Gold Jewelry’s Dirty Environmental Secret

By Karen Emslie | February 14, 2015 1:32 pm

gold bracelet

Gold is a modern expression of love, and every Valentine’s Day thousands of shoppers browse boutique windows full of the stuff. Over 90 countries mine the gold that is fashioned into jewelry, with China currently topping the exporter tables (though as illegal exports are rampant in some countries, exact figures are hard to pin down).

South American countries are also major gold producers, particularly Perú, which ranks variously fifth or sixth worldwide. A global gold rush over the last decade has seen a boom in South American mining. But this has led to a specific problem  it is now financially viable to extract gold deposits from areas which were previously unprofitable, such as under tropical forests, resulting in growing damage to one of the planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems.

The Modern Gold Rush

The global price of gold, as tracked by the World Gold Council, rose from $250 per ounce in 2000 to $1300 for the same amount in 2013. This spike was driven by demand for gold bars following the financial crisis alongside a growing global demand for gold jewelry in the world’s developing economies. That boom has benefited South America, where gold production grew by 30 percent from 2000 to 2010. But it has come with a dark side, as two recent studies show: growing deforestation in the tropical forest and contamination of the area’s vital rivers.

The first study, by a team from the University of Puerto Rico, evaluated forest loss around newly developed mining sites. Researchers examined high resolution satellite data between 2001 and 2013, and concluded that around 650 square miles of tropical forest was lost in South America as a result of gold mining in this period. Crucially, that deforestation was significantly higher during the 2007-2013 period  which the team attributes to the increase in gold prices after the financial crisis.

One of the worst affected areas was the Madre de Dios region of Perú, a highly biodiverse region containing the country’s largest national park. The second study, from Duke University, looked at how the mercury used in small-scale mining in this region is damaging rivers and food chains.

This small-scale or artisanal mining is carried out by individuals or small enterprises, rather than mining companies, and makes use of hand tools to extract and pan for gold. Miners use mercury to bind small particles of gold ore into hard chunks that can be more easily extracted, after which the mercury is burned off with blowtorches. Over 90 percent of these types of mines are illegal according to the researchers.

The Duke team studied mercury concentrations in soil and fish downstream of known artisanal mining sites. They found that miners’ use of mercury not only contaminates local soil and water, it also creates hazardous levels of the neurotoxin hundreds of miles away. Fish found 350 miles downstream of a mining site were found to contain too much mercury to be safely eaten by children and women of maternal age.

Stopping the Damage

There are various tactics being tried to address these problems. Training for miners in South America could improve their practices, says Nora L. Álvarez-Berríos, lead researcher on the University of Puerto Rico study.

“It is important to encourage more responsible ways of extracting gold by helping miners to extract in a more efficient way to reduce deeper encroachment into the forests,” she says.

The gold rush is highly lucrative and miners often migrate hundreds of miles to make money, meaning that for solutions to be effective they need to benefit the miners as well as the environment. Therefore helping miners find alternative and sustainable sources of income is also a priority.

Technical changes could help as well. Álvarez-Berríos advocates for government to work with the artisanal miners to capture or reuse mercury at the site of extraction. And the team at Duke University, led by Professor Helen Hsu-Kim, are already developing technology to better control releases of mercury into the environment, including new filters that will be more effective than the current system at capturing the mercury as it is burned off the gold amalgams.

Meanwhile, projects such as USAID’s Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon are working to mitigate the environmental impact caused by mining and recover areas which have been damaged.

Buying the Right Gold

These are solutions being proposed for where gold is mined, but what about where gold is consumed? As we shop for love trinkets this Valentine’s Day should we be reassessing our lust for gold? Alvarez-Berríos thinks so.

“It is important that awareness is raised among gold consumers to insist that the gold purchased has been extracted in a way that does not contribute to serious environmental damage or human rights abuses,” she says.

At the moment there is no independent certification for gold that can guarantee environmental and social standards. There are efforts being made to establish such a system, but in the meantime consumers can only try to ask the right questions when they buy gold jewelry.

Payal Sampat is International Program Director at Earthworks, the organization behind the No Dirty Gold campaign, which aims to highlight the global environmental and social problems that irresponsible gold mining creates.

Sampat suggests that “consumers seeking ethical alternatives to dirty gold should consider vintage or antique jewelry. To minimize the chance your jewelry is tarnished with polluted water or human rights abuses, ask your jewelry retailer if they sell recycled or fair trade metals.”

The No Dirty Gold campaign have also produced a set of Golden Rules, which represent social, environmental and human rights criteria for more responsible gold production. By signing up to the rules, retailers pledge to pursue and encourage cleaner sourcing of gold and other metals. There are now over 100 signatories including Tiffany & Co., and Helzberg Diamonds.

Something to consider as you seek to express your love this holiday.


