How COVID is Reconfiguring Labor in Extractive Industries
This essay on Malagasy gold and extraction during the pandemic is the thirteenth piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.
Last December, customs authorities at Johannesburg’s airport found 73.5 kilograms of smuggled gold bars—worth roughly $4.5 million USD—in the suitcases of three passengers traveling by private plane from Madagascar to Dubai via South Africa. The incident sparked a diplomatic standoff, with the Malagasy government demanding both the extradition of the detained smugglers and the repatriation of the gold itself. A media circus ensued, during which it surfaced that Madagascar’s finance ministry used the exact same plane for official state business. While the phenomenon of gold leaving Madagascar in suitcases is not itself novel (the majority of gold mined on the island leaves clandestinely), this instance highlights one of the new and unruly resource circuits that emerged in disparate locations around the world during the COVID-19 crisis.
Disruptions in flows of resources and bodies have generated a range of opportunities to be exploited and challenges to be navigated by actors varying in position and power. Gold traders in Madagascar, for example, faced a set of contradictory dynamics. On the one hand, the international price of gold skyrocketed. On the other hand, commercial air travel to Madagascar was suspended. In this context, traders found themselves both desperate and emboldened. Intermediaries once content to move smaller amounts of gold via commercial flights switched tack, and private planes like the one searched in December 2020 made dozens of additional trips between the island and foreign destinations. The ongoing saga of the golden suitcase led to a South African investigation into smuggling routes between Madagascar and Dubai and a crackdown on local participation in the clandestine gold trade.
This story of Malagasy gold fits into a broader constellation of pandemic-era reconfigurations: halted transport, sickened or jobless workers, and crushed or contorted consumer demand. Existing accounts of the pandemic’s consequences for natural resource sectors have often focused on a range of primary commodities’ dramatic price fluctuations. For example, in April 2020, after much of the world went into lockdown, observers watched in astonishment as U.S. oil sold at a negative price for the first time. Coal experienced similar short-term price drops but has also since rebounded, along with global CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, gold prices increased significantly. These contradictory dynamics—as well as situated accounts from our own research sites—push us to look beyond supply and demand. Karl Marx wrote that the value of commodities is not in the resources themselves, but in the labor that produces them. The COVID-19 pandemic recalls for us the bodies that perform this labor—that make and move resource commodities, and whose vulnerability can bring global exchange to a standstill.
In this essay, we explore how the material circulations that comprise extraction—both of resources-as-commodities and bodies-as-labor—have been disordered and re-formed during the pandemic. We attempt to recover the body from its erasure in global commodity markets and speculation amid the disruptions of COVID. To do so, we weave the story of Malagasy gold with observations from our other long-term research sites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We trace how attempts to control laboring bodies both backfire against and work in favor of both state and capital, and we highlight the importance of embodied labor in narratives of global exchanges and material circulations of resource commodities.
Governments and multinational corporations responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by attempting to manage bodies at a global scale. Ostensibly designed to secure the mobility of and contact points between human bodies, these measures ranged from the halting of commercial flights, public transportation, and in-country migration to lockdowns, quarantine orders, and work restrictions. Relationships between extractive corporations and local communities were reconfigured as extractive sites became COVID hotspots. The Mexican state oil company (Petroleos Mexicanos, also known as Pemex), for example, led the global corporate death toll with 472 employee COVID-19 deaths as of February 2021. In Indonesia, the Grasberg copper-gold mine, one of the world’s largest, became a flashpoint as COVID-19 spread among workers, heightening already tense relations with local communities and forcing a mine shutdown. With often-surprising effects on the circulations of resources, COVID prevention measures in some instances enabled extraction and in others created new barriers to resource exploitation.
Despite sites of large-scale resource exploitation emerging as centers of transmission, many industrial extractive companies have managed to leverage crisis dynamics to consolidate market power and reposition themselves as leaders in the governance of resources and the bodies that produce them. Shutdowns were short-lived for many mines in and beyond the United States, which cast themselves as vital to national security and succeeded in having miners designated as “essential” workers. Major extractive corporations made public displays of protecting “vulnerable” laborers through distributing personal protective equipment (PPE), implementing social distancing protocols, and administering vaccines (as seen in South Africa). In the far north of Canada, three hundred local mining laborers were paid to stay home while other workers from southern Canada flew in to continue work during the pandemic—part of (unsuccessful) corporate measures to minimize COVID infection risk to the Nunavut community.
