Mercury and gold mining-Jorge Contreras

37% of the global mercury emission is from Small-Scale gold mining. We need to change many things, but let us start from the begining!

As a result of a research conducted in Uganda and Colombia, and thank to the invaluable collaboration of miners; experts and authorities from Denmark, Uganda and Colombia; from senior miners from the Philippines; and supervisors from the Aalborg University; I present here some elements to build a sustainable model hopefully for more NGOs and related institutions. One of the central conclusions of this research is that it is necessary to rethink and demystify the paternalistic stance of aid projects in developing countries. Projects need to change from a FOR vocation to a WITH perspective. In other words, the idea is not to work for the oppressed, but to work with them. They are the only ones who locally must find the conditions for their liberation. Creating technological solutions through collective and democratic dialogue and facilitated by NGOs.

1. Introducing the W-approach:

The central idea of this proposed model is to open a discussion about the role, the competencies and skills a T-A Action Researcher has to strengthen in order to participate in projects that involve communities being marginalized or under any oppressing circumstances linked with technologies.

Graphical representation of the “with” armoured for Techno-Anthropological Action Research interventions, developed by the author.


The figure represents four layers of “protection”, interventions focused on working with the people need to overcome the risks that researchers are facing in developing aid projects. The central idea if this proposed model is to open a discussion about the role, the competencies and skills a T-A Action Researcher has to strengthen in order to participate in projects that involve communities being marginalized or under any oppressing circumstances linked with technologies.

An Armour

Critical Proximity, Cultural Values, Social Responsibility & Ethical judgement and Sustainability are the four layers that protect the WHIT; it will allow the T-A Action Researcher to face the fieldwork with competencies, skills and values that will make the difference in the new generation of interventions.



A.Historic experiences create the interpretation:

There are several shreds of evidence in the Latin-American history that refer on how good intentions and uncritical interpretation of theories and economic and social trendy models turned into radical and violent guerrillas fighting in the name of the oppressed, marginalised and less favoured people. (Charnovitz, 1997; Escobar, 2007a; Esteva & Escobar, 2017b; Lander, 1998) In the decades between 1940 and 1960, communist doctrines engaged and convinced to join early formed groups of social movements and communal associations into the guerrillas. The excuse was that they were fighting for the same cause. There was a lack of determination and a critical interpretation that brought some social leaders to join the revolution in weapons. Despite this can be a personal interpretation of what had happened, this argument is well supported by what was documented by Juan Fernando Alvarez in the 50th year’s commemoration of the Freire´s publication of his Pedagogy of the oppressed. He explains that when it is said to be revolutionary, it is not explicit about rising in arms, he explains and quotes Freire : “from the current moment and its dynamism, to imagine and concretize the liberation to which they would not arrive by chance, but by the praxis of their quest”(Álvarez G., 2018, p. 38). It means that those who were inspired by Freire´s work in the 60s took their chance by the dynamics of their present. In some places, that revolution was supported and led by people from organisations such as international NGOs or foreign social movements, who decide to go to remotes areas with the right intention to “help” and contribute with knowledge and strategies for people´s mobilisations. Nevertheless, some of these helpers became part of the communities and went “native”. This term is commonly used in the ethnographic methods and refers to those practitioners who decided to do the highest level of participatory observation and become part of the group under study.

B.Differences between working for and working with

I want to differentiate here the categories of the interventions to situate the reader in the focus of my approach. One can intervene in many ways, but basically, I want to look at two. When you are working, developing, transforming something for (F) a community, or when you decide to operate, improve or change something together with (W) them.

C.Distance is an issue in (F)

In the first way of interventions, the ”F” manner, the intervention has an objective pre-established by someone, an entity, an organisation, a political agenda, in other words by an outsider. The intervention has a preset agenda, a plan organised in stages and have also configured a managerial structure to support, conduct and implement the activities within the field. In other situations, for instance, there is not an agenda; it comes from a patriarchal orientation and the someone´s intention to “help” save or protect other´s life, with the risk or nonreversible changes or mistakes that can generate collateral damage, even worsening the previous circumstances for the affected people.

