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The Ethics of Gold

L'éthique de l'or

La ética del oro

Revue internationale des études du développement n°249 (2022-2)

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Published on Monday, June 14, 2021


This call for papers falls broadly within the scope of ongoing debates around the relationship between development paths and gold mining activities, and around the social and political reconfigurations caused by these extractive activities. It aims to grasp the heuristic significance of gold in order to examine the processes of change, structuring, and destructuring at work at different scales of the gold production network and supply chain. It particularly welcomes studies grounded in empirics to primarily address the following issues: responsibility, (possible) sustainability, legitimation, and social justice.



  • Sylvie Capitant (sylvie.capitant@univ-paris1.fr), sociologist, Institut d’études du développement de la Sorbonne (IEDES) – Université Panthéon-Sorbonne Paris 1, France
  • Muriel Côte (cote@keg.lu.se), geographer, Department of Human Geography, Lund University, Sweden
  • Tongnoma Zongo (ztongnom@gmail.com), geographer, CNRST- Institut national des Sciences de la société (INSS), Burkina Faso


The sustained, (un)desirable, and multi-sited appeal of gold

In 2020, the price of gold reached its highest level in contemporary history. After having peaked first in 2012, following the financial crisis of 2008 and the debt crisis in Europe, the price started rising again in 2019 before peaking in 2020 in the midst of the health crisis.[1] At the same time, between 2010 and 2019, gold production increased by 26% worldwide and by 44% in Africa,[2] showing the strength of the craze for this metal, but also its intimate relationship with the world economic situation, especially in OECD countries.

Despite the difficult access to certain mining areas, especially for security reasons, and despite the increased regulations for artisanal mining, gold continues to be mined both through large-scale industrial means, and artisanal or semi-mechanized ones. Whether in Colombia, Burkina Faso, China, or Mongolia, gold is dug out, washed, sold legally or illegally, refined to be worn in jewelry (52%), melted into ingots or coins (45 %), used by the technology sector (9%), and transformed into financial assets (3%).[3] Unlike other minerals, it has few industrial or technological uses, but its value as a financial “safe haven” in times of crisis and uncertainty (Reboredo, 2013) means that gold is still being mined despite the constraints linked to its extraction.

Like other minerals, gold is also tapped by legal and illegal militarized actors, often in the heart of conflict zones where it constitutes a prime source of financing, also allowing the recruitment of local back-up soldiers due to situations of endemic poverty, inequality, and vulnerability (Crisis, 2019). Such situations also appear in places where the state is not very present or its legitimacy has been weakened, on the edges of certain territories or on their borders.

A symbolic metal if there ever was one, and an identity marker in the history of several countries (Peru, Colombia, Mali, Ghana, the United States, and Canada), an interesting characteristic of gold lies in the place it occupies in international financial and trade relations.

While the dependence of gold exporting countries has often been highlighted – gold accounts for 92%, 77%, and 49.8% respectively of exports from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, for example (OEC, 2019)[4] – it is worth noting that gold also occupies a central place in the countries involved in its global trade. Gold is Switzerland’s leading import and export product (in 2019, 21% of its imports and 19% of its exports, compared to 15% for packaged pharmaceuticals, according to the OEC in 2019). Likewise, gold accounts for 13.5% of the United Arab Emirates’ imports, with a 30% rise between 2014 and 2019, and Dubai is increasingly emerging as an alternative destination to Switzerland. A plurality of actors has participated in the creation of the value that gold fetches and in the way in which it is extracted. A multi-sited perspective is therefore particularly relevant, thus making it possible to consider the interdependence of the world, the distribution of responsibilities in supply chains, and their diverse effects on countries.

The dualism and ambivalence of gold mining worlds

Another characteristic of this metal is that it is strongly marked by the duality of its mining. While the industrial branch produces 80% of the world’s gold and employs 20% of the workers in the sector, the artisanal branch contributes 20% of the world production, with 80% of the sector’s labor force (UNEP, 2021). Although distinct in nature, these different mining modes nonetheless coexist in the field, and even follow one another (Luning, 2014), often in a violent manner.

