The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently posted a research update from my Harry Frank Guggenheim-funded project on the gender dynamics of Rwanda mining. My ethnography examines how Rwanda’s current process of formalization and regulation of mining may impact rural women’s experiences with environmental, structural, and physical conflicts near extraction sites. In light of COVID-19’s socioeconomic effects, this analysis now also interrogates the ecological practices that arise in response to pandemic-induced poverty among women in mining communities. See below.
Starting in March 2020, the Rwandan government began to limit or, in some cases, completely stop all mining activities in response to COVID-19. This action demonstrated a state commitment to protecting the health of miners. Environmental activists and researchers applauded the short-term positive impacts on vulnerable ecological systems near extraction sites. However, our research team is concerned with how unemployed miners may turn to environmentally damaging practices, such as poaching or overfishing, to compensate for this household income loss. Moreover, we harbor particular concerns for Rwandan women’s status in mining, as they already occupy precarious socioeconomic positions within the industry and are poorly poised to weather the shocks posed by the pandemic.
“Women, Conflict, and Modern Mining Practices in Rwanda” is a 2021 Guggenheim-funded ethnography examining the impact of increased state formalization of artisanal and small-scale mines (ASMs) in favor of the expansion of large-scale, mechanized, and regulated operations.
Rwanda’s formalization process has unknown impacts on the women who live and work near mining sites and their experiences with environmental, structural, and physical conflicts. The project draws on qualitative field data from participatory cartography workshops, semi-structured interviews, and participant observations at six mining locations, yielding ethnographic maps to visually depict women’s mining experiences. The data will help determine if mining formalization increases vulnerabilities or protections for rural women, how and why these effects occur in response to differing legal norms, and how regulatory frameworks might best reduce conflicts in and around the mining sector.
The research was designed in the first months of COVID-19. Our team is now integrating an increased analysis of pandemic-induced poverty and environmental practices. Our early data demonstrate that women are the first employees to lose their jobs due to social distancing measures because they work on the lower (and poorly paid) end of supply chains. Women are heavily involved in informal, subsidiary businesses and trade around mine sites, e.g., carrying dirt, providing food, and other services, which offer them no employment protections. African women work disproportionately as subsistence farmers compared to men, and mines that cause rural displacement leave women without land that would otherwise serve as a vital means of income during the pandemic. Mining activities cause soil erosion, nutrient degradation, mercury pollution, and other ill environmental effects on women’s farming activities.
Additionally, COVID-19 may increase women’s vulnerabilities outside mining and farming sites. They may experience higher burdens of unpaid domestic work in the home, and young women are at a higher risk of early marriage, unplanned pregnancy, and permanent educational drop-out as schools remain closed and poverty levels rise in mining communities. Mining shutdowns may put women in vulnerable positions in sex work to make ends meet, encourage male income-earners to leave families searching for new income, and increase crime rates. There is already evidence that lockdown measures potentially increase gender-based violence (GBV) across the globe. COVID-backlogged health centers threaten women’s access to health and reproductive care. In tight financial times, women are more likely to use household funds on other family members’ medical care. Moreover, COVID-19 has put a halt on legal processes that could benefit women. Cases of land inheritance, divorce, domestic violence, and child custody are now suspended in empty courtrooms and law offices.
These challenges matter to IUCN’s work because women’s poverty threatens environmental protections, particularly during the pandemic. Our project’s goal is to more fully explain these linkages in Rwandan mining communities as a model to help informed empirically-based natural resource policy across the Global South.