D.Proximity become an issue in (W)

In contrast, following the “W” way of interventions, the practitioner or the facilitator may have an interest not necessarily a hidden agenda or a principal purpose. However, after a consensual work, develop a common agenda that fulfill common interests. This agenda can be designed for solving a problem identified or a product that needs to be prepared to attend an issue rooted in a common need. Nevertheless, in this process of engagement and communitarian work the practitioners involuntarily may lose the objectivity of their work and can fail or mislead the role they have to keep in the assignment, and consequently got aligned by the locals. This alienation can put the intervention under risk, or even worst, the practitioner´s integrity. The new ally (Native-practitioner) is not going to be able to take arm length distance anymore and goes involved in political, religious or revolutionary agendas that sometimes, like in Latin-American despite initial intentions were healthy and fair, they could not go back anymore and they, for instance, ended up joining guerrillas, extreme left or right parties and criminal groups.

In the corporate world, these situations also might happen. For example, as a product designer one can decide to constitute a participatory intervention to explore new ways to design a product or make some changes on it by inviting users to join your multidisciplinary team. The risk to become native and cross the minimal distance with the user generates that the researcher misses his role and his position and turn into the customer side. The disadvantage is that the researcher can lose the company´s perspective and fall on the risk of developing something not necessarily is profitable or convenient for the company he represents.

E.Defining roles important in W

The W mode in interventions has its headquarters in participatory design interventions and Action Research projects. In it you need to decide what is the goal that you want to achieve as a group, in other words, the reason for the change needs to be developed by the action group and not by the facilitator or only by the community (Andersen, Bilfeldt, & Søgaard-Jørgensen, 2014, p. 100). I want to introduce an alternative or a “reloaded” approach for W interventions. And the main reason is to help the practitioner in clearly defining not only his position while in the field, but also in protecting the main intention that the W has within the community, the action group or the stakeholders. My proposal, in part, was motivated by the reflections from my observations in all the fieldworks and afterwards, was combined with my knowledge accumulated in my previous semesters, my professional experience, but mainly by the conversations with lecturers, teachers, friends, researchers and people involved in the interventional arena. The W interventions supported by action research should have an exceptional condition expected to be performed by the Techno-Anthropologist Action Researcher.

F.Armoured protection of the core in W

The paramount idea of this proposed model assumes that all the conditions and recommendations for conducting Action Research are followed. However, it is necessary that the W being armoured, protected or covered by a four-layer armour. These layers can be visualised as the layers that protect the seed of a fruit. Each layer has a central purpose of ensuring that the fragility and risks assumed by the researcher with the W, do not materialise easily if he carefully follows the recommendations of this model. This model is an invitation to reflection and to a conscious preparation that should not be assumed as a cooking recipe or a simple checklist.

It is necessary for the researcher to understand, apprehend and assimilate the implications in their behaviour when using the “armour”.

What I consider is that the W armour belongs to only one of the lines of action that I recommend must be recomposed in the intervention processes. In these processes, apart from the researcher, organisations (NGOs) and communities also participate. Both NGOs and communities should make sure to make adjustments that are consistent with the cultural, socio-economic, and even language implications that entail working together. The researcher’s work must be articulated with the organisations that lead the interventions, but it is the researcher who must give the guidelines that allow a smoother and more effective facilitation process for all. It can even be achieved that the exploratory stage and therefore the intervention were more efficient in the time since it is evident that the consumption of time is one of the most complicated variables to manage in projects that involve displacements by plane and car to remote places, and even more with living expenses.

G.Taximeter management hamper W


Usually, these situations of delay in the planned agendas, generate a lot of pressure on non-profit organisations because it is as if a taximeter were running with every minute that a project is delayed in the fieldwork. This was evidenced in my first trip to Africa, since my intention in the field was exploratory and required to promote the dialogue with the miners, nevertheless the agenda of the journey that involved other professionals did not allow me to carry out my work extensively, and frequently it generated discomfort and discontent among the other members of the mission. And therefore, my frustration.

2.Four layers

1-Critical proximity

The first layer that protects the W and the researcher, I will call it “critical proximity”. This concept was attributed to Latour (Birkbak, Petersen, & Elgaard Jensen, 2015) but later it was widely developed and is increasingly used by researchers, students and teachers in Techno-anthropology.