Such dualism is not specific to the gold sector, but it is particularly marked there, raising haunting, difficult questions in terms of social and environmental justice. It gives rise to an astonishing face-to-face: foreign multinationals, registered on the Toronto, London, or Sydney stock exchanges, finding themselves grappling with local collectives of artisanal miners, who overwhelmingly come from the rural world. The latter are outside national laws because most often they do not have an operating permit, so that they have trouble accessing the legal space, which tends to marginalize them (Côte & Korf, 2018).

The figure of the artisanal miner is complex and ambivalent, seen both as a threat and an alternative. On the one hand, they are accused of significant negative externalities, both at an environmental level (use of chemicals, deforestation, and non-rehabilitation of the exploited land) (Tschakert & Singha, 2007; Vélez-Torres, 2016) and at a social level (child labor, safety and labor rights, prostitution, and drug use). Due to the rise of armed conflicts in gold-producing regions, security concerns have increasingly been highlighted (illicit financial flows and links with armed groups) (GIABA, 2019; OECD, 2018). These harmful effects give rise to disputes both at the global level and at the level of the populations living near mining sites. At the same time, artisanal miners are well integrated at the local level. In the eyes of the youth and farmers who are discouraged by the lack of future prospects in agrarian activity, these miners are often examples of economic success, and financial and social empowerment (Hilson, 2013; Lahiri Dutt 2018). While the local benefits of industrial mines are often at the heart of disputes, artisanal mining generates local development that is visible for the populations: population growth, urban construction, the diversification of service occupations (Zongo & Zerbo, 2019), the strengthening of local consumption, and increased household income near gold mining areas (Bazillier & Girard, 2018).

In addition, the artisanal miner category is not made up of a homogeneous workforce (Bryceson & Geenen, 2016). It is multiple and characterized by great inequalities and often violent relations of domination between the labor force (diggers) and the capital (owners and funders of shafts, and managers of trading companies). Similarly, there are asymmetric relationships between economic production activities (actual gold mining work) and service activities, or social reproduction, which help “support” mining camps and are often strictly gendered (Panella, 2007; Bashwira et al., 2014).

The image of industrial mines is also ambiguous, as it alternates between an opportunity for economic emergence and a source of strong local protests. The growing number of such protests against industrial operations has gradually weakened the “mining boom rhetoric” promoted in the 2000s by gold-producing states and international institutions (Capitant, 2016). This rhetoric has for instance allowed justifying states’ massive support for industrial mining, which was presented as a major contributor to the public budget (15% in Burkina Faso, for example), and as a source of growth, jobs, and integration into the world economy. However, this discourse is not always accepted and generates criticism and social protests (Svampa, 2011; El Kahlaoui & Koenraad, 2019). The disputes are often related to the small number of jobs available, the conditions for evicting populations and established artisanal gold miners, the mining permits, and the definition of who is local and who is not. From an environmental point of view, production may be better regulated, but the consequences can be dramatic in the event of an accident, and are more difficult to establish in normal times, due to weak independent auditing.

The question of “the ethics of gold” in this special issue embraces this complexity, and examines the dualism and ambivalence through the prisms of ethics, global responsibility, and social and environmental justice (Dolan & Rajak, 2016; Dunlap & Jakobsen, 2020; Barca, 2020).

Ethical responsibility and social justice in the gold mining environment

For the past ten years, initiatives have been developed to produce fair gold, fairmined gold, clean gold, and responsible gold, in the wake of global conversations around “conflict” and “blood” minerals (Van Bockstael, 2018). Labels such as Fairmined and Fair Gold, as well as the Swiss Better Gold Initiative, have been created to certify artisanally produced gold (industrial gold is not included in these labels), and to encourage artisanal miners to improve production conditions. Two areas in particular have garnered attention: working conditions and environmental impact. International development aid projects have also been increasingly focusing on small-scale gold mines, and on regulating the use of mercury, which is the main source of pollution for the environment, workers, and neighboring populations. Similar initiatives have also emerged for industrial production: the IRMA label certifies large-scale mining companies;[5] EITI tries to establish transparency at the level of gold-producing states;[6] the Responsible Jewellery Council promotes a seal of good practice for jewelers;[7] and the Good Delivery list from the London Bullion Market Authority provides one to refineries.[8]

