by Michelle Slater, Castlemaine Independent
July 27th, 2011
Boaz, from Caulfield in Melbourne’s south, has just proposed to his fiancee and is browsing for a wedding-band.
“I didn’t even know that ethical gold was a consideration,” he said. “This is new to me.”
Australian gold buyers like Boaz – and jewellers – are becoming more aware of ‘conflict-free gold’: gold that does not exploit Third World labour or employ environmentally unsound practices.
As more consumers become aware of fair-trade issues surrounding their purchases of all kinds, there is very little information in Australia about how to buy ethically produced gold.
The “No Dirty Gold” campaign is gaining momentum in the US, and it has pressured major jewellery retailers to pledge that the gold they sell has been ethically mined.
They say a single gold ring produces around 20 tonnes of mining waste, and that currently over half the world’s gold is mined on indigenous lands.
The Oxfam-based campaign, run by “Earthworks”, is currently asking US retail giants Costco and Walmart to sign the pledge.
This includes demanding that the gold used in jewellery and electronics is not produced at the expense of local communities or the environment.
The pledge also demands that the mining industry provide retailers and consumers with an alternative to “dirty gold”.
The World Gold Council is also making a “conflict-free gold” resolution to ensure that gold can be traced from its source at the mine through to the refinery.
This will require its members to declare minerals that have come from The Congo or neighbouring African countries at war.
Some of these“conflict-minerals” have been used to finance civil war in The Congo, in which parties have contributed to mass slaughter and rape, earning the country the moniker “rape capital of the world”.
Many of the minerals from the area – gold, tin and tantalum – are used in electronics such as mobile phones, computers and televisions.
Australians have so far been slow to take up campaigning for ethical gold, as there is a general belief that our gold mines follow ‘world’s best practice’.
“No mined gold can be considered ethical,” says Natalie Lowery from Friends of the Earth (FOE).
“The only real ethically sourced gold is comes from recycled jewellery.
“While Australian gold mining companies continue to use cyanide to leach out tailings, it’s not sustainable.”
Lowery is campaigning against Canadian-owned gold giant, Barrick Gold, which owns the Kalgoorlie “Super Pit” in WA and a controversial mine at Lake Cowal, in central-west NSW.
The Lake Cowal gold mine has come under scrutiny for its location on a vast wetland which experiences flood cycles and provides an important habitat for migratory birds.
Environmentalists fear that the company’s use of chemicals like cyanide and arsenic is leaching into the water table, creating a toxic cocktail that could poison the land for generations.
Barrick plans to expand its open-cut operations further into the lake bed.
“Gold mining is linked to 96% of the world’s arsenic emissions,” Lowery says.
Closer to home, Castlemaine resident and FOE campaigner, Cam Walker, has expressed concern for public health at the Big Hill gold mine in Stawell.
There were concerns about chemicals, including cyanide, drying-out in the dust from mining trucks and being inhaled by nearby residents.
“The inland slopes in central Vic are a dry environment.” Walker says.
“They would be struggling to keep the tailings damp. Gold mining is very water intensive.”
He says that all our gold requirements can be come from existing reserves.
“Gold is not an essential item, it’s purely decorative. Only a very small amount is used in technology, and there are a range of other materials that have conductivity.”
Nearly 80% of all gold is used in jewellery, but as gold prices have risen world-wide, many are buying it and stockpiling it as an investment.
Currently the gold sold by the major Australian jewellery retailers is too hard to trace as it’s largely imported and comes in a pre-cast form.
Queensland-based Melinda Nugent is an independent jeweller who makes high end fine jewellery from recycled gold. She has signed the “no dirty gold” pledge.
“Once I learned about the impact of gold mining I couldn’t ignore it,” she said.
“My biggest issue is human rights. Gold mining has a huge impact on the environment, children and families.
“There is enough recyclable gold from broken jewellery to supply the jewellery industry for 50 years. Mobile phones, TVs and computers all contain by-products that can supply the industry.
“There is a refiner in Tasmania who has found a non-chemical way to extract gold from e-waste.
“They even extract gold from Russian satellite bits.
“My interest is in creating a better jewellery industry. A child suffers because someone wants a ring. That’s too big a price to pay.”
Groom-to-be, Boaz said that a gold ring made from recycled metal is something worth investigating. “I’d give it some consideration, now that I know about it.”