The text below is a conversation on gold between Magdalena Ines Goldin and Maya Ober. Applying micro-sociological approach together with gender and women’s studies theories, we follow the gold route from its extraction in Peru through the refineries in Ticino and Neuchâtel until the luxurious goods manufacturers and analyse gold’s role as a commodity and as capital in the exploitation of women.
The shorter version of the text was first published in the second issue of Migrant Journal, #2, 2017, Zürich, CH
Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, photo by Maya Ober
Gold is my predicament, my designer’s conundrum. What is the meaning of gold? What does this material entail? As an industrial designer, I’ve been taught to research each material, analyse its features, evaluate its possible uses and functions. And eventually, determine the production methods.Now is the time to contemplate it’s economic, political and anthropological involution.
Ninety per cent of the global gold passes at some stage of its processing transformation and sale process through Switzerland. Much of this gold comes from Perú. Much of this Peruvian gold is extracted in illegal mines The most prominent gold refineries are based in Switzerland, and so are the luxury brands. Extracted from beneath the razed forests of Perú and brought to the financiers of Europe by way of Switzerland — possibly welded by my hands?
Strolling through Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich’s Fifth Avenue, I couldn’t stop wondering about the very specific image of women that these products foster. Female exploitation accompanies the gold from the very beginning of its extraction until the threshold of each house which acquires gold commodities. I am thinking about my place as a female designer within this specific reality, I guess it is part of self-definition and adaptation process accompanying immigration.
I am a few months into a new anthropological research looking at gold exploitation, illegal mining and violence against women as part of human trafficking in the Peruvian Jungle. The research is sponsored by Terre des Hommes Suisse, a Swiss NGO and looks specifically at Puerto Maldonado City in the district of Madre de Dios. Here I have to face a sordid reality, where women are used as a sexual commodity to fill the traditional female roles dictated by patriarchy for the miners as they come out of the pit. Illegal mining comes together with human trafficking, which constitutes a violation of human rights, but also a lucrative business. The United Nations estimates that it generates $150.2 billion in revenues. Women, especially teenagers and the ones in their early twenties, are often the main victims of human trafficking and are confined to sexual exploitation. Undoubtedly, this tendency is still present because of the prevailing cultural patterns of informality together with an omnipresent machismo culture in Latin American societies. Postcolonial economical realm reinforces the class division and intensifies the oppression of women.
A woman in La Pampa mine in Madre de Dios, Peru, photo by Marco Garro
Perú has signed a series of protocols and international conventions that protect the rights of the victims of trafficking. The Palermo Protocols is here to demonstrate the Peruvian state’s commitment to prevent and combat human trafficking, whilst paying a special attention to women and children.
Visit the Peruvian jungle, and you will understand that the remoteness of this space oils the wheels of trafficking — enabling subjugation, labour practice that is quasi-enslavement and affirmed sexual exploitation. Women and girls exploited by the mines have no labour contract, they work 12 hours a day without any benefits or protection, often exposed to highly unhealthy working conditions and sexual exploitation in the camps.
Human trafficking and labour exploitation have a common denominator: the great absence of the Peruvian State, looking away while enjoying the profits from illegal gold trade. This is one of the key factors to understand the continuity and proliferation of these clandestine activities. In the research that we conducted, we have seen the precarious, unstable and unsafe working condition in the illegal mines within Madre de Dios. Often in Perú, lack of opportunities paired with scarce labour supply in some regions (mostly in the Sierra: the Andean mountains) lead to flows of people migrating to the Selva, in the Peruvian Amazon.
A precarious labour market thrives due to the strong historical power imbalance and prevailing practices of oppression. The working conditions of men and women are exploitative and contemptuous of human rights. These reflections helped me understand older processes that have guided the current cruel and criminal circumstances of the labour market in Perú. The ghost of slavery in the past is still very much present.