This call for papers proposes to use these initiatives and the debates that they have sparked off as a starting point to examine the foundations of “fair” gold production more broadly (not specifically within the framework of the so-called “fair” sectors). Beyond the still very marginal sectors labeled as “fair,” what is the legitimacy of the economic transactions (and their consequences) carried out in the name of gold, and of the related sense of the just and the unjust? How are these criteria of justice understood at different levels of the production chain and according to the actors involved? It is in this sense that we would like to examine the notion of gold ethics, and this issue is also an opportunity to refine an understanding thereof.

Based on the aforementioned elements, the issue proposes to gather a broad range of contributions, at the crossroads of several disciplines in the social and human sciences, to shed light on the stakes and effects in various finely detailed contextual frameworks. Several lines of inquiry are set forth in this call for papers, in a non-exclusive way, insofar as they are most often linked.

An approach through three lines of inquiry

  • Line of inquiry 1: Justice, injustice, and registers of legitimation

The first line of inquiry aims to examine the registers of legitimation used to justify the different modes of ethical engagement with the gold production and trade sector. The various actors involved in the supply chain adopt choices to favor, counter, or promote their modes of engagement with this economy. These choices are influenced by the social and political relations at play in and between the contexts involved, and lead to the development of registers of legitimacy supporting them.

This issue calls for contributions that describe and historicize the registers used by the different actors, and examine their relevance and their consequences. Today, gold-producing states, but also some of the international donors who support them, facilitate and promote industrial production. What are the arguments used (and by whom) to justify this emphasis on the industrial branch? Are other choices possible? What are the consequences for the “social contract” between the state and its citizens? Several recent studies show the rising resentment towards public authorities due to this positioning in favor of industrial mining operated by foreign multinationals to the detriment of the artisanal and semi-mechanized sectors, which employ a significant local labor force (Hubert, 2021).

Conversely, this special issue is also interested in the way in which the actors of small-scale mining justify their activity. How are they heard? How do the difficulties they encounter contribute to changing their expectations and their demands of the authorities? What is perceived to be just and unjust locally, nationally, and globally? Examining the registers of legitimation used and their perception at different levels is what this issue calls for.

  • Line of inquiry 2: Sustainability and accountability of fair trade chains

The second line of inquiry calls for reflecting on the emerging forms of accountability around chains that are labeled “fair” (very largely supported by international donors). How do they reshape the relations of production outside these chains?

Recent work on these labeling initiatives (Hilson et al. 2016; Fisher, 2018; Sippl, 2020) raises fundamental questions: what are the criteria used, how are they defined, and are they contested? What global vision of social and environmental responsibility do they convey? Why do these initiatives focus primarily on artisanal mining? Does the great asymmetry of power relations in the sector bias their implementation and extension? What can be made of the fact that only a tiny minority of miners are able to meet most of the criteria? Is the idea of sustainable gold mining an illusion?

  • Line of inquiry 3: Fair regulations: thwarted ambitions

Finally, the issue proposes to examine the regulatory frameworks put into place by the states to organize gold mining. For example, many companies, in the name of the principle of “fiscal stability,” have negotiated with gold-producing states a fixed level of taxation, therefore independent of changes in tax laws and in the gold price. On the artisanal side, after having initially adopted a very hostile attitude (criminalization of activities and evictions), most gold-producing states are aiming to “formalize” artisanal production, with the endorsement of international donors.

How can these policies be analyzed, when they remain largely unsuited to the sector, with a legal regulatory framework that is not very accessible, low investments to massively develop less polluting mining techniques, and scarce possibilities of formalization due to the very large share of land for which permits have already been granted to industrial mining companies?


The authors have based this call for papers on their empirical knowledge of the field in Africa, but are very open to welcoming proposals from other fields, in particular South America, as well as contributions that fall within the thematic scope, but have not explicitly been addressed here.

This call for papers has emerged from a collaborative project including the three authors funded by the Swedish FORMAS research funding agency (Burkina, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, and Colombia).

