Everyone is buying gold. The frantic pace with which people are buying
gold have prompted some to comment that gold has lost value as a
commodity. According to Merrill Lynch, gold is "the duddest of dud
investments." Ever since the U.S. dollar went off the gold standard,
gold has had no special value as a commodity, with only 280 tons going
to industrial uses per year.
More than 85 percent of gold mined
today will end up as jewelry tomorrow. Gold mining is not an essential
industry like the harvesting of food or even paper production. It is
certainly not sustainable, nor is it just.
Yet the cumulative
impacts of gold mining worldwide, on local economies and ecosystems,
are at least as bad as those of industrial forestry and agribusiness.
With more than 66% of all new mining exploration in the hard-rock
sector currently focused on gold, the problems are going to get worse
for people and places around the planet.
Project Underground, a Berkeley-based organization, lists 10 problems that gold mining faces globally.
major gold rush has meant death and devastation for local people at the
hands of fortune-seekers. California's Native American nations were
decimated first by the diseases the 49ers brought with them, then by
the new California state government, which put bounties on the heads of
Today the Galamsey of West Africa, the Igorot
of the Philippines, and the Macuxi and Yanomami of the Amazon are
similarly endangered. The Yanomami, for example, had little contact
with the rest of Brazil until the arrival of the first garimpciros
(gold miners) in the 1970s. By 1989, an estimated 40,000 miners had
flocked to the area, polluting rivers and spreading malaria. Decimated
by disease, the number of Yanomamis living in Brazil (many also live in
Venezuela) fell from 20,000 to about 8,000 in just 20 years.
the words of Yanomami representative Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, "What we
do not want are the mining companies, which destroy the forest, and the
garimpciros, who bring so many diseases. These whites must respect our
Yanomami land. The garimpciros bring guns, alcohol, prostitution, and
destroy nature wherever they go. The machines spill oil into the rivers
and kill the life existing in them and the people and animals who
depend on them. For us, this is not progress."
to water and water resources is the worst environmental consequence of
gold mining. From California's Sierra Nevada in the 1850s to the lands
of the Pemon in Venezuela today, people have ruined rivers by using
high-pressure hoses to spray down the banks and sifting through the
sediment for gold. Runoff flows downstream, destroying plant and fish
But modern mining is even more destructive of water
resources: the gold industry in Nevada - where most gold in the United
States is mined - consumes more water than all the people in the state.
The water table has fallen as much as 1,000 feet around some of the
largest open-pit gold mines in northeastern Nevada, according to the
U.S. Geological Survey.
One of the mines consumes 100 million
gallons per day - ac much as the city of Austin, Texac. And that's not
all: Water systems around mines are contaminated by cyanide and other
processing chemicals, and the acid mine drainage that runs off exposed
3: Waste Rock
To make a simple
gold wedding band, at least 2.8 tons of earth are excavated. The
gold-mining industry generates an enormous amount of waste compared to
its product: The 2,402 tons of gold produced in 1997 resulted in 725
million tons of waste, which was contaminated with metals, acids, and
solvents, according to Worldwatch lnstitute.
ratio of waste production in the U.S. gold-mining industry is one to
three million, meaning that for every ton of gold produced there are
three million tons of waste rock. Most of the unsightly mess left
behind is exposed to weathering and will ultimately leach acid and
heavy metals into the local area at great ecological cost.
4: Corporate Welfare
many countries, gold-mining companies are allowed "free entry" to
public lands for mineral exploitation. In the United States, it is not
entirely free - but the companies only pay $5 an acre to "patent" a
patch of federal land and open it to mining. Since 1872, the government
has "sold" land equivalent in size to the state of Connecticut under
This land contained $245 billion worth of minerals!
Pushed by corporate advisors, developing countries are adopting similar
land policies as well. Since 1994, more than 70 countries have changed
their laws to attract foreign gold-mining companies. As a result, the
gold-mining industry in the global South is booming: Between 1991 and
1997, exploration investments doubled in Africa, quadrupled in the
Pacific region, and expanded by six times in Latin America. Since a
"pro-development" mining act was adopted in 1995 in the Philippines,
over a quarter of the country's land surface has been handed over as
gold mining prospects.
