Person standing on pile inmine

Indonesia: Spectacles of Small-scale Gold Mining

Man hand panning goald

In Indonesia, small-holder gold mining has boomed over the last 20 years. Despite offering economic opportunities and the potential for prosperity in rural communities, it has had seriously detrimental impacts on many Indonesians in the area, their livelihoods, and the environment.

The industry has been a longstanding research focus for Nancy Lee Peluso, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. This year, she released an online photography exhibit titled “Indonesia: Spectacles of Small-scale Gold Mining” at the UC Berkeley Library. 

In mining communities of the West Kalimantan region of Indonesian Borneo, Peluso spent seven months conducting ethnographic fieldwork. There she researched small-scale miners’ lives, labor, working landscapes, environmental destruction, and the life-or-death working conditions in mining pits and tunnels, all the while documenting what she witnessed in photographs. 

A group of workers laboring in an open pit mine

In thematic chapters of the exhibit, Peluso shows community dynamics, the mining process, land transformations, and other subjects. For instance, one series focuses on the methods and technologies that laborers used to collect and render gold. Another series shows the arduous process—from excavation to infrastructure construction—of converting an old rubber plantation into a mine. 

Indonesian small-scale miners and laborers have largely been dispossessed of both land and livelihood, as both corporate agriculture and national development initiatives came into the region about two decades ago. Today the industry is largely unregulated and very dangerous, and mining sites can span hundreds of square kilometers. 

Peluso has researched smallholders, workers, and land transformations in Asia for more than 35 years. She currently serves as the Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy, is a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities, and is holder of the 2019 Al Moumin Environmental Peacebuilding Award.