The contextualization of empirical studies and original corpuses, and the combination of a sound theoretical approach and fieldwork are expected.

This issue will favor an interdisciplinary approach. Authors from all the social and human sciences may submit papers, including but not limited to: sociology, political science, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

Submission details / Participation in Issue no. 249 (2022/2) of the RIED

The authors agree to read the editorial policy of the Revue internationale des études du développement and to comply with the code of ethics.

The selection process will take place according to the dates specified in the publication calendar below.

  1. Submitting the proposal:

The proposals in French, English, or Spanish must present the paper in 4,000 characters (with spaces), or approximately one page. The file for the proposal must be entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-Proposal-249,” and must include:

- a title (70 characters maximum, with the possibility of adding a subtitle);

- an abstract detailing the research question, the theoretical framework, the fieldwork, and the main results;

- some bibliographical references (not included in the character count);

- a file entitled “AUTHOR’S SURNAME-249-info,” including the author’s first name and last name, their status, their institutional affiliation, and their email address.

The relevancy of the proposals with regard to this call for papers and their conformity to the journal guidelines will be verified by the journal editors and the editorial team.

  1. Submitting the paper:

The authors whose proposals have been selected will be invited to send a first draft of their article, which must absolutely follow the guidelines below. The articles will then be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic.

The articles (45,000 characters with spaces, excluding the abstract and references) may be written in French, English, or Spanish. They must be original work. They may however have been presented at a conference (with proceedings), as long as they have been adapted to the format required by the Revue internationale des études du développement (see the guidelines for authors on the blog for the publications of the IEDES), but the author must not submit their paper to another journal simultaneously.

Publication calendar

The authors agree to comply with the calendar.

The proposals must be submitted by July 9rd, 2021 to:

- the editorial office: revdev@univ-paris1.fr

- the editors:

The authors preselected by the editors and the editorial committee will be notified by the editorial team the week of July 19th 2021.

The first draft (V1), following the journal’s guidelines for authors, must be submitted by the authors to the three aforementioned email addresses by October 5th 2021.

The evaluation process will take a few months; each – anonymous – article will be submitted to a double blind peer review by two external reviewers who are experts on the topic. Requesting a first version of the article does not constitute a commitment on the part of the journal to publish the aforementioned article, which must be approved by the editorial committee, following the different steps in the evaluation process; no. 249 is expected to be published in September 2022.


Barca, S. (2020). Forces of Reproduction. Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108878371

Bashwira, M.-R., Cuvelier, J., & Hilhorst, D. (2014). Not Only a Man’s World. Women’s Involvement in Artisanal Mining in Eastern DRC. Resources Policy, 40, 109-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.11.002

Bryceson, F.D. & Geenen, S. (2016). Artisanal Frontier Mining of Gold in Africa: Labour Transformation in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. African Affairs, 115(459), 296-317. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adv073

Calvaõ, F. (2016). Unfree labour. Annual Review of Anthropology, 45, 451-467. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102215-100307

Capitant, S. (2017). Les populations à l’assaut des mines : économie morale de la contestation minière au Burkina Faso. In Leclerc-Olive, M. (Ed.), Anthropologie des prédations foncières. Entreprises minières et pouvoirs locaux. Éditions des Archives contemporaines.

Cartier-Bresson, J., Destremau, B. & Lautier, B. (2009). Les mots du développement : trajectoires et pouvoirs: Introduction. Revue Tiers Monde, 4(4), 725-734. https://doi.org/10.3917/rtm.200.0725

Côte, M. & Korf, B. (2018). Making Concessions: Extractive Enclaves, Entangled Capitalism and Regulative Pluralism at the Gold Mining Frontier in Burkina Faso. World Development, 101, 466-476. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.11.002

Dolan, C. & Rajak, D. (Eds.) (2016). The Anthropology of Corporate Social Responsibility, Berghahn Books.