A girl in La Pampa mine in Madre de Dios, Peru, photo by Marco Garro
Nowadays, more teenage girls and young women migrate. The presence of women is increasingly sought, to provide be sexual and house-keeping “services” demanded by thousands of miners. This migration — which has been constant for two decades — is generated by the high demand for labourers in order to fulfil an appetite for gold, mostly of the Western economies/world.
Existing overwhelming demand for adolescent women to work in lodging, cooking, grocery sales and to prostitute themselves. Adolescents have to accept job proposals that carry them far away from home. The vast majority of the women living in these camps are there because they did not find any lucrative job opportunities in their hometowns. Labour-driven migration flows, lead to increased exposure of the vulnerable populations to be exploited or to become victims of trafficking. Eighty per cent of trafficking victims reported in the period 2009 – 2014 were women, while 35% of all victims were subjected to sexual exploitation. How public authorities approach human trafficking and sexual exploitation doesn’t make the situation any easier: when a police operation to dismantle a camp or prostitution ring takes place, authorities do not necessarily consider the women over 18 years of age rescued from these places as victims of trafficking. Because they’re here “by their own accord”, their status as a victim is dismissed. In the same study, we have found that people who end up being victims of trafficking are likely to lack work-related qualifications, with a history of precariousness performing low-skilled jobs. Therefore, according to the surveys carried out, victims of human trafficking in this particular context do not care as much about working conditions.
What they value above anything else is the possibility of generating higher economic income. It is not uncommon to find men and women who after saving for months or even years decide to leave the camp and start a new life in their villages or hometowns. However, most of them end up returning to the illegal mining camp, since they struggle to reach the same level of income outside the gold mining industry. They return and remain as an unskilled workforce — doomed to fail to break the centrifugal forces of precariousness and social vulnerability that pushes them further away on the margins of society. This explains why victims do not run away from the illegal mines and camps, but even return there after having been rescued. Trafficking in this region of Perú challenges us to understand it not as a homogeneous and well-characterised crime — as defined in the Palermo Protocols. Moreover, the attempt to explain and assess human trafficking in Perú based on European criteria dismisses the Peruvian idiosyncrasies. In other words, more research about the specific shapes human trafficking take is needed. Likewise, it is primordial to ponder over the socially stereotyped victims that human trafficking implies. People who have been in these circles of exploitation do not necessarily respond to the stereotype of the defenceless victim. Too often when a victim meets the State and its agencies, authorities find that some of them do not fill the criteria for a” typical” victim. Instead of being assisted and supported by Justice, victims are often rejected, branded as outcasts.
In a sense, I understand the system that grows from and with it is not only a dark destructive force; rather it is a social phenomenon responding to the logic of capital and commodification of human beings — a protean social phenomenon. Human trafficking is the result of a cultural predominance toward people objectification with ontological ties to the heritage of colonization, together with globalisation, and above all: gender-biased exploitation.
The discovery of gold perhaps cannot be unambiguously called the origin of capital, nevertheless gold itself represents the capital’s eternal attack on women and their bodies.
Sex – boxes in La Pampa mine in Madre de Dios, Peru, photo by Marco Garro
Women’s exploitation follows gold extraction from its very ores. Gold is literally and metaphorically a symbol of the umbilical connection between capitalism and patriarchy. Physical, brutal abuse of women in the illegal mines of Madre de Dios is obviously directly related to the patriarchal control over a female body as well as to their social status and class. Capital and patriarchy combine to exacerbate the oppression of women.
Gold´s expropriation and circulation summarise a fundamental characteristic of capitalism itself, which, following Silviana Federici, in order to perpetuate itself requires a constant infusion of expropriated capital. Gold as such plays a crucial role in sustaining exploitation of women and their oppression. Indeed, the whole process of gold extraction and distribution is part of the renewable cycle of primitive accumulation, which is being facilitated by colonial expropriation and cultural appropriation, of which indigenous women, due to their gender are the biggest victims.
