Gold: A Raw Deal for Indigenous Peoples

In April, residents of the four states of South India bought an estimated 70,000 kilograms of gold on the holiday known as Akshaya Tritiya, a day when purchases of the metal—from coins to jewelry—are believed to bring families good fortune for the year. The city of Bangalore, home to 2,000 gold shops, alone sold some 10,000 kilograms of gold, a more than 50 percent increase over last year, despite higher metal prices.

In Hindu culture, as in many others, gold is linked to wealth and prosperity. But beneath the glitter lies a less glamorous tale. According to the No Dirty Gold campaign, a project of Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks and Oxfam America, more than half of all gold mined today comes from indigenous peoples’ lands, and is frequently taken without local consent. Mine workers often suffer serious human rights grievances, including enslavement, beatings, toxic exposure, and even death. In the 1990s, nearly a million workers in Burma were subjected to forced labor by a Canadian-operated mining company, according to the International Labor Organization, and in 2001, 11 members of Colombia’s metals, mining, and oil workers’ union federations were murdered.

Gold mining can also abuse the land, generating as much as 20 tons of waste rock and ore to collect enough gold for one .33-ounce 18-karat ring, according to Earthworks. Cyanide and mercury, toxic chemicals used to extract the metal, are often improperly discarded, polluting local water resources. And many resource-rich countries quickly export their newly mined gold, bypassing the opportunity to add value by creating a finished product and perpetuating dependence on an industry that typically rewards only a small elite. In some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, profits from gold mining and other resource extraction have been linked to violence and civil war.

Activists created the No Dirty Gold campaign in 2004 to address many of the injustices associated with mining. The initiative calls on jewelry retailers, the “drivers” of the industry, to become more aware of where their gold comes from and to work towards commitment to the 12 “Golden Rules,” which include “respect for basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law,” “respect for workers' rights and labor standards,” and the need for independent verification of these and other practices.

Rather than stop buying gold, says Earthworks International Campaign Manager Radhika Sarin, people should be more mindful of where it comes from and help to encourage better industry practices. One way to do this, she notes, is by singing the No Dirty Gold pledge on the campaign’s website. In February 2006, eight U.S. and international jewelry retailers—including the Zale Corp., the Signet Group (parent firm of Kay Jewelers), Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels—did just that. By joining the campaign, such companies are choosing to work with environmental groups to address the social and environmental impacts of their products, rather than suffer bad press over potentially damaging corporate activities.

With no independent organization in place yet to monitor mining practices, conscientious consumers who are unwilling to wait for conditions to improve are seeking out more-responsible alternatives to newly mined gold. Antique jewelry, found at estate sales, consignment shops, and other locations, is one popular option. And increasingly, some jewelers are offering “recycled” gold, melted down from its original form and reworked. Leber Jeweler, for example, offers a special recycled line to interested buyers, while GreenKarat exclusively sells recycled gold products. Even Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has begun looking into sources for recycled gold, as part of its new company-wide sustainability initiative.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.