Many nations have built their wealth on gold. It is believed to have been one of the first metals to be mined and was instrumental in the rise of many ancient civilizations. International agencies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank continue to favourably view gold mining as a key driver of economic growth for developing countries. However, if miners and governments do not take steps to implement responsible mining practices, the environmental and social costs can quickly erode the financial gains made.
The most common method of extracting gold from ore is cyanide leaching. It only takes a rice-grain of cyanide to be fatal to humans and one-millionth of a gram per litre of water to be fatal to fish. Given the large scale and often decades-long duration of many gold mining operations, contamination of the surrounding environment with cyanide is seen as inevitable, posing serious health risks to the labour force and surrounding communities. Following the opening of the Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea in 1982, the dumping of waste into the OK Tedi River saw its fish population poisoned, 176 sq km of forest damaged and staple crop plantations destroyed, disrupting close to 50,000 livelihoods. One anthropologist described it as “ecocide”.
Gold mining operations have long been associated with funding unlawful armed conflicts, which is why the World Gold Council, an industry body representing the world’s large-scale industrial mines, has developed a Conflict-Free Standard. This standard provides a framework for major gold producers to assess and provide assurance that their gold has been extracted in a way that does not support unlawful armed conflict.
In 2004, Earthworks and Oxfam launched a ‘No Dirty Gold’ campaign to raise the human rights and environmental standards of gold mining practices. Over 100 of the world’s leading jewellers and retailers have embraced the campaign’s Golden Rules, putting pressure on suppliers and manufacturers to do the same. Tiffany & Co, for example, now only sources gold from responsible mines that do not use cyanide, while Brilliant Earth, another retailer, actively promotes the use of recycled gold to reduce the demand for newly mined gold.
Given that an estimated 100 million people worldwide rely on gold mining for their livelihoods, benefitting both developed and developing countries, it is vital that gold be mined responsibly. Small-scale miners, in particular, typically live in high levels of poverty in remote areas and are too often exploited by middle-men without any protection for basic human rights. Fairtrade Gold aims to tackle this issue by encouraging small-scale gold miners to adopt the Fairtrade standard of responsible mining standards. There is a small but growing movement in Australia to use Fairtrade gold in jewellery design such as Sydney-based Zoë Pook Jewellery, who is leading the way as the first Fairtrade Gold Jeweller in Australia.