One of the aims of the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme is to build capacity for international research collaboration by supporting early-career scientists. As part of a series of posts from early-career researchers from different T2S projects, we spoke to Esther van de Camp, Leiden University, the Netherlands and the Gold Matters project.
For researcher Esther van de Camp, gold is a window into an entire universe of ideas.
“Environmental problems, issues of inequality and gender, but also fascinating things in geology and what’s underground – and the fact that gold doesn’t even originate on earth; it originates from supernovae explosions,” says Esther van de Camp, a PhD candidate at Leiden University and a researcher with the Gold Matters project.
“There’s so much to say and to learn about it,” she says. “You can go in so many directions.”
Gold Matters focuses on artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
By looking at the political, social and economic context around ASGM and learning from miners and communities about their relationship with nature, the project aims to explore how the industry can become more sustainable.
The project includes teams gathering data in seven countries. In Uganda’s Busia region, van de Camp’s research took her into the gold fields, where between interviews, researchers picked up shovels and got into the mud and rock, learning first-hand from miners.
Her research calls for a more nuanced idea of sustainability that considers local context and looks at not only mining’s environmental impact, but also social justice and questions of inequality.
“What’s sustainable is very localized,” van de Camp says. “You could say that miners should just find different technologies to mine, but maybe there’s no money to do it, or the reality on the ground doesn’t allow it.”
People who are sometimes shut out of the formal job market may also find work in small-scale mining – in particular women, an important part of the workforce in van de Camp’s study area.
“Sustainability transformation includes structural transformation as well as societal transformation,” she says.
These complex questions require layered approaches. Drawing on her background in anthropology and industrial ecology, van de Camp employed a variety of methods: life-cycle assessments of mining projects, scenario planning to sketch out futures for gold miners as well as ethnographic and social research to dig into the context.
“I borrow methods from each of them, and I try to use that friction – because that’s our goal, to learn how we can deal with these different types of knowledge,” she says.
“For me, as an early career researcher to be part of this interdisciplinary research group Gold Matters, within this program Transformations to Sustainability, it’s such an opportunity to learn and to share and to collaborate,” she says. “What’s next? Keep collaborating. We need this transdisciplinary knowledge and contextualized knowledge.”
Find out more about the experiences of early-career researchers working on different T2S projects here.