scale” over a large area precludes visualization of these details. For this, zooming into particular sites is necessary.
An image of one of the largest active gold mines in Buhweju district. Grasslands, woodlots and small-scale agriculture are detectable around the site. Some settlements are also visible north east of the gold mine.
Pits and a processing area. Out of the frame, shacks for food sellers and a road for moving materials and bringing gold buyers from Kampala.
This satellite image of a village shows some active gold mining sites within and adjacent to the wetland. Small-scale agriculture is visible along the wetland stretch. Settlements are mostly along the road.
Small-scale agriculture and woodlots line the slopes of the valley. Nearby are banana plantations, while in the distance on the hillslope is a settlement with a road winding through.
Gold mines (“purple” patches) can be seen from the image above both within and near the wetland (“dark green” patches). Small-scale agriculture (“light green” patches) has facilitated degradation of the wetland.
A mine site in the wetland lining a valley bottom.
One of the biggest obstacles for artisanal miners who dig into the wetland are the heavy stones that they encounter underground. Some boulders are so heavy that they must be broken in smaller pieces with hammers before being transported outside the pit.
Miners wait for the gravel extracted from the bottom of the pit.
Video clip showing different stages, techniques, and tools used by artisanal miners to search for gold in wetlands.
Horizontal excavations are among the riskiest activities of artisanal miners. In this case, a group of miners is digging a tunnel to test for the presence of gold in the area.
Miners assess the risk of collapse of a horizontal tunnel dug into the terrain.
After days of weeks of hard work, miners have reached the layer where they have more chance to find gold.
The miners of Busia United Small-scale Mining Company (BUSCO) wait at the top of their mine, because today they extracted a part of the gold vein. All members are present to witness the yield.
This mine of Busia United Small-scale Mining Company (BUSCO) is known for its especially hard-rock. The hard-rock enables mining in the rainy season, because the mine structure is less affected by water. In the photo, members of BUSCO bring up the ore that they excavated.
This mine is located next to the hard-rock mine. Geologically, it looks very different. In this photo, members of BUSCO clear their mine from the soft top soil that came down in a small landslide due to rains. The hard-rock here is situated much deeper. This affects the mining methods.
In the open-cast mine of Tiira Landlords and Artisanal Miners Association (TLAMA), diverse mining activities take place. In this photo, women carry in basins the small pieces of ore that they searched for in the piles of discarded soil and rock, while an excavator prepares the mine for more in-depth operations.
At this mine of Tiira Small-Scale Mining Association (TISSMA) is a division of labour. Underground in the timbered shaft, men extract the ore. Women then carry the ore from the bottom of the mine to a storage place. This is typical in gold mining. Two women in Busia, though, gained fame doing underground mining.
The Shaanxi mine is built and exploited by Chinese, based on a license held by Ghanaian local residents. The collaboration is contested, since legally this foreign mining company is only allowed to provide services to Ghanaian license holders who have to do the actual mining.
Drawing of the Shaanxi Mine in relation to the orebody (stoneline) targeted by small-scale miners in the community. The drawing is made by Zakari, based on information from the internet providing the surface boundaries of the concession of the Shaanxi mine and some of the residential areas.
The terrain of Shaanxi mine is secured with barbed fences. We can see the headgear, which marks where the miners working for the Chinese descend into the shaft. Underground, the miners work in horizontal directions, moving outside the barded fence. Underground Shaanxi miners and the small-scale miners can meet and compete.
Adjacent to a glossy book about the Anglo Gold Ashanti industrial mine in Obuasi, is a drawing by Zakari and Kennedy detailing the underground situation of Kejetia. Comparing the images helps to tell the story of underground encounters between Chinese mining employees and small-scale miners.
The Shaanxi mine is situated in area with a long history of small-scale mining. At first there was a clear demarcation underground between these types of operations. Since the Chinese started tunneling under the areas where small-scale mining takes place, there are underground connections and some small-scale miners move into the sites where Chinese are blasting and mining.
The Shaanxi mine is trying to prevent small-scale miners from accessing ‘their’ ore. The fence serves to inhibit miners from digging pits in the confined area. The leftover grey coloured stones still testify to where pits were in the past. Does the cow index directions for less disturbed futures?
An abandoned industrial open-pit mine, filled with rainwater. Artisanal mining activities can develop in the vicinities of old industrial mines, even though local authorities and companies’ security services try to prevent and repress access to these spaces.
A vertical section of an abandoned industrial mine shows horizontal tunnels excavated by artisanal miners. The risk of collapse is higher in this kind of operation: these are usually the initiative of individuals or small groups, with little or no involvement of customary institutions.
Illustrative of the moralities at play in mining environments, access to some small-scale underground mines is blocked one day a month, to offer peace and quietness to the spirits residing in the subsurface. It is also a moment where gifts and (non-voluntary) ceremonial contributions are offered to the chiefs residing over these areas.
With dredges, equipped with generators and suction devices, material from the depths of rivers is pumped to the surface. Here, gold is (hopefully) recovered and muddy water released back into the river. This practice caused outcries against ASGM, eventually informing a moratorium on all ASM from April 2017 to December 2018.
This billboard was part of a campaign that advocated stopping all galamsey (informal/illegal ASM) and was launched by a group of civil society organizations and media platforms. Largely informed by dredging activities, this anti-ASM atmosphere, like the government-imposed moratorium on all ASM, can be seen as part of a complex moral mining politics.
In Tarkwa, Ghana, the underground systems of industrial mines have been abandoned in the 1990s following their shift towards open-pit mining. Although small teams of artisanal miners have been entering these systems since long, the influx of (Chinese) technology and capital (often entering into joint ventures with Ghanaian miners) has propelled and upscaled their full reopening. Here, we can see a team of small-scale miners reopening a shaft of which access had been blocked by method of back-filling the shafts. For such activities various tools are used, including jack-hammers, large chisels and shovels. When shafts are reopened, and access is secured, underground infrastructure is assessed and imported and mining activities are further expanded. In doing so, the pillars created by these former industrial operations are (supposed to be) left untouched as they are crucial for stability and therefore also important to new small-scale operations. Sometimes they are marked, for example with a big blue X, to make clear to everyone that they should NOT be mined.
Deep shafts require scaffolding to secure structural integrity and facilitate the descent of miners. Caleurs are specialized technicians recruited temporarily by each mining team to build these structures. Since these practices consume timber and exert pressure on wood reserves, taxes and informal regulations limit access to forest areas.
Close to the town centre, artisanal miners conduct large excavations that resemble open-cast mines. Digging is done mostly manually. Different teams control the mine, and a percentage of the profit goes to the representatives of the lineages that held rights on the corresponding portions of land on the surface.
Gold mining depends on collaborations within mining teams (called ‘gangs’) but also between teams. This roof shows how different teams working on a line with their individual pits have teamed up in building the infrastructure to protect themselves on sunny as well as rainy days.
The gold mining cooperative, of which several gold mining teams are members, has jointly prepared the terrain for further in-depth digging. An excavator was hired to take out the overburden. On the floor of this wider open pit, individual mining teams are now digging deeper – in the shade above ground and under.