Torben Elgaard Jensen, in his inaugural Techno-Anthropology class, indicated that Critical Proximity was a valuable notion to describe and develop techno-anthropological research practices, highlighting their specific critical contributions (Jensen, 2013).

To understand better the concept is necessary to remember that before going to the field, the researcher needs to explore and create a previous interpretation about the context where the intervention is going to happen. The researcher develops a preconceived image about what is going to find there in the social, the political, the economical even in the technological and in the cultural, if available. This process is called in ethnography as foreshadowing, and this process helps the researcher to be prepared in different fields and give him various tools that can be used as an advantage for the intervention. Once there, the researcher can compare this previous information, and through his observations, he develops what is called a Panorama. It is a very general overview of the local’s context, interpreted from a distant position. The significant change from here is that the researcher must study, design and determine what the balance between distance and proximity with the locals is.

put a description and date and link it to critical proximity

Go beyond the panorama

The idea is that the practitioner needs to go beyond the panorama. The panorama creates the illusion of analytical distance rather than help to understand the criticality of the issues that the panorama exposes. According to Latour, the researcher must reinforce the criticity of issues through detailed descriptions of their socio-technical formation. (Birkbak, Petersen, & Elgaard Jensen, 2015, p. 270) furthermore, “make sure that issues reach criticity” (ibid.)

The last explanation is a real action for a Techno-anthropologist and is also an excellent opportunity to place in practice the Project Based Learning (PBL) skills in the field. Because the discovery of the phenomena and the issues linked to that phenomena is the most common practice in the third semesters of the master of T-A, but here we have one level more of complexity because now you have identified with the “locals” how those issues reach criticity.

To be critical is more than critiquing the given phenomena aiming for an issue that calls for public consideration, the task instead is to pay empirical attention to the issues for a common interest that needs to be unfolded and solved with the intervention.

2-Cultural values

Development of cultural values

“Cultural values are the aspects of life which a group views as important and desirable. These values reflect the goals, morals, and wishes of a group, such as the way one should live, the priorities one should have, and the understanding that one has about our position in the world. Cultural values can be influenced by various features of the environment and history, including socioeconomic status, gender, race/ethnicity, geographic location, acculturation level, and religion” (López, 2011, p. 265)

As a personal interpretation of this layer, in an intervention, you are representing not only your own values, you become an ambassador of your culture. With your behaviour, your decisions and your actions, you would help the others to have an idea about the culture you are representing. When you travel, this effect is intrinsic, and your contribution could be remarkable to other culture. That is why you need to take care of the “with” with this layer. The misunderstood or abuse of this concept may unshackle, for instance, susceptibility issues that can prompt risks in the intervention.

put a description in link with cultral values and your experience

The researcher’s intervention

A researcher needs to be aware of what are the cultural values that he is going to bring into the intervention. In this regard, it is vital to learn and be open to understanding, not necessarily accept and adopt the cultural values of the target community. It is understandable that clashes might happen between cultural values from each side and is possible also that many other cultural values coincide. The protection of this layer in the W is in the sense that you may not pretend to impose cultural values that divert from the community ones. For instance, time orientation is a big issue here. Time orientation is a standard western aesthetic value. In Tiira-Uganda, time is not necessarily gold. In Uganda, the day goes with the sun. An individual has to fulfil a series of collective and sometimes individual activities linked with a mutual benefit, that goes from the rise to the set of the sun. There is no hurry in the hour, neither in the minutes. The activity must be done in the day. And there is a collective pressure to achieve the action. Otherwise, the punishment is severe because it places the individual in risk to be pulled apart from the benefit of the collective achievements.

So what should be the position of a researcher who has the cultural value of the time? Firstly, you have to apply the first layer, critical proximity. Then after some time, you could have noticed that punctuality is not a cultural value practised by the community.

The position should be more persuasive than coercive. Time is vital when the team have to conduct a two weeks intervention with a tide agenda and demanding indicators are those who lead the kind of fieldwork approved by the donor.

Persuasion not coercion

Once in the field, and as part of the collective design of the intervention, you need to explain and persuade the participants that new rules need to be defined by the action group. The new rules indicate a redefinition of normative assumptions that the action group need to address. You can lay in your cultural values being punctual in all the interactions as leading with the example. But you should not push the people to follow your rhythm because the cultural clash will situate you very far from the “with”. They need to assimilate the risk of losing the opportunity to take the best advantage of the training, talking about the miner to miner training.