As a designer, my professional eye is attracted to jewellery as to any other object produced by craftswomen and craftsmen or by process of industrialised production. But unlike, for example, chairs or lamps, jewellery plays a significant cultural role in the oppression and ownership of women and their bodies through an intimate relation to the body itself. Like a piece of clothing, jewellery is worn, touching the skin — it relates to a biological, cultural and social construction of the body it is on. There is an undeniable sexual, political and economic context. Through the displayed objects — engagement rings, wedding bands, and bracelets — each shop window presents a very structured, specific image of femininity, sexuality and class. Each brand nourishes the image of an objectified woman while encouraging one of a powerful, paternalistic and wealthy male. Women are at first being incapacitated, then objectified to become a property of the capable, dominant men. And the jewellery in its broad definition is used to emphasise the differences between the male and the female. This binary of roles, enables control, only when one is distinct from another, only when the hierarchy is clearly marked, only then the process of misogynic subordination can be perpetuated. Obviously, to renew the cycle of patriarchal control, as with the capital, a constant new infusion of models repeating and indurating the status quo is crucial.
Reproduction of gender binary at Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich, photo by Maya Ober
Engagement rings are a good illustration of male supremacy over women, they mark the woman as being “reserved’. It is a visible sign of control over female sexuality, fertility and “availability”. Looking at rings in a shop window of Bahnhofstrasse reminds me of a dear friend, nowadays a jewellery designer herself, who once told me that an engagement ring should be worth two months of the fiancé’s wages. I recall being taken aback by this piece of insight — and by her knowledge of this. So not only through a ring, a man can appropriate a woman, but she also becomes some kind of display of his financial potency.
There is no subtlety in the way jewellers embrace and broadcast such gendered cultural practice. The golden jewellery made out of appropriated material, extracted in precarious conditions, stained with violence, exploitation and subjugation of mostly indigenous women, is being sold as a luxurious product available only to the 1% the population.
And then, there’s class. In the wealth gap that exists between Swiss purchasers of gold and jewellery, and those at the other end of the spectrum exploiting and exploited by gold, I see the perpetuation across continents of an intimate gendered relation to capital. As a tool, the oppression of women serves capitalism to deal with the whole workforce to its own benefit. The effort to control women’s bodies is a common denominator of capitalism and patriarchy. Within this context, gold serves a medium to renew this cycle and reinforce economic and social status quo.
Jewellery is obviously a representation of wealth and the fear of losing it — what one hand displays the other protects. While I was taking pictures of the window displays at Bahnhofstrasse, the security guard of one of the store rushed out and urged me to stop shooting, under a false pretext of illegality and security. It’s an anecdotal evidence of the mechanism wealthy people deploy in order to show their possessions, in order to improve their social image and present the class status, while at all times creating a physical distance between the observer and the subject, to enhance the class division. I wonder what role plays design in the reinforcement of patriarchy and capitalism, in particular within the luxurious goods niche.
Lately, I’ve been wondering about to which extent I’m part of the women’s exploitation social chain. In the past years, much has been said about how our global economies and industries produce commodities in unethical circumstances. Clothing, food industry, oil, technology, and so on, are just a few examples of this difficult reality. But how each of us is involved in this invisible chain which places us at the extreme of each pole? Are we accountable? I recall reading an article about the fashion industry and its controversial means of production. The main argument was that the cheapest the clothes, the most extreme the labour conditions were. The article explained that at the extreme of each pole in the production chain stood poor people. Those who produce it, and at the other end of the thread those who can only afford to buy such clothes. The same goes for gold, only that in contrast with the fashion industry, gold is extracted and exported in low wage conditions; while it is sold as one of the most expensive commodities global market is able to produce. My recent research about sexual exploitation in the context of illegal gold mining in Perú made me understand how the obscenity of the global market operates oppressing women on both sides of the production-consumption chain. After extraction, gold migrates and metamorphoses in a designed luxury good. These goods are a symbolic representation of the reproductive life cycle associated with female biology, considering the heteronormative logic our societies tend to reproduce. In other words, gold luxury goods are patriarchy’s commodities with the shape of a ring. A life term symbol of male dominance to wear on. A sordid market trade makes the connection between dissimilar spaces.
