Social Learning in the Context of Small-scale Gold Mining. Q & A with Dr. Gerald Fallon

The Canadian International Resources and Development Institute (CIRDI), strategically located at UBC, recognizes the value of academia-government-industry engagement and its ability to ensure that new knowledge is applicable and available in practice. CIRDI’s initiatives focus on creating pathways for universities to partner with developing country counterparts, thereby bridging the gap between research and environmental management practice.  Through its efforts supporting the sustainable development of Ecuador’s artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector (ASGM), CIRDI has been closely engaged with UBC’s Faculty of Education in the process of implementing social learning strategies for miners.

What is social learning and what does it look like within CIRDI’s TransMAPE project in Ecuador? We asked Dr. Gerald Fallon, CIRDI’s TransMAPE project academic lead, Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and Faculty Associate in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. By bringing a researcher’s mindset to the industry context, Dr. Fallon successfully introduced innovative co-learning methods and initiated a paradigm shift in addressing social and environmental challenges through education in Ecuador.

What is social learning? Is it being widely adopted for international development purposes?

Social learning refers to a process that encourages a shift away from a traditional expert-based method of teaching and learning to a community-based co-learning method – “transformative learning.” It is often characterized by non-hierarchical relationships, collaboration, trust, and shared exploration of complex issues by a diversity of stakeholders and actors within the learning environment. More specifically, social learning is an activity that takes place in groups, communities, networks or social systems involved in the processes of collective problem-solving. Social learning is a well-used concept in international development practices designed to initiate and facilitate a transition to a more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable communities in various contexts like artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Within CIRDI’s Trans-MAPE project in Ecuador, what social learning approaches has CIRDI adopted to advance the small-scale mining sector? What are the learning pathways to change?

CIRDI team (right-to-left): Dr. Gerald Fallon, Bern Klein, Francisco Gallegos, and Jimmy Zambrano on a fieldwork mission in Ecuador. Photo by CIRDI

CIRDI adopted a process of social co-learning that aimed to build the capacity of those involved in three fundamental areas of ASM:

  • Critical evaluation of existing knowledge and environmental challenges
  • Knowledge generation and sharing about extractive and processing practices
  • Translation of the generated knowledge within the context of building up relevant curriculum and pilot training modules for the advancement of a sustainable and economically effective and efficient ASM sector

The process took place through three iterative social learning phases:

First, we conducted a social analysis of ASM in Southern Ecuador through stakeholder analysis and a series of meetings called Diálogos de Oro in two different areas: Zaruma-Portovelo and Ponce Enriquez. This allowed CIRDI’s team to develop an in-depth understanding of the regional ASM sector, the miners’ values, professional capacity, and educational needs while engaging them in the development and pilot of training models related to extraction and processing practices.

Secondly, we conducted a few different types of fieldwork assessment with participating ASM miners as a way to develop an in-depth understanding of the characteristics of gold extraction and processing operations in Southern Ecuador. The results provided data that became an essential part of developing community-based education programs on environmentally sustainable ASM mining practices.

Lastly, our team was able to identify the most relevant themes for pilot training modules for ASM with the help of miners, owners of processing plants, government representatives and academics. This phase of social learning provided all actors with an opportunity to cooperatively generate and share knowledge used to create training modules.

What challenges might the team and project partners face in terms of sustaining changes?

This question brings the team and project partners back to the way we put into practice our collective understanding of social learning. We saw it as an ongoing collective process that allowed diverse groups of individuals, communities, and organizations to collaborate with an aim to define and act on issues of sustainability in ASM. The sustainability of changes achieved in ASM is dependent on the continuous maintenance of learning networks. We recognize that the durability of achieved changes is closely linked to the possibility of further action on the part of CIRDI and its local partners to continue to support, deepen, and expand in the future the established networks of cooperation and collaboration.

How has working on this project helped advance your work as a faculty member in the Department of Education?

Being part of CIRDI’s TransMAPE project opened the possibility to conduct transdisciplinary research across knowledge systems – social and physical sciences. This offered powerful ways of understanding the dynamics of learning and changes needed in providing a liveable and sustainable future to ASM communities. In addition, taking an applied academic approach in a transdisciplinary team and context confirmed in my mind the relevance and necessity of knowledge-integration and problem-oriented knowledge co-production in tackling complex issues.