(University College London)
Paper Short Abstract:
This paper explores the material and discursive registers of emptiness amongst Gbaya artisanal miners in the afterlife of a gold-rush. It considers emptiness in relation to classic debates on resource scarcity by focusing on emptiness as a lived experience in relation to a past material abundance.
Paper long abstract:
Drawing on over 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores several registers (both material and discursive) of emptiness in the lives of Gbaya artisanal miners living in the aftermath of a gold-rush in eastern Cameroon. The role of gold mining as the community's main source of income and identity has been radically destabilised by the recent arrival and departure of Chinese mining companies. Their rapid depletion of the landscape's gold stocks through mechanized extraction has transformed a remote and already impoverished border region into a space of rapid socio-economic change, oscillating from material abundance to resource scarcity. Using informal and makeshift mining practices the Gbaya now extract ever smaller quantities of gold left in the wake of the Chinese and declare that "the gold is gone".
In this space of social upheaval, discourses and practices of emptiness pervade local communities as they speak of the 'lack' (buone) or 'end' (sona) of gold, cultivated food and money and the new 'dryness' (cota coti) of the village characterised by an absence of people, money, activity and change. Through mining, the Gbaya continue to work the soil which has been emptied of its gold and value, engaging in a productive activity that no longer produces but is instead generative of emptiness. Drawing from these ethnographic insights, this paper proposes to consider emptiness in relation to classic debates on resource scarcity by focusing on emptiness in the aftermath of a material abundance and as a lived experience.
Faces of emptiness