The Central Queensland Sapphire Mining Community: Case of Common Property and Cultural Capital

Dr Jim McAllister
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This paper discusses the case of the sapphire mining community of Central Queensland, Australia, and its changing fortunes as a result of its dependence on publicly-owned and regulated sapphire deposits. These fortunes were subjected recently to the introduction of capital-intensive mining using employed labour, and vertically integrated sapphire marketing. This affected the viability of individual miners who operated small-scale mines, and the overproduction and falling demand for sapphires which followed quickly drove most large miners out of the area as well. In response to these events, local entrepreneurs are turning to tourist enterprises which still have their basis in the sapphire deposits, but now repackage the cultural capital accumulated by the long history of small-scale mining to sell it to tourists as an ‘authentic small-miner experience’: descending a facsimile sapphire mine, washing ostensible sapphire-bearing gravel, finding whatever sapphires have been ‘seeded’ there, and offering them to local gem-cutters who cut the stones in the sight of the tourists and set them to specification.

Against this background, we identify and then discuss a paradox: the common property resource of the sapphire deposits were originally privately exploited to create livelihoods for those individuals who lived and worked in this community. However, the capitalist transformation of this petty bourgeois industry has imploded the long-term privatisation of the common resource by over-exploiting the original deposits to the point where now few owner-operators are able still to make any kind of living from the quantity of sapphires they mine.

Interestingly, even though the common resource has been substantially exhausted, the community is still building its sustainability on it. This is due to the ties which the locals have with this resource, expressed in the local ‘culture’ – a culture being packaged and sold as tourist products to visitors, thus sustaining a viable economic base for the community. The remaining section of our paper provides an analysis of this process, in which we employ the concept of ‘community cultural capital’ (used in a different sense from Bourdieu (1997)) to encompass the traditions of the small-scale sapphire miners.

Keywords: Sapphire Mining, Common Property, Community, Cultural Capital
Stream: Cultural Sustainability, Social Sustainability
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: Central Queensland Sapphire Mining Community, The

Dr Jim McAllister

Lecturer in Sociology, School of Psychology and Sociology, Central Queensland University

Ref: S06P0262