State actors have also taken advantage of crisis conditions to regulate resources in novel ways. Amid the issuance of COVID lockdown restrictions, Madagascar’s government announced plans to create a centralized national gold reserve through a state purchasing and stockpiling program. To facilitate this effort, in October 2020 the government declared a total ban on the export of gold—a move that one longtime industry expert explained caught businessmen and gold traders unaware. The coincidence of arrested commercial air travel with this closing of official export channels severely constricted and complicated the process of moving gold off the island, while proffering an opportunity for Malagasy state actors to exert greater control over a sector that has long proved intractably difficult to regulate.
The pandemic has further presented opportunities for states to accumulate resources and secure peripheral regions through the weakening of environmental protections. Such opportunities have emerged due to the already-disordered movement of bodies and resources arising from rapid state mandates to control COVID at a time when public and media attention has been drawn away from such developments. Brazil’s environment minister, for instance, was captured on video saying that the pandemic offered a productive distraction allowing the government to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon. Since the start of the pandemic, Brazil has bypassed their congress in adopting nearly two hundred infralegal acts to dismantle environmental protections, including measures to remove enforcement and oversight in conservation areas and simultaneously weaken timber export regulations. This has opened the Amazon to further invasion by illegal mining and logging operations, fueling a surge of new extraction and forest clearing. Indonesia has similarly weakened requirements for verification of legal timber, enabling the increased export of illegally-cut wood. However, deregulation and resultant deforestation did not increase everywhere. In Myanmar, stay-at-home orders facilitated a crackdown on illegal logging, while satellite images show that deforestation decreased in Columbia and Peru. These contradictory tendencies highlight the divergent trajectories of efforts to govern resources and bodies, even as relaxed regulation did, in some cases, invite new forms of extraction and mobility.
Throughout the pandemic, state efforts to impose control on resources and bodies have consistently bred disorder in local landscapes—whether driven by external capital interests seeking to exploit government-backed deregulation or by local laborers themselves resisting interventions and navigating shifting political-economic dynamics. The explosion of illegal mining and logging in the Amazon, for example, has charted new and expanded pathways of resource use, bringing new bodies into remote rainforest regions. Such extractive endeavors can involve invasions of Indigenous territories that introduce both COVID and human-rights violations into local communities. The Yanomami of Brazil, for one, faced armed conflict with illegal miners, putting out international messages that a massacre was imminent. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, a surge of balsa wood logging and oil and gold mining within Waorani territories during the pandemic sparked a new wave of conflict and territorial abuses.
Increasing violations of Indigenous territories by extractive laborers, leading to the spread of COVID-19 and deforestation alike, were exacerbated and enabled by anti-Indigenous and anti-environmental policies along with inadequate public health responses. This has led coalitions of Indigenous peoples in both Brazil and Ecuador to sue their respective state governments for attempted ethnocide and ecocide and demand the cease of all extractive activities in their territories. These types of confrontations highlight the unevenness of pandemic attempts to govern both human and virus mobility and attest to the persistent unruliness of the laboring bodies enrolled in resource production.
Across the globe, disarticulations spurred by the pandemic have forced the people responsible for producing resources—that is, for providing the labor that metabolizes nature and makes it available for commodity exchange—to scramble, manage, and adapt as best they can. In some cases, the interests of corporations and laborers have aligned. Though Indonesia’s Grasberg mine shut down early in the pandemic, worker protests forced a reopening and reduced movement restrictions. However, smaller-scale resource producers have often faced heightened precarity. In addition to increased risk of infection, restrictions on in-country travel tended to negatively impact people with resource-based livelihoods. For example, informal gold miners in Indonesia have suffered from limitations on workers’ mobility and increased logistical costs, undermining attempts to benefit from higher global gold prices. In Myanmar, economic desperation provoked by the pandemic initially spurred migration to work in the country’s dangerous jade mines, but miners went without pay after activities were suspended in the second half of 2020 due to COVID lockdowns.
Across the world, pandemic disruptions have spurred a return to the countryside as laborers decamp from shuttered businesses in urban areas despite official travel restrictions. In Peru, people left cities like Lima en masse as unemployment skyrocketed, traveling by foot across the country to their villages, where they could live off family farms. Many migrant workers from Myanmar similarly made the difficult decision to return home from destinations like China and Thailand, often forgoing wages and returning via difficult border routes to eke out a living on the land. This movement—from the cities back to the country—presents an unexpected reversal of decades-long trends of urbanization. Yet in another sense, it should be of little surprise that for some of the world’s most vulnerable, the best opportunity for securing economic and bodily security was returning to landscapes and livelihood activities that sustained their ancestors over generations.
