Feminist Geopolitical Ecology & Gold Mining in the Bolivian Amazon
All along the rivers that snake through Bolivia’s Amazonian region, people are looking for gold. Although few have completed their permitting processes, most of these gold miners belong to "mining cooperatives" - relatively small-scale and only loosely regulated operations. Once they have crushed the ore-bearing rocks, cooperative miners use mercury to isolate the gold. According to the UN Comtrade Database, gold surpassed natural gas to become Bolivia’s largest export by value by value in 2021. Roughly 95% of that gold is produced by mining cooperatives, most of them operating in the region north of La Paz and in the Amazon. In 2022, Bolivia was the greatest importer of mercury in the world.
"Small-scale" gold mining operations are not necessarily artisanal. Large dredgers and excavators are increasingly common. Photo by Andrea Marston.
Bolivia is not alone, although it is an extreme example. A new global gold rush is underway, much of it undertaken by artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) operations. After rising steadily for two decades, gold spot prices hit an all-time high in May 2023, topping out at $2015 per ounce. Gold, both as jewelry and in investment portfolios, is traditionally used as a safe haven in times of economic instability. But recent price patterns also reflect growing demand by central banks in large emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) such as India, China, Turkey, Russia, and Brazil. Gold is part of a broader trend toward "de-dollarization," wherein countries try to protect themselves from painful US sanctions by diversifying their financial reserves.
These piles of rocks are slag heaps left behind by gold miners. Photo by Andrea Marston.
These geopolitical and financial shifts show up not only in expanded gold mining frontiers, but also in toxic accumulations of mercury in the bodies of people living nearby. In the Bolivian Amazon, the affected people mostly belong to Indigenous and campesino communities. Within these communities, mercury is particularly toxic for pregnant women and young children. A 2021 study of hair samples taken from women of childbearing age in gold mining zones across four Latin American countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela) found that Indigenous Ese Ejja women in Bolivia had higher mercury levels than any other group.
Rivers are primary sources of food and water for Amazonian communities, and these boats are primary modes of transportation. Photo by Andrea Marston.
By tracing the relationship between gold as a material substance and gold as a price-indexed commodity, this project analyzes the multi-scalar processes that link geopolitics and global financial systems to the environmental and feminized health outcomes of gold mining in the Bolivian Amazon. Toward this goal, I have developed an analytic framework I call feminist geopolitical ecology, which draws insights from political ecology, political geography, and economic geography, focusing on feminist contributions within each subfield. Feminist geopolitical ecology focuses on the grounded environmental and embodied impacts of seemingly immaterial global relations, with a focus on the how those impacts might be unevenly distributed across space and along axes of social difference. By moving across spatial scales that range from the molecular to the planetary, feminist geopolitical ecology seeks materialize macro social systems in transformed environments and embodied health burdens.
This is comparatively artisanal mining: a lone miner stands in the water up to their neck shoveling rocks into a motorized dredge and sluice box. Photo by Andrea Marston.
This project is currently in the development and planning stage. Methodologically, it has two prongs: 1) expert interviews and market analysis to interpret trends in global gold purchases, prices, and investment, and 2) fieldwork-based collaboration in the Bolivian Amazon. The latter will focus on perceptions of and adaptive responses to gold mining among Tacana and Mosetén women, and will include interviews, participatory mapping, and soil/water samples.
The Bolivian Amazon is a biodiversity hotspot. These capybaras are one of many species to rely on the rivers. Photo by Andrea Marston.