Do not pretend to “change” cultural values and make distance when they try to do the same with you. I remember a now funny but then an embarrassing situation where one of the visitors was told by a leader of the community, that if he decided to stay as part of the village community, they would find a piece of land and two wives for him as compensation. In this case, for instance, the locals saw the situation from their cultural values barrier not from the foreigner one. The proposal might be interesting for a local, but not necessarily attractive from a western point of view. On the contrary, it became a reason to generate distance and a little coldness in the relationship, because this was not understood either from a conscious state of cultural difference.

When the researcher is conscient of the concept of cultural values and the importance on finding the balance between understanding, accepting and taking distance depending on the situations, the relationship and the communicational process will improve substantially. You have to be respectful with cultural values that are might seems inexplicable and unacceptable from your cultural point of view. You must use your critical thinking but never try to interfere unless you can see things that pay in risk your life or your team´s.

3-Responsibility and Ethical judgement

Social responsibility for the TA researcher

 T-A very well knows the next level of protection. The interaction between experts and the artefact developed within technology was called by (Børsen & Botin, 2013) as Social Responsibility and ethical judgement.

According to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE), responsibility refers to the ability to recognise and accept the consequences of a fact made freely (Real Académia Española, 2017).

    In this document, the Social responsibility and Ethical judgment lead the T-A researcher into the accountability of the acts linked with the interaction derived from the intervention as an “expert” with the artefact (training methodology) developed to support the community, the miners in our case.

Ethical judgement means that a researcher needs to decide whether if the technology, method or the procedure designed fulfil his ethical convictions. Sometimes, being in the field, many decisions come up and appear ethical dilemmas. “Social Responsibility in T-A starts with the ability to identify ethical dilemmas” (Børsen & Botin, 2013, p. 54) in technologies. Should we reduce the scope of the project and use that money in a newly designed structure that would help miners to save and recycle water? What would you do? The water, or the scope of the project? No matter what we decide, there will be better reasons to choose the other option. In Uganda, we decided to show with the new design on how to recycle water in case this resource was scarce. I believe it was a socially responsible decision because the discussion was not centred whether they had or not enough water resources, the abuse of water should be a global concern and this conscience need to be a shared one.

The figure shows the arrangement implemented to have responsible use of the water. The reservoir of water is a tank with 1000 litres, and it supplies the system with water. During the process of washing the ore, the water flows through the chutes directly to the small tanks labelled with an A. when those tanks are over a certain level the water goes to the second tank in between them. When the tank B gets another level, the water goes to the tank C and then to the tank D. The last tank will contain the clearest water because the other tanks served as precipitation and sedimentation tanks for the processed ore. Those siltation tanks contain the tailings that can be processed afterwards with the same method or using another manner, for instance, the cyanidation.

    Agreeing with Børsen (2013), I also consider that the researcher needs to develop with the community a local ethical value system that can be used by everyone when is imperative to make concrete judgements and decisions in the project. This way, there would be local knowledge developed to make such decisions. I also want to highlight what was pointed out by Lars Botin in his interpretation of Social Responsibility. The situational and positional context makes a big difference in the designing an ethical value system because, “[E]every occasion and relation should be judged interdependently with the actual situation, which means that we cannot set up criterions for right and /or wrong, good and /or bad. The Techno-Anthropologist is, although, required to face the challenge and produce a response that embraces the social and cultural sphere.” (Børsen & Botin, 2013, p. 70), and this is the best way to connect these responsible dimensions, with the commitment of making the projects sustainable and autonomous after the intervention has finished.


And finally, to complement the four layers to protect the W, it is necessary that the community develop a string compromise with a continuum. They need to build the local capacity to be organised and institutionalise the procedures and the practices. They need to reinforce the process and have the opportunity to revise in groups the steps that were taught. But here, it is essential to create an external platform that empowers them to acquire that capacity. In other words to sustain and be autonomous for more lasting time. This is the meaning of the word sustainability in this context.

I highlight two categories of sustainability, one related to the sustainability of the knowledge and the second the sustainability using the new technology in our example, the Mercury-Free Method.