In Madagascar, many gold miners have been forced to unhitch themselves from the globally-circulated commodity in order to cope with extreme economic hardship due to a paradoxical situation: despite the spike in gold’s global price, local prices have plummeted and become increasingly volatile. While some may interpret this as a standard consequence of changing supply and demand, it in fact indicates a case of active exploitation. Interruptions in travel and trade have significantly reduced the number of willing buyers on the island, giving those who remain the ability to set local prices. In some mining sites, the combination of exceedingly low prices and national lockdown orders led to an estimated 50 percent of all workers quitting the goldfields. Around half of those leaving have (temporarily) shifted into other forms of local extraction, trading the exploitation of lucrative resources tied to global value chains and speculative demand for resources used or consumed locally, like wood for charcoal or construction. Others have continued mining but are left to weather the vagaries of what one might call “golden suitcase–based demand”—dependent less on global markets and more on the sporadic arrivals and departures of individuals with cash in hand and empty suitcases to fill.
Extraction in a (post-)COVID World
As the golden suitcase saga and other shifts in Madagascar’s gold economy illustrate, the COVID-era reordering of the global economy has produced immensely uneven outcomes conditioned by race, ethnicity, gender, ability, and class. Not everyone has access to private planes or high-ranking state officials—and while those who do have turned crisis to advantage via the creation of novel pathways of circulation, others have been left to scratch rapidly diminishing returns from the dirt. In Betsiaka, a well-known mining region in Madagascar’s far north, local gold prices collapsed, stagnated, briefly recovered, then fell again. This decline and volatility have been especially brutal for poorer miners who sell small amounts of gold to meet daily subsistence needs, both because the price per decigram is often 30 percent lower than the going rate per gram and because the cost of staple foodstuffs like rice, oil, and sugar have simultaneously increased 50 percent. One miner in Betsiaka explained his recent hardship:
Not only has gold become more difficult to find recently, but the price of a decigram has decreased a lot. We’ve struggled greatly because we have no reliable source of income. I’ve continued to mine, but I was accustomed to getting 35,000 FMG [approx. $1.87 USD] for a decigram—and then the price dropped to 15,000 FMG [approx. $0.80 USD]! How could we not fall into suffering?
As the context of Betsiaka lays bare, there has been a clear disarticulation of situated realities from abstracted global trends. Powerful multinational companies and state-backed extractors with long experience in dealing with epidemics among miners—ranging from black lung and tuberculosis/silicosis to HIV/AIDS—were well-positioned to take advantage of COVID disruptions. Meanwhile, the laborers responsible for producing these global commodities have often faced starkly different consequences. Local gold prices have been erratic and low not because of lagging demand by speculating global elites, but rather because of highly local disruptions to the circulation of bodies upon which the exchange of Malagasy gold for hard currency so strongly depends. Resource commodities rely on embodied labor, whether that of miners extracting gold from the earth or of suitcase-carriers moving gold bars from Madagascar to Dubai. The body mediates resource circulations, undertaking or interrupting the labor of making and moving commodities.
To understand the uneven distribution of hardship and opportunity defining the pandemic, we must look beyond global commodity prices and capital flows to the laboring bodies that extract and circulate resources. Adopting a multiscalar view and acknowledging differentiated impacts allows us to better illuminate emerging contradictions: between high global prices and local price crunches, closed national borders and flurries of internal migration, and glorified “essential work” that supports powerful interests while leaving laborers to face illness and poverty. These dynamics—and further disconnections, adaptations, and mutations following efforts to control transmission, extraction, circulation, and accumulation—will shape resource governance and related livelihoods in the (post-)COVID world. By recovering the body in all its unruliness, we have worked to expose the shifting logics and consequences of control and resistance, unearthing new forms of (dis)order defining the (post-)COVID metabolisms of humans and nature.
Featured image: Ingots of Malagasy gold confiscated by authorities at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Photo from South African Police Service, 2021.
The authors developed this article as part of a UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix working group dedicated to exploring the intersection of COVID-19 and natural resources. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the UC Berkeley Land Lab and two Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowships.
Brian Ikaika Klein is an assistant professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. He is a political ecologist broadly interested in environmental management and development in Africa. His current research and writing examines local-level resource governance in Madagascar, primarily of artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Stephanie Postar is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and was previously a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research and writing has focused on the politics and practices of resource extraction and management in East Africa and she is developing a new project on nuclear energy regulation in Tanzania. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Laura Dev is a postdoctoral scholar in political ecology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is primarily based in the Amazon and spans topics including Indigenous forestry, climate justice, interspecies relations, and illicit crops. She is currently writing a book on the political ecology of the ayahuasca boom. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Hilary Faxon is a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies land politics, agrarian change, and digital transformations in Southeast Asia. She is currently writing a book about struggles for land and democracy during Myanmar’s decade of reform. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Matthew Libassi is a postdoctoral researcher with the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University. Matt studies natural resource politics and, more broadly, the uneven social consequences of environmental change. His current project examines livelihoods, conflict, and everyday life in gold mining areas in Indonesia. Website. Contact.