Originally published in Alternet.
Communities affected by mining deserve meaningful changes that improve real conditions on the ground.
Thinking of giving your sweetheart gold jewelry for Valentine’s Day? You might want to first know what goes into making it. Extracting enough gold for one ring takes an average of two pounds of cyanide (a teaspoon will kill you). Processing the gold in one ring uses over 1,400 gallons of water, enough to meet the daily needs of 100 people. Left behind is a toxic sludge containing heavy metals, cyanide compounds, and arsenic. Each gold ring produces an average of 20 tons of waste – millions of tons over the life of a mine.
Producing gold can also come at great human cost. Mines are often imposed on communities that don’t want them, and cause communities to lose their lands and livelihoods. Human costs also include the use of child labor in mines in Mali, dangerous conditions in mines in Ghana, and armed violence and human rights violations that have been linked to gold mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Seven years ago, the No Dirty Gold campaign called on jewelers to stop using gold produced in irresponsible ways. The campaign focused on jewelry because it is the primary end use of gold, accounting for some 80 percent of the annual mine production. More than 100,000 people have since signed the No Dirty Gold pledge to demand that companies not sell gold produced at the expense of communities, workers, and the environment. Over 70 jewelers have signed on to the Golden Rules for responsible sourcing of gold and precious metals. By signing they have sent a clear message to their suppliers about their desire for more responsibly produced metals. They have committed to seeking out responsible sources and independent verification of sourcing claims, and to increasing their use of recycled gold.
Over 50 jewelers have also pledged to protect the world’s most valuable wild sockeye salmon fishery from an irresponsible mine project. At the request of the commercial fishing and indigenous communities of Bristol Bay, Alaska, they have promised not to use gold from the proposed Pebble mine. If built, Pebble would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, and would dump up to 10 billion tons of toxic waste at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
Many jewelry companies have taken important steps in the right direction, but others, like Target, have turned a blind eye. Some jewelers have been so anxious to reassure their customers that they can shop without hurting their conscience that they have done so without any guarantee that the jewelry is actually being produced in more responsible ways.
Take Walmart. No Dirty Gold has commended Walmart for being the first Big Box retailer to sign the Golden Rules, and for taking steps to track its supply chain. But in its haste to launch a “green” jewelry line, Walmart made claims that were not accurate. Last month, an investigation for New Times by Jean Friedman-Rodovsky exposed the truth behind Walmart’s ‘Love, Earth’ line of jewelry, revealing that it comes at a great cost to workers in Bolivia and to the environment and communities around mines in the United States.
Another example of PR claims without meaningful change is the mining and jewelry industry-led Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). This is a trade association ostensibly concerned about social and environmental issues throughout the gold and diamonds supply chain. But its members do not include affected communities, mining unions or public interest groups.
The system as it is currently structured doesn’t move us any closer to more responsible mining.
Communities and places affected by mining deserve meaningful changes that improve real conditions on the ground. One step in the right direction is the recent set of rules drafted by the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring companies traded on U.S. stock exchanges to determine if they are using gold from conflict mines in the Congo. An initiative to develop standards and an independent verification process for gold and other metals is now underway – and this effort, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance or IRMA, includes both civil society and corporate participants.
Consumers care about their purchases and want to be assured that their gold jewelry or cell phone did not come at the cost of human rights or the environment. Jewelry companies should support transparency and truly independent verification of the metals supply chain, and insist that their suppliers provide them with cleaner alternatives to “dirty” gold. Now that’s an idea we could grow to love.
Payal Sampat is international campaign director and Scott Cardiff is international campaign coordinator for EARTHWORKS, an international mining reform organization.