Image by Saad Akhtar via Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
  • Captain Slog

    LOVE? WHAT LOVE? I certainly WOULDN’T go near jewellery anyway. ANY Jewellery! Why pay Hundreds, if you’re REALLY STUPID, Thousand or MILLIONS of Credits on Gold and Diamonds? They don’t even DO anything, and a Blind man couldn’t even see the value in it. Its all about showing the world how STUPID. . . er, RICH you are. EGOS. “Look at me!! Don’t I look pretty with these sparkly diamonds?” Its ALL VISUAL!! The ONLY Ring I would EVER wear is SILVER, and I do. Its more beneficial than Gold. Its beneficial to your Health. Your body absorbs it and, in my case, I haven’t been crook for years!! NO Colds or Flu. Or anything else for that matter. IF I had a nice girl in my life, I would rather she had a Heavy, but Feminine, SILVER Ring, because I CARE about her.

    • Come on think!


      • Captain Slog

        I don’t know what you’re on about!! The only moron I can think of is YOU!! You can blow as much money as you like on fancy jewellery, and you’d a fecking FOOL. You won’t get your money back. That’s why I said its STUPID!!
        From what you just said, I don’t think you know HOW to think!! You only said that because you want to get your rocks off being abusive to someone. A Cyber Bully.
        ALL this mining for “precious metals” and pretty stones is buggering the planet!!
        Moving a MOUNTAIN and making a hole as DEEP as the mountain was HIGH just to get a tiny Royal Blue Unflawed Crystal you know NOTHING about? Now THAT’S STUPID!! What is the Crystal? I’m NOT bloody telling you!! THAT’S Wise.

        • zcar300

          What are you calling “money”? Your money is worthless. It’s paper. It’s make believe. Metal (gold and others) is a real commodity. It can be used for all kinds of things. Not just jewelry. Or in your case magic medical placebos.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    Go watch the season of Discovery’s Gold Rush where the Hoffmans were trying to mine in South America. The went to claim after claim that were supposed to be virgin untouched ground only to find that the claims had been wiped out by illegal miners.

    The people doing most of the kind of damage you picture above is being done by miners who are operating without proper authorization from either the government or the claim owners. These people are criminals who are stealing gold right out of the ground.

    • cush

      stealing? its there for anyone, not corporate america

      • Matthew Slyfield

        The claim owners the Hoffmans delt with were all local private individuals. No corporations, American or otherwise. The gold belongs to the owner of the mineral rights, not anyone who comes along.

        • cush

          I disagree, the earth belongs to anyone who comes along. not some manmade divisions. Wake up

          • Matthew Slyfield

            You are the one who needs to wake up. Without legally enforceable property rights, the land will end up belonging to whoever has the most guns and the least qualms about using them.

          • cush

            true, according to history, that’s exactly what happened. hence, we are where we are right now and its still happening. I need not call any names. if only we could turn back time and do it all over the right way. Still, the land belongs to everyone equally. I am glad the natives took all the gold before the hoffmans and they didn’t get shot by your so called “legally enforceable” friends.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            “if only we could turn back time and do it all over the right way.”

            If we do it over your way nothing will change.

            “I am glad the natives took all the gold before the hoffmans and they
            didn’t get shot by your so called “legally enforceable” friends.”

            It’s not the Hoffmans the illegal miners were stealing from, it was the claim owners, who were also natives.

            The Hoffmans, doing everything on the up and up under local law would have to pay a royalty (usually paid as a direct percentage of the gold mined rather than cash). Also, the Hoffmans would have been required by law to restore the land when they were done.
            The illegal miners do neither.

          • cush

            Well Matthew, its obvious there is nothing I can say to wake you up. Hopefully this conversation helps others. Enjoy your “legally enforceable” laws and I’ll see you on the flip side. God Bless you.

  • Sinibaldi

    Eternal light.

    In the deepest

    darkness a


    voice describes

    in a moment

    the eternal recall

    of a sensible


    Francesco Sinibaldi

  • Come on think!

    The local miners aren’t capturing the mercury at all. So what needs to be done is make them a profit for bringing in the amalgam, rather than the gold. Then the mercury could be captured at the ore processing store or whatever the buyer place is called.

  • zcar300

    Ok I take back what I said about the ring. And now that I reread your comments I see that your objections are centered around jewelry. which I have real no argument with. At the time I was paying too much attention to all the yelling and name calling.

    • Captain Slog

      The other thing I hate about Jewellery is, as I said before about being “Rich,” its only for show. Like decorating a Xmas Tree. In this case, many women are like Xmas Trees and they want to be decorated with the most expensive JUNK that the poor rich mugs they’re using can throw ate them, in exchange for a “Bit of The Other.” People pay THOUSANDS of dollars for stuff that doesn’t even WORK. IF I have to pay out THOUSANDS of Dollars for something, I want it to actually DO something. A Good Watch? Yes, but I’m NOT going to pay for a NAME. It HAS to have an Excellent Reputation and is Well Known for its Quality, Performance, Endurance, Efficiency and Long Life. It should Serve the Purposes it was designed for and do them Perfectly. A Ring? Just a Simple Silver one for me, Please. With a Nice Crystal or Two. I don’t care if they’re only Quartz or Cubic Zirconia, and long as they look nice and add a bit of Colour to an otherwise Plain Ring. The need for Silver is Obvious, and it doesn’t need to be expensive. I’m being Practucal!!


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