Centering Labor at the Artisanal- and Small-scale Mining Frontier

Interdisciplinary and Comparative Perspectives

Dr Boris Verbrugge
Radboud University Nijmegen

The Research Idea

Over the past decade artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has witnessed a massive expansion, with an estimated 20-30 million people in over 80 countries now involved in labor-intensive, low-tech, and predominantly informal mining activities. There exists broad agreement among scholars that ASM is ‘poverty-driven’ and that, given the right policy environment, it can make important contributions to development (Gamu et al., 2015). To unlock this development potential, scholars and policymakers often emphasize the need to provide ASM-operators with secure access to mineral-bearing land, through the issuance of formal mining rights (Siegel & Veiga, 2007). Countering this mining rights-centered approach to ASM, this research proposal instead takes as its starting point the existence of a massive ASM-workforce does not (at least in the first instance) need rights-based access to mineral-bearing land, but requires access to viable opportunities for (wage) employment. Put differently, by emphasizing the importance of formal mining rights, existing analyses and policy interventions risk glossing over the needs and concerns of the informal ASM-workforce (Verbrugge, 2015). In addition to having important societal consequences, this neglect has far-reaching theoretical-analytical ramifications, because an entire range of issues, actors and relationships remain hidden from academic scrutiny. Recognizing this gap, we aim to convene a number of ASM-experts from different disciplinary backgrounds, working in different geographical contexts, around the following research question: What is the (changing) role of labor as a mechanism to derive benefits from mineral wealth for different actors involved in ASM?


To help frame this collaborative research effort, we advance two theoretical propositions that will serve as a starting point for our analysis of labor issues in ASM. The first one is that labor can serve both as a direct and as an indirect mechanism to derive benefits from mineral resources: in addition to people directly exchanging their labor power for wages, those in control of labor opportunities may allocate jobs in exchange for wealth, power or social status (Ribot & Peluso, 2003). Secondly, labor markets do not function according to the laws of supply and demand, but are sociopolitical arenas, and social institutions like kinship, gender, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation play a key role in regulating labor markets (Harriss-White, 2003). Evaluating existing ASM-research on the basis of these two propositions, it quickly becomes clear that existing evidence on labor issues remains patchy, and has mostly emerged as a by-product of earlier research, rather than constituting its central focus. Furthermore, while some authors offer detailed descriptions of a multi-tiered division of labor (Cleary, 1990) and/or of complex mobility dynamics within the ASM-workforce (Jønsson & Bryceson, 2009), they refrain from situating their findings within the broader political-economic context. Finally, although ASM is taking place in over 80 countries, existing research exhibits a strong bias towards sub-Saharan Africa, where the sector is arguably less advanced –in terms of the level of capitalization and professionalization– than in countries like the Philippines, Brazil, or Suriname.

The Focus

More often than not, ‘illegal ASM’ is seen as a nuisance, a source of social and environmental woes like mercury pollution, child labor, and conflict. The formal recognition of ASM is often seen as a necessary precondition, if not as a panacea, for resolving these problems. As noted above, formalization efforts have hitherto focused primarily on the issuance of formal mining rights, and to a lesser extent on mitigating –usually unsuccessfully– the environmental impact of ASM. We share a conviction that many of the aforementioned problems, while certainly real, are ultimately rooted in poverty. Furthermore, while an entire range of factors may contribute to persistent poverty and marginalization in the sector, including a legal structure that discriminates against ASM (Hilson, 2013), hazardous and exploitative labor conditions are arguably one of the most pressing concerns. Seen from this perspective, a more nuanced and evidence-based understanding of labor issues in ASM can provide a sounder basis for a critical engagement with policymakers, facilitating a transition towards more inclusive and innovative approaches to formalization that also target those ‘doing the dirty work’ (Verbrugge et al., 2014).