To foster the sustainability of the knowledge, I draw in the concept of critical education that promotes Paulo Freire in his pedagogy of the oppress (Freire, 2000). In training for technology transference, the trainees should not be treated as recipients that need to be filled with new knowledge. In this process, the trainers are the subject of the educational process, and the trainees are objects(Andersen et al., 2014). In contrast, the pedagogy of the oppressed promotes reflection that is developed jointly with all the stakeholders, thus generating a transformative capacity that aims for the emerging of shared meanings among the people who participate in such dialogue (Fernando & Gaytán, 2018).

Picture by Eriya Kategaya Tiira Uganda. The insititutionalization of the facility among other citizens from the village.

From what and how to why

Empirical evidence of the relevance of this layer is the vast difference identified between the scientific knowledge experts have about the physics behind the functioning of the methods to extract gold, and the traditional believes miners have of it. The miners have been making their approach for many years. They know the “what” and the “how” to do the procedure. The main issue is they were not taught on “why” they should do what they were doing for centuries[C]. Thus, a sustainable way of designing a transference of technology training should involve a remarkable but straightforward way to introduce the miners into the physics of the gold. This approach will help them to assimilate the “why” and consequently be aware of the gold during the whole process, increasing the possibility to improve the quality of the outcomes[F]. A responsible but also the sustainable design of the training process needs to focus the attention in the elements that generate more challenges for the trainees. Those challenges are only detectable through a constant dialogue with them.

Creating ownership

The second example of sustainability is that locals, miners in our case, need to develop a sense of belonging with the method. They need to see the project and the mercury-free process as part of their contribution. In a conversation about this topic to Alberto Mendieta, a Bolivian lawyer and also Action Researcher who has been focused on empowering indigenous groups through human rights seminars; he mentioned that the best way to guarantee sustainability in this kind of projects is by developing local roots. A local network is central to promotes interaction with the technology and assure also compromise and collective control to it from the human’s perspective. This argument is also supported by the concept of socio-technical change from ANT, which is described as “a process of shifting assemblies of association and substitutions, a reweaving of elements. Changes in one component of the network can trigger changes in other elements.” (Geels, 2002).

The MFM promote a change in the way miners extract the gold from the ore as it is explained in (ibid.), the use of Mercury for extracting gold as the technology under evaluation has developed for many years a very inertial socio-technical configuration (explained in the bengining of this chapter). All the people that belong to those institutions, organism or social structures and the activities they perform into the miner´s world is aligned and coordinated and produce that inertial force. For instance, in the value chain of gold in Tiira-Uganda, participates many actors revolving around the process. Those who are in charge of doing the dry milling, others that lift the heavyweight in the process, other providers that sell the mercury, other that provides the fabric they use for squeezing the amalgam, the milling station owner who usually sell the tailings with mercury to cyanide plants owners, and the amalgam burners who sometimes buy the produced gold. All these entities regularly interact, are stable and need to face the change and adapt their role in the adoption of the new method; otherwise, they would be neglected during the process of training thus professing a strong opposition to it (Geels, 2002).

Institutionalization and Technological regimes

I want to build upon the concept of Technological Regimes proposed by Rip and Kemp from the economics, concerning technological transitions, “a technological regime is the rule-set or grammar embedded in a complex of production process technologies, skills and procedures, ways of handling relevant artefacts and persons, ways of defining problems; all of them embedded in institutions and infrastructures.” (Geels, 2002, p. 1259). When individuals and institutions align and share their routines, they conform to a technological regime that can bring stability to the system. I understand this concept as the harmony between the knowledge produced with the community combined with the praxis (learning by doing) and the institutionalisation of rules and routines what can stabilise a technological transition. Sustainability is grounded by this rationality aiming to find those elements that make miners stick to the new method.

To sum-up

A Techno-Anthropologist action researcher should have in mind the difference between doing interventions for the people or with the people. But the W needs special protection that must guarantee an effective implementation reinforced by the framework of T-A. As it was mentioned in the beginning, in the next figure, the WITH is characterised as a sphere situated in the nucleus. From the inside out, there are four layers; Critical Proximity, Cultural Values, Social Responsibility & Ethical judgement and Sustainability. The shield formed by those layers will allow the T-A Action Researcher to face the fieldwork with competencies, skills and values that will make the difference in the new generation of interventions.

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