Dunlap, A. & Jakobsen, J. (Eds.) (2020). The Violent Technologies of Extraction. Political Ecology, Critical Agrarian Studies and the Capitalist Worldeater. Palgrave/Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26852-7

El Kahlaoui, S. & Koenraad, B. (2019). Politiser le regard sur les marges. Le cas du mouvement « sur la voie 96 » d’Imider. L’Année du Maghreb, 1(21), 181-191. https://doi.org/10.4000/anneemaghreb.5555

Fisher, E. (2018). Solidarities at a Distance. Extending Fairtrade Gold to East Africa. The Extractive Industries and Society, 5(1), 81-90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2017.08.001

GIABA (2019). Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing Measures – Burkina Faso. The Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering Publishing.

Hilson, G. (2014). Constructing Ethical Mineral Supply Chains In Sub-Saharan Africa. The case of Malawian Fair Trade Rubies. Development and Change, 45(1), 53-78. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12069

Hilson, G., Hilson, A. & McQuilken, J. (2016). Ethical Minerals. Fairer Trade for Whom?. Resource Policy, 49, 232-247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2016.05.002

Hubert, N. (2021) The Nature of Peace. How Environmental Regulation can Cause Conflicts. World Development, 141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2021.105409

Lahiri-Dutt, K. (2018). Extractive Peasants. Reframing Informal Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Debates. Third World Quarterly, 39(8), 1561-1582. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2018.1458300

Li, T.M. (2013). Jobless Growth and Relative Surplus Population. Anthropology Today, 29(3), 1-2. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8322.12026

Luning, S. (2014). The Future of Artisanal Miners from a Large-Scale Perspective. From Valued Pathfinders to Disposable Illegals?. Futures, 62, 67-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2014.01.014

OCDE (2018). Illicit Financial Flows. The Economy of Illicit Trade in West Africa. Éditions OCDE. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268418-en

Panella, C. (2007). L'éthique sociale du damansen. Éducation familiale et orpaillage artisanal dans le Basidibé (Wasolon, Mali). Cahiers d'études africaines, 2(2), 345-370. https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesafricaines.7261

Reboredo, J.C. (2013). Is gold a hedge or safe haven against oil price movements?. Resources Policy, 38(2), 130-137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.02.003

Sippl, K. (2020). Southern Responses to Fair Trade Gold. Cooperation, Complaint, Competition, Supplementation. Ecological Economics, 169, 106377. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106377

Svampa, M. (2011). Néo-« développementisme » extractiviste, gouvernements et mouvements sociaux en Amérique latine. Problèmes d'Amérique latine, 3(3), 101-127. https://doi.org/10.3917/pal.081.0101

Tschakert, P. & Singha, K. (2007). Contaminated identities. Mercury and marginalization in the artisanal mining sector of Ghana. Geoforum, 38(6), 1304-1321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.05.002

Van Bockstael, S. (2018). The Emergence of Conflict-Free, Ethical, and Fair Trade Mineral Supply Chain Certification Systems. A Brief Introduction. The Extractive Industries and Society, 5(1), 52-55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2017.12.014

Vélez-Torres, I. (2016). Disputes over Gold Mining and Dispossession of Local Afrodescendant Communities from the Alto Cauca, Colombia. Third World Thematics, 1(2), 235-248. https://doi.org/10.1080/23802014.2016.1229131

Zongo, T. & Zerbo, R. (2019). Processus d’extraction minière et enjeux de développement durable au Burkina Faso. Revue africaniste Inter-Disciplinaire, 8, 85-98.

Text references

[1] https://france-inflation.com/cours_de_l_or_historique_et_actuel.php

[2] Statistical data provided by the World Gold Council.

[3] https://www.gold.org/about-gold/market-structure-and-flows, retrieved on August 17, 2020.

[4] https://oec.world/en/profile/country/che?depthSelector1=HS4Depth

[5] https://responsiblemining.net

[6] https://eiti.org

[7] https://www.responsiblejewellery.com

[8] https://www.lbma.org.uk/good-delivery/about-good-delivery



  • Friday, July 09, 2021


  • développement, or, éthique, mine, activités extractives aurifères, responsabilité, justice sociale


  • Béatrice Trotier-Faurion
    courriel : revdev [at] univ-paris1 [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Béatrice Trotier-Faurion
    courriel : revdev [at] univ-paris1 [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

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