Amalgamation: Social, technological, and legal entanglements in small-scale gold-mining regions in Colombia and Suriname

Jesse Jonkman*, Marjo de Theije

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Popular and scholarly accounts often describe small-scale gold mining as a conflict-ridden economy that takes place in regions where state law is lacking. Our long-term ethnographic research in Colombia and Suriname has shown that stakeholder agendas in the goldfields, although often at variance, also come together in unexpected compromises and entanglements. We therefore propose to think of small-scale gold mining as an activity of not only conflict, but also of amalgamation; that is, as an activity that brings presumably adversary actors, labor practices, and governance systems together in temporary moments of conviviality. We present a three-pronged ethnographic analysis to sustain our proposition, thereby conceptualizing amalgamation as a social, technological, and legal phenomenon. First, we show that mining regions are characterized by social amalgamation; that is to say, by continuous compromises between the competing agendas of stakeholders. Second, we zoom in on technological amalgamation. We set out that technological differences that provoke hostility and conflict also have a more productive side, as miners employing various methods depend on each other in the process of gold extraction. And third, we provide illustrations of legal amalgamation that serve to highlight that the socio-political organization of small-scale gold mining, while largely happening outside the legal framework, comes into being through the symbolism and material infrastructure of the state.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-212
Number of pages11
Early online date24 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We want to express a special word of thanks to research participants in Colombia and Suriname, who taught us so generously about their lives. Thanks also to Daniel Tubb, Lisa Ausic, the two anonymous reviewers, and Geoforum Editor Robert Fletcher for their helpful suggestions. The article is based on multiple periods of ethnographic research, which were made possible by the financial support of the Latin American Studies Programme ( NWO/022.006.014 ), the GOMIAM research project ( NWO/W 07.68.301.00 ), the Graduate School of Social Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam ( FSW/2622104 ), the Board of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Aspasia 2006), and the Gold Matters project (462.17.201), the last being part of the Belmont Forum/NORFACE Joint Research Programme on Transformations to Sustainability (co-funded by DLR/BMBF, ESRC, FAPESP, ISC, NWO, VR, and the European Commission through Horizon 2020).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors


  • Colombia
  • Conflict
  • Law
  • Small-scale gold mining
  • Suriname
  • Technology


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  • Ouro Surpreende A Gente

    Translated title of the contribution: Gold Surprises UsMorim, J. & de Theije, M., 1 Nov 2022

    Research output: Web publication or Non-textual formDigital or Visual ProductsAcademic

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