Manila, Philippines: I have just very recently read The Ethics of Mining Gold: The Social and Environmental Impacts of Gold, written by my colleague Mary Imgrund. Let me say, as a person who has visited small-scale gold mining communities in the Philippines and worked for the NGO BAN Toxics which has presence in said communities, I can completely relate to the points that she has raised.
Gold mining definitely has serious social and environmental impacts — child labour, harsh working conditions, corruption, exploitation, poverty, health issues, prostitution, gender issues, environmental degradation, even conflict. The list is, unfortunately, very long. Compounding this is the fact that while all of these issues have been there for years, it seems like nothing is being done. And this is true for a lot of gold mining areas in several parts of the world, as has already been covered by Mary in her article.
In the Philippines, all of these have even been exacerbated by the fact that small-scale gold-mining is largely informal. Philippine law states that governments can declare people’s small-scale mining areas. However, out of 40 provinces nationwide with small-scale mining operations, there are only four areas or communities with license to operate. The rest are operating illegally and thus, subject to the various social and environmental problems that have been mentioned above.
It is important to understand these issues in context. The Philippines is reported to be the fifth most mineral-rich country in the world. In fact, the country is said to host the largest copper-gold deposit worldwide. About 70 percent of the gold that is mined in the country comes largely from the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector. The sector is composed of about 500,000 mostly subsistence small-scale gold miners and indirectly affects 2 million Filipinos. For many of these Filipinos, gold mining has been their livelihood, a history that dates back to before Spanish colonisation, a period that began in the 1500s and ended in the late 1800s. Take away gold mining rights from these people, without any support or transition plan, and you will see them and their families suffer, having no other recourse. It also assumes that alternative livelihood just happens. It doesn’t. People (and children) engage in mining for a reason, and that reason is the lack of economic opportunities in where they and their families live.
For example, while it is true that government has provided support for some communities to shift to other livelihood practices, such as agriculture, mining areas are simply not suited to it due to the mineralised nature of the land.
This is where Compassionate Gold comes in. In the Philippines, the NGO BAN Toxics has partnered with the International Labour Organisation in the CARING Gold Project. The project aims to “develop and implement strategies to reduce child labor and improve working conditions in ASGM communities.” It is not about mining or not to mine, but it acknowledges the frontline reality and explores ways to improve the situation, giving other interventions a chance to take root, and an opportunity for the community to evaluate their development plan. In addition, it is also the thrust of BAN Toxics, which advocates for toxic chemicals management, to eradicate the use of mercury in gold processing, a highly toxic substance. Included in its strategy is the development of an innovative solution to change the current practices in the ASGM sector.
“Compassionate Gold is our way of helping uplift the lives of our small-scale miners and their communities who have long been trapped in a cycle of poverty,” Fr. Rey San Juan, Board of Trustees President of non-governmental organisation BAN Toxics said.
“We want to encourage our miners and mining communities to adopt responsible gold mining practices by providing them with opportunities for economic growth and participation in a wider market that holds them accountable,” he added.
In order to do this, Compassionate Gold has the following criteria in terms of the source of gold: 1) part of formal economy; 2) legally-operated; 3) employs environmentally-sound practices; 4) does not use mercury; 5) promotes decent working conditions; 6) has no gender inequality; 7) has no child labor; 8) does not contribute to armed conflict; and 9) has transparent supply chains.
“BAN Toxics has presence in mining communities in Camarines Norte and South Cotabato. We help them transform the way they work so that they meet health, environment, labour and other standards. We also provide assistance to help them formalise their operations,” said Sarah Aviado, BAN Toxics Development Programme Manager.
In order to fully understand what Compassionate Gold is all about, I urge you to watch this video:
Compassionate Gold is being supported by the Philippine Fashion Week. On 26 May 2018, the brand was launched on the Philippine Fashion Week runway.
“Globally, the thrust of fashion is eco-consciousness and care for the people. We are providing the platform of the Philippine Fashion Week to showcase the situation and challenges of small-scale gold mining. We also want to encourage the market to purchase Compassionate Gold to help the miners,” Audie Espino, founder of the Philippine Fashion Week said.
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The important thing about Compassionate Gold is that it seeks to highlight the various issues of miners and mining communities and advocate for solutions. It also seeks to bring together the miners, their communities, local government units, national agencies, other stakeholders, gold consumers, and the general public in ensuring that gold mining is both ethical and sustainable.
An important component of Compassionate Gold is the call for formalisation, as this will serve as the lynchpin for the regulation of the sector and hopefully, the future eradication of the various ills that plague the ASGM.
It is important to note that while steps are being made, at least, in the Philippines to help improve the situation of the small-scale gold mining sector, it is my personal belief that gold mining is simply not environmentally sustainable in the long run. The good thing is that there are now models which can serve as prototypes for future livelihoods of mining communities. In the village of Malaya in Camarines Norte, for example, the community is practicing regulated gold mining and diversification in their sources of livelihood, which includes agriculture, aquaculture, and even baking. This I hope to discuss in more detail in a future article!
*In the interest of full disclosure, the author has previously served as the Communications Manager of BAN Toxics.