The true price of gold

TechKnow senior producer Laura LeBlanc reports on the hidden costs of our most valuable treasures

Lately, I seem to be getting the same message from a variety of different stories I’m pursuing.  That message is about the disconnectedness of the consumer – that everyday, we buy, use, consume and throw away things without any idea of the true cost, beyond the money we actually shelled out. Were the workers who picked these strawberries exposed to dangerous pesticides? Did the wood in my bedside come from a forest that was clear cut, destroying the habitat of untold creatures? Could the light I just switched on in the kitchen be contributing to asthma rates among children in a neighborhood next to a coal fired power plant?

“There's a huge disconnect about our habits of buying stuff and the impact it really has," said Ed Spinoza, deputy director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic lab. TechKnow interviewed him last fall for a story examining the devastation of rhino populations from the illegal trade in rhino horn. 

“I'll give you an example. Musicians, we don’t think of them as wildlife killers. But the number of very expensive musical instruments that have endangered parts is amazing. For example, ivory tips on the frogs of violin bows. Or, sometimes you see sea turtle shell on the same kind of stuff. Or on cellos that are made of endangered wood, or piano keys made out of endangered ivory.  These are people who are coming form a very cultured area and don't have a connection to what their beautiful art may impact elsewhere. And I see that in all steps of life.”

Since January, I've been working with Phil Torres investigating the impact of illegal gold mining on the Peruvian Amazon.  I have a few pieces of gold myself - odds and ends, old gold stud earrings and a chain or two – and until working on this story, I had never thought twice about their origins.  I also have a lot of silver jewelry.  It’s cheaper than gold and I prefer the aesthetics.  But I can’t tell you much about where most of that came from either.  And I wouldn’t be thinking or writing about this now, if I hadn’t spent two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon, experiencing the breath-taking wonder of the rainforest and the heartbreaking devastation illegal gold mining is wreaking on it.

Phil Torres surveys the devastation from illegal gold mining in La Pampa, in the Madre de Dios region of Peru

“There’s people who are buying gold and who don’t care where the gold comes from or how it was produced.  They should care and they should know,” said Ernesto Ráez-Luna, former adviser to Peru’s Ministry of Environment.        

Illegal gold mining has laid waste to more than 100,000 acres of Peruvian rainforest, and the rate of destruction has tripled since gold prices made their meteoric rise in 2007.  Land isn’t the only thing being devastated by the practice, either. It has brought other ills, including drugs, violence and human trafficking.

A barren pocket inside the Peruvian amazon

 “There is this traffic of young girls to be prostituted – to be abused and raped every night in the illegal mining enclaves,” said Ráez-Luna.  “The activity is heavily related to other illegal activities.  A very good way of laundering money from drug dealing is to get engaged in illegal gold mining because the commercialization of gold is legal. It’s a commodity.  Not like cocaine.  You take your profits from cocaine, you turn it into gold, you are fine.”

And then there’s mercury contamination of water, air and fish – contamination that is having an outsized impact on indigenous communities. In Peru’s Madre de Dios, an area that has been hard hit by illegal gold mining, testing done by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Eco-system Project has shown that on average, children in indigenous communities have levels of mercury in their systems more than 5 times the levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So what am I, as a consumer, to do, to make sure I’m not contributing to this kind of destruction?  It turns out I need to do the same things I do as a journalist – I need to start asking a lot of questions.

“It’s important that [the consumer] go into a retailer and show that they care,” said Beth Gerstein, co-founder of Brilliant Earth, a jewelry retailer that uses recycled precious metals and guarantees its diamonds are from ethical and environmentally responsible sources.  “So asking the right questions… Where does the gold come from?  Where does the diamond come from?  What are the practices actually surrounding the product that I’m buying? That’s really important.”

Phil Torres and Brilliant Earth's Beth Gerstein

Brilliant Earth is one of more than 100 retailers that have signed on to Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign to source their gold responsibly. For Gerstein, that process also started by asking the right questions.

“We’d ask our gold manufacturers, ‘where does the gold come from, is it recycled?’ And they’d say, ‘well, I’m not exactly sure, I have to ask, ‘”said Gerstein. “And they start digging a little deeper.  Once they see there’s a market opportunity, their practices actually change and they start meeting our standards.”

Questions like this can have a tremendous ripple effect, according to Payal Sampat, the director of the No Dirty Gold campaign.  

“I think consumers can vote with their pocketbook and tell retailers that they’re just not going to accept gold that came at the price of a family’s drinking water or children’s health, “said Sampat.   “We think that retailers who are in the driver’s seat should be able to tell their suppliers and all the way down the supply chain to the mine site, that they’re not going to be buying metal that came at a cost of child labor and deforestation.”

While