Gold Mining and Changing Perceptions of Risk in West Java

By Soemarwoto, Rini; Ellen, Roy | Human Organization, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Gold Mining and Changing Perceptions of Risk in West Java


Soemarwoto, Rini, Ellen, Roy, Human Organization


Artisanal gold mining presents some risks that can be accommodated easily within traditional cosmologies and perceptions of natural causation, and other health costs that are often new for those involved, and which require people to radically modify their evaluation and management of risk. This paper examines changing perceptions of risk for the Kasepuhan, an upland cultural enclave in West Java, who are increasingly drawn into gold mining to subsidize traditional forms of income generation at a time of rising material expectations. We first demonstrate how mining (tunnel collapse) is accommodated within traditional cosmologies and explanations of misfortune. We compare this with the processing of gold using mercury amalgam, which presents different kinds of risk not easily explained using traditional models. These have required miners and their communities to entertain new notions of causality and risk management.

Key words: artisanal gold mining, West Java, Indonesia, risk, cultural perception

Introduction

Artisanal gold mining has been reported for many marginal development frontiers of the world (Moran 1988). Such enterprises often combine relatively accessible techniques and low capital with potentially high financial returns for both poor local and migrant communities (Godoy 1985b, 1985c; Killick and During 1969). However, while artisanal gold mining presents some risks that can be accommodated easily within traditional frameworks for perceiving and understanding natural causation or within cosmologies that theorize the universe as a particular kind of ordered and harmonious whole (see e.g., Howell 1996), other health costs are often new for those involved and seem to require people to radically modify their evaluation and management of risk. Godoy (1985a), in his review of anthropological approaches to mining, makes reference to risk and to studies which embed its understanding in traditional rituals and ideologies, but although he cites studies of environmental impacts (from noise, dust, run-off, seepage, vibration, smog, topsoil destruction, through to complete ecological transformation), he makes no explicit reference to the health aspects of artisanal mining to which these might contribute. Ballard and Banks (2003), in their update of Godoy's review, have little to say explicitly concerning risk, though there is some coverage of health impacts. They admit that despite the potential for ethnographic studies, the anthropology of mining "remains largely under-researched and under-theorized" (Ballard and Banks 2003:287), with most recent emphasis being on the role of mining corporations, and on "mining discourse."

Most existing social science accounts of mining relate to modern large-scale capitalist enterprises (Ballard and Banks 2003). Although some account has been paid to the transition from independent peasant miners to proletarians (Nash 1979; Taussig 1980), systematic studies of informal smallscale artisanal peasant mining from a community perspective remain scarce (Godoy 1985a; MMSD 2002), especially for what Howard (1994) describes as indigenous communities with pre-industrial life-styles (but see also Kunanayagam and Young 1998, for Indonesia). This is partly because such activity is often illegal as well as being socially marginal and geographically remote.

In this paper, we shall examine the case of the Kasepuhan,1 an upland cultural enclave in West Java (Figure 1 ). Until recently, this community has been self-sufficient in food provision but is increasingly drawn into gold mining to subsidize traditional forms of income generation at a time of rising material expectations. Little has been written on the social and cultural aspects of gold mining in Indonesia, and few detailed ethnographic accounts of local beliefs and practices exist. However, gold mining is widely reported, and there has been some attention paid to its wider political and economic dimensions, as reflected in scandals, corruption, and foreign investment (Tsing 2004). …

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