5: Indigenous Rights
the United States - the world's second biggest gold producer - more
than 70% of gold is ripped from native lands. The Western Shoshone,
whose traditional domain covers most of Nevada, are the unhappy hosts
to more than three dozen open-pit gold mines on their land, many at
least a mile wide and a mile deep, with toxic ponds at the bottom.
U.S. government has continually denied the Western Shoshone their land
and treaty rights, as it increasingly allocates Nevada's lands to
multinational mining. The story repeats itself around the globe. In
Ghana, in the mid-1990s, thousands of traditional farmers were evicted
and replaced by World Bank-sponsored gold mining operations covering
hundreds of square kilometers. It is now estimated that 50% of gold
produced in the next 20 years will come from indigenous peoples' lands.
Cyanide is the chemical of
choice for mining companies to extract gold from crushed ore. Very
low-grade ore, with minimal residues of gold, is crushed and piled on
the ground, then sprayed with a cyanide solution. No mine has ever
avoided leaking cyanide into the ecosystem. In 1998, a cyanide spill on
a Canadian-owned gold mine in Kyrgyzstan resulted in four deaths and
the evacuation of thousands of people living downstream. At one
southern Colorado mine, Summitville, taxpayers have already paid out
$100 million for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to simply
contain - not clean up - contamination of local rivers.
centuries, mercury has been used to chemically separate gold from ore,
leading to major public-health problems for miners and communities
around mining districts. During the California Gold Rush, 7,600 tons of
mercury were released into local rivers and lakes, resulting in
neurological disorders and deaths amongst people exposed to this deadly
More than 50% of mercury exposure today in the San
Francisco Bay area is an historic legacy of the 1849 gold rush.
Furthermore, millions of small-scale miners use mercury, from the
Amazon - where they have invaded indigenous reservations - to the
Philippines, resulting in the worst recent outbreaks of Minamata (or
"Mad Hatter'.s") disease. Of 500,000 gold miners tested in Brazil, more
than 30% showed mercury levels above the World Health Organization's
of gold is sold as jewelry, most of it in India. In 1998, the country's
gold consumption added up to 815 metric tons, nearly twice that of the
United States. This is not, however, a simple tale of vanity or
excessive consumption. It is part of the dowry women pay for a man's
hand in marriage. Activists working around the gold industry aim both
to redress the abuses of mining for communities living in mineral
producing areas, and to challenge the patriarchy that forces women to
hold gold as their only fallback in times of scarcity.
women and activists fighting the dowry system are becoming increasingly
aware of the dangers of gold production worldwide. As long as there is
pressure on Indian women to own gold, however, it can be derived from
non-virgin production. Gold in the vaults of the "developed world"
could feed the demand even for India's market for years to come
9: Dud Investment
to Merrill Lynch, gold is "the duddest of dud investments." Ever since
the U.S. dollar went off the gold standard, gold has had no special
value as a commodity, with only 280 tons going to industrial uses per
year. Yet some people continue to hoard it. The price of gold has been
slowly dropping and is now well below the price of its production at
many modern mines, which means companies mining new or "virgin" gold
are a bad investment.
Even the 35,000 tons of gold bullion
held in central banks have lost 30% of their value over the last
decade- a huge waste of taxpayer assets. Some governments are already
beginning to sell off their gold reserves. In the last five years, the
Argentine, Australian, Belgian, British, Canadian, Dutch, and Swiss
central banks have sold large quantities of gold, as has the
International Monetary Fund. causing the price of gold to plummet.
10: Ecosystem Impacts
and waste of water, destruction of habitat and biodiversity,
industrialization of wilderness, road-building, and waste-dumping in
mined areas all negatively impact the environment around gold mines.
"Frontier forests" - the last remaining old growth stands - are under
siege from gold exploration.
Fisheries suffer from heavy
siltation and toxic run-off into waterways from gold mines. Today,
mines scrape away and dig up more earth than do the world's rivers
through natural erosion! The impact on wildlife is hard to calculate,
but between 1980 and 1990, seven thousand birds were found dead near
cyanide-laced ponds at gold mines in California, Nevada, and Arizona -
the tip of the iceberg of gold mine-related wildlife deaths.