Theoretical Novelty

The main theoretical objective is to develop a (preliminary) framework for contextualizing the dynamics of labor markets –defined here as ‘arenas in which workers exchange their labor power in return for wages, status, and other job rewards’ (Kalleberg & Sorenson, 1979: 351)– in ASM-landscapes across diverse geographical settings. Such a more nuanced understanding of labor market dynamics, including dynamics of differentiation within the workforce, should enable us to further qualify if not undermine ‘dualistic’ images of ASM as a homogeneous group of actors with similar licensing requirements. This more nuanced view of ASM as a heterogeneous constellation of actors, may in turn help shed new light on the complex relationship between ASM and large-scale mining, which is all too often dismissed as one of large-scale mining excluding defenseless ASM-operators from access to mineral-bearing land. In reality, this relationship is more complex, involving an entire range of interactions. It is imperative, therefore, to explore and exchange ideas on how the expansion of large-scale mining affects both land use patterns as well as labor relations on the ground. Finally, a labor perspective on ASM should result in a more nuanced understanding of ASM-expansion as both a product and a catalyst of wider processes of political and economic transformation. In the process, we can (further) narrow the divide between existing research on ASM, and some of the major debates in critical development studies, including those on de-/re-agrarianisation and livelihood diversification (Hilson, 2011).


This collaborative research effort aims to push the research agenda on ASM forward on two fronts. In the first instance, it seeks to exploit interdisciplinary synergies, by convening scholars that approach ASM from different disciplinary perspectives. More precisely, the group will include anthropologists (Cuvelier, De Theije, Luning), who have a more intimate understanding of micro-level organizational dynamics in ASM; political scientists (Geenen, Verbrugge) and historians (Van Bockstael), whose research interests gravitate towards the historical-institutional and political-economic context wherein ASM-activities are taking place; and human geographers (Maconachie, McQuilken), whose research can be situated at the interface between the technical and social aspects of ASM. In addition, the group will benefit tremendously from the fact that the aforementioned scholars conduct research in a wide range of countries, and even in different continents (the DRC, Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Suriname, Brazil and the Philippines). This creates ample opportunities for a comparative research agenda that aims to understand, amongst other things, how diverging historical-institutional- and development trajectories have impacted on the development and anatomy of the ASM-sector in these different countries.

Work Plan

The group’s activities will take place from March-September 2016, and will reach a highpoint during a two-day workshop in Nijmegen (Netherlands) at the end of June. The process begins in March, when the PI circulates a discussion paper that elaborates on the research question and the theoretical propositions outlined above. Participants will then be expected to prepare a short research statement (by May) on the basis of this discussion paper, wherein they discuss how it relates (or not) to their personal research experience. These short statements will be circulated a few weeks in advance of the workshop, where participants will be asked to give a short presentation, before moving on to a series of discussions about labor in the ASM-sector. The immediate output of this workshop will be a tentative research agenda that identifies a number of promising themes and issues concerning labor issues in ASM, which hold great promise for interdisciplinary and comparative inquiry. In the months after this workshop (July-September), it is expected that this tentative research agenda will become more concrete, with the PI taking the lead in organizing- or facilitating a number of smaller meetings that should result in joint publications and/or joint research proposals.


With the massive expansion of ASM in recent years and decades, scholarly attention for the phenomenon has increased, and a growing number of scholars are now studying the ASM-phenomenon in different geographical contexts, applying different disciplinary perspectives. So far, these research efforts remain fragmented, and there is immense potential for cross-disciplinary learning, and for a more systematic comparative approach to analyzing the range of issues confronting the sector –including not just labor issues, but also the persistence of informality, the relationship between ASM and smallholder farming, -between ASM and large-scale mining, … This proposed research collaboration should be seen as catalytic, in the sense that the workshop will serve as a primer for establishing a full-blown research network on ASM that aims to exploit some of these synergies; cultivating interdisciplinary relationships with the ultimate ambition of implementing a truly interdisciplinary and comparative research agenda. This grant would be tremendously helpful to kick-start this process, by providing us with an opportunity to get together and discuss in more detail what such a long-term process should look like, and to explore tangible opportunities for future research collaboration.