By the GOLD MATTERS project team.
“Nobody buys gold anymore, even for free …. It’s really corona-djadiste. We cried because of djadism [jihadism]. We haven’t finished crying over our dead yet and now worse has come” (site manager, Burkina Faso, April 2020).
The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development portrays transformation as driven by intentional human action to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. The global shock associated with the COVID-19 pandemic forcefully reminds us how triggers for change can be sudden, unplanned and non-human, with existing global inequalities reinforcing negative impacts. Against this background, the Gold Matters Team, who are conducting research with Artisanal and Small-scale Miners (ASGM) in South America and Africa, sought to explore how miners are affected in the early stages of the pandemic (April 2020).
ASGM is typically informal, with people dependent on daily income for livelihoods and survival. Such informality is characterised by significant mobility, with people, goods and gold moving between localities and across borders. The COVID-19 contagion has not (yet, apparently) penetrated gold mining sites. Nevertheless, emergency controls enforcing immobility – social distancing, urban or total ‘lockdowns’, travel bans, and closure of borders, coupled in some contexts by the halting of mining operations and/or government repression – have had rapid consequences for people’s capacity to mine, process and sell gold. Such measures threaten miners’ employment and income-generation, raising the spectre of hunger and hardship.
A major feature of the crisis so far is the difference between local and international gold prices coupled with severe interruption of supply chains. The international price is strong, but border closures, transport-line disruptions and non-operational smelters mean local prices have declined sharply. Buyers are perceived to be capitalising on the situation, accumulating gold until prices rise. A miner in the region along the highway BR163 of Brazil described: “Most gold retailers are paralysed the process [of selling gold]. We clearly perceive they [the dealers] are taking advantage of the situation”. Likewise, according to a site manager in Burkina Faso: “The activities continue, but gold does not buy more. Sometimes we must pawn our gold as a guarantee or a pledge to our big buyers in order to get money. This money allows us to ensure a minimum of our activities and to take care of our families while waiting for the pandemic to be eradicated”.
Alongside gold, shortages and price rises affect food supplies. In western Uganda it seems like foresight that matooke (banana) plantations were left around pits – “we leave the matooke so we will still have food” – but in the East few miners practice agriculture and with children at home under lockdown meals have reduced. Fear is widespread there will be more deaths from hunger than COVID-19.
With miner livelihoods and survival at risk, a critical question is what local responses to the pandemic will develop in mining localities – whether capacity for self-organization, characteristic of the informal economy, will provide a basis for positive community action, or whether the scale of health and economic devastation, coupled with limited capacity for national response, will lead to the hunger and deaths people most fear.
All photos by Nii Obodai Provencal of Nuku Studios.