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From miners to energy transition: the anthropology of resources

21 September 2023
The basis for all consumption and infrastructure lies in mining. The increasing scarcity of mineral resources is causing unrest and geopolitical tension. Moreover, what do we do when solutions to the climate crisis require natural resources whose extraction contributes to deforestation and drought? Anthropologist Marjo de Theije researches small-scale mining and the chain from resource extraction to its commercialisation, resource shortages and global inequality. On 6 October, she will deliver her inaugural speech as a professor of Anthropology of Resources.

The importance of natural resources and the threat of scarcity is leading European policymakers to declare 'critical natural resources' and design 'resource strategies'. However, the extraction of the minerals needed to curb the climate crisis is causing deforestation and drought in large parts of the world that exacerbate climate change. Miners are paid poorly and work in unhealthy conditions, while mining companies make huge profits. Small miners are left without rights and, therefore, far from fair prices for their production. 

De Theije spent years doing anthropological research on gold mining in Suriname and Brazil, among other places. There, she lived with small-scale miners who extracted natural resources such as gold from the ground using hand tools. But the term small-scale does not mean they are few in number. De Theije: "Globally, small-scale mining is a big phenomenon. Many natural resources are extracted in this way." 

Over the years, she has seen technological developments leading to scale expansion. The small-scale sector is mainly informal and outside legal frameworks. Large-scale mining companies are often protected by national governments and legislation. De Theije's research includes how the large mining companies are driving away the small workers.

De Theije has seen the focus on natural resources and shortages grow in recent years. "It's a hot topic due to climate change, the energy transition and the geopolitical consequences of obtaining natural resources from far away." However, De Theije also sees that there remains too little attention to the effects on local people. "We want to become more sustainable, but what happens in the places where the natural resources needed for batteries, for example, come from? Extracting those resources leads to humanitarian problems and environmental damage."

De Theije looks at all stages of the so-called value chain in her work. "Look at the social position of the miners, but also at the buyer in Amsterdam." For an anthropologist, the study of natural resources includes the study of extracting raw materials as well as scrutinizing their trading and commercialisation. All the links know injustice and vulnerability. "Natural resources continue to be needed, and we need to look together and from all disciplines at how to approach their extraction so that it is fair and sustainable at all stages."

Marjo de Theije's inaugural speech will take place on 6 October from 15:45 to 16:45 at the Aula of VU Amsterdam. The inaugural speech can also be followed online.