Ethics of Mining Gold: The Social and Environmental Impacts of Gold

Ethics of Mining Gold: The Social and Environmental Impacts of Gold

Washington DC, United States: We’ve written about both sustainable jewelry and the problems of rare earth mining on Eco Warrior Princess before, but I’d like to examine the impact of gold mining more closely, specifically the devastating human and environmental loss left in its wake. While many focus on diamonds as the human rights violating cornerstone of the jewelry industry, I’d present gold as an equally exploitative and cutthroat process. Gold is rarer than diamonds and can’t be created in a lab, at least not yet. It also has uses in electronics from wiring to cellphones, an industry that shows no sign of slowing down. Gold is highly sought after, and some in the US still believe that we should operate on a gold-based economy. Add to that a power dynamic in which wealthy companies can go to poor countries with gold beneath their feet, and you have a system that incentivizes bad practices.

Ethics of Mining Gold: The Social and Environmental Impacts of Gold

In Pajuela, Peru, the waterways are so poisoned that wildlife and livestock alike have died drinking tainted water. Like many gold mines, the Yanacocha mine uses a cyanide-heap process to extract tiny amounts of gold ore from rock. They start with an underground explosion creating a mix of gold, soil, and rock, sending Nitrates into the streams from the explosives, then use a wash of cyanide to dissolve the gold ore and make a liquid solution. Later in the process, an acid wash separates gold from the carbon it was bound to. This is only a small portion of the arduous process. One of the worst byproducts of this method are heavy metals which are incredibly dangerous to all living creatures. In 2000, for example, Mercury leaked from its container en route from the mine, causing 1,000 people to fall ill.

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For many people, there is no choice but to work in the mines. Children fleeing violence are faced with the choice between almost certain starvation or exploitative work giving them just enough food and rest to survive. Some mines demand a month of labor before the workers are paid in whatever they can find and carry out of the last day of the month, as I was told by a friend and colleague (who also works in environmental activism) familiar with the area. It’s common for many of these mines to not pay at all but instead let exhausted workers with few moments of reprieve go back into the mines to find gold for themselves in their spare time. The mining industry in Peru is also host to sex trafficking, according to Amazon Aid Foundation. Girls as young as 12 are promised work and sent to Peru by their family only to be forced into prostitution for the primarily male miners. 

Peru is a target for some of the worst mining practices because it accounts for 13% of the world’s copper, 4% of gold, 22% of silver, 7.6% of zinc, 9% of lead, and 6%of tin, according to the country’s Ministry of Energy. Peru is also home to part of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most important, biodiverse environments on the planet, which is being slowly destroyed in part thanks to gold mining, some of which is illegal

Maqui Maqui Gold Mine in Peru. Credit Carlos Olivares
Maqui Maqui Gold Mine in Peru. Credit Carlos Olivares

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So how much gold does the mine yield given this destruction? Only 8.5 oz per every truckload of 180 tons of rock and soil. Human and environmental costs are rarely considered when large companies make strategic decisions – while they might care whether something is safe in theory to avoid a PR backlash, it’s unusual that one find a business plan that will refuse profit if it comes at too high a secondary cost. Human and environmental casualties are merely unfortunate side effects of the pursuit of profit to many unscrupulous mines. What’s a few thousand sheep and the livelihoods of farmers (read: potential labor) to the owners? We in the ethical sphere see this repeatedly, but the cycle continues: thanks to complacency in the markets in which they sell, companies aren’t held accountable for their actions in the developing world. Places like Peru seem far away, almost imaginary to many Westerners, who would never allow their own children to be forced into manual labor. It’s that separation that gives a silent consent to bad companies.

While I’ve focused on Peru as an example of the worst of the industry, the West is far from innocent in this mess. The mine in question is owned by an American company, Newmont Mining Co., which was funded in part by the lending arm of the World Bank.

In Papua New Guinea, a team of attorneys and environmental scientists reported that many communities living close to gold mines suffer from episodic water insecurity, poor sanitary conditions, and chronic poverty. Farming land is scarce and dwindling thanks to the draw of gold mining. This site was also plagued by sexual violence and human rights violations. Major rivers near the mine also tested positive for heavy metal contamination, though the rainwater didn’t, proving that the source is indeed the mine. Ghana faces similar problems.

This isn’t a regional problem, it’s a human problem. Miners across the globe face a myriad of health problems from their work conditions like exposure to dangerous particulate or just consistent exhaustion, and the process of mining is destroying the planet, like most extractive industries.

Ethics of Mining Gold- The Social & Environmental Impacts of Gold
Wend-Kouni, 26 years old, from Rouko village, and is a farmer. Once work is completed, she comes to search for gold. She digs and collects ore and then takes it back to the village to wash, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

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So, what can we do?

While many retailers have pledged to not buy “dirty gold,” much of it is still sourced irresponsibly thanks to a complex supply chain that obfuscates where the materials have come from. If you can, buy vintage jewelry or from jewelers who use recycled gold and silver like one of my favorites, Catbird. I realize it’s hard to live life with a lot of “no’s,” you can’t buy this or don’t support that, but in a world overpopulated with choices and fast-moving trends, I like to think of my style restrictions as creating a uniform. If you find a few places to shop, it’s likely that you can put together a cohesive look with just a few pieces. And of course, don’t go throwing out your wedding rings! Yes, gold supports so many evils, but remember scale too, just one or two pieces won’t make you a bad person but be mindful if you plan to shop. At the end of the day, just be happy with what you have and glad that you were born with the privilege to read this article.

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Title image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

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