Illicit entanglements: Formal and informal gold mining in Indonesia

Authors: Matthew Libassi*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Development, Natural Resources
Keywords: small-scale mining, gold, environment, informality, Indonesia
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Jackson, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Small-scale, informal gold mining has mushroomed in countries worldwide in recent decades. Indonesia, a nation where an estimated 1 million people are connected to the industry, is a leading example. These activities have drawn scrutiny from Indonesian government agencies, formal mining enterprises, and environmental NGOs. This diverse coalition has defined the industry as "illicit" in various ways, citing mineral extraction without permits, use of banned chemicals, and an alleged association with local social and moral decay. However, attempts to police these activities often rely on homogenizing narratives that obscure political-economic dynamics internal to the informal gold economy. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in West Java, I use this paper to highlight one such set of dynamics: the ties that entangle the informal and formal mining economies. Dominant narratives of illicitness--particularly those defining what forms of resource access are illegal and illegal--continually reinforce an artificial dichotomy between these two spheres. The neglect of this interrelation both shapes and inhibits the effectiveness of governance theoretically aimed at reducing the worst environmental and social consequences associated with gold mining. It contributes to sporadic interventions with highly differentiated effects, rarely achieving their stated goals and often exacerbating local inequalities. Instead, governance efforts often reflect institutional priorities to consolidate physical and political territory. Acknowledgement of the foundational interconnections between formal and informal gold mining in Indonesia--often an illicit relation in its own right--is critical to shifting governance of the industry towards actual development and environmental goals.

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