The illegal mine in Madre de Dios, photo by CHS Alternativo
The Peruvian rainforest may seem far away — our Western perception of it as an ‘exotic’ place contributes to this disconnection — which tends to support this absence of responsibility, of guilt. No responsibility for the tourists travelling here, because it’s a destination. No questions asked on gold extraction. On jungle deforestation.
Climate change, human trafficking and sexual exploitation converge in Madre de Dios. Meanwhile, luxury goods made out of Peruvian gold are sold in Switzerland —worth more than a lifetime of a miner’s wages. My concern with the willingness of women to take part in their own exploitation became deeper. I began to acknowledge that not only I was a partner of this exploitation through my consumption; but I also realised my role as a foreign anthropologist investigating local situations, as a white highly-trained privileged middle-class Argentinian immigrant.
So here I am in Switzerland, an international hub for luxury goods, served by excellent design and refined craftsmanship to which, as an industrial designer, I should aspire to join and contribute to — yet the clash of my political ideas and what is required of me could not be more contrasted. But I also feel ready to confront it. The capitalist nature of industrial design should be defied and recast. Or maybe I have chosen a profession doomed to be but a tool incapable of escaping a given capitalist framework?
Unlike widely believed, designers by giving form to physical objects do not regulate social behaviours and interactions, nor do they shape the society. They work within the strict constraints put by their clients and commissioners, who dictate the brief of the objects to be manufactured. Obviously, some designers try to bend the rules and to propose solutions which were not initially commissioned, only a few succeed in implementing them, usually, these success cases are achieved by well known, super-star designers who in almost 100% are privileged white men. Most of us, regular designers with no divine aura around our heads, are bound to the dictation of the producers, who have their mostly capitalist agenda to generate more and more income as the highest priority. Therefore, so few companies are willing to bend the socially accepted norms and to introduce products which might oppose the established conventions and destabilise the status quo and endanger the position of patriarchy.
The most common criticism of design is its influence on consumerism, which reinforces the class division, allowing the wealthy to acquire the goods, the poor can only crave for. However, consumerism is not the major success of design in reinforcing capitalism, its genuine power is that it makes interactions and divisions between individuals real. The physicality of the design objects helps to maintain the hierarchy needed to perpetuate the oppression. The luxurious goods industry such as jewellery and watches might be an extreme example of design’s success in nourishing social, economic and gender hierarchy.
I wonder if an intersectional approach towards design is even possible? Can I as designer restructure the relations between people through objects, rather than maintain them? Can feminist jewellery exist?
Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, photo by Maya Ober
Looking for answers in the pure spirit of academia, I visited the École Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne. I got especially interested in the Master of Advanced Studies ‘Design for Luxury and Craftsmanship’ whose final exhibition was indeed impressive —the level of craftsmanship, details and beauty of the created objects was extraordinary. Obviously, I appreciate the subtleties of Vacheron Constantin craftspeople and Hermes’s cherished tradition. As a designer, I cannot just dismiss it, but having said so, I would like to challenge the way in which objects especially from within the luxury field reinforce social norms and relationships, which I strongly oppose, and which oppress me as a woman. Is design — am I — doomed to be just a tool or can it — I — truly be a force for change?
Magdalena Goldin is an anthropologist, gender researcher, reproductive health counsellor and feminist activist, currently based in Lima (PE). Magdalena is a founder of Degenerar, a consultancy that conducts multidisciplinary research devoted to gender and women’s studies, with a strong focus on sexual and reproductive health. Magdalena is a frequent contributor to Tribuna Feminista, Proyecto Kahlo, Pikara Magazine and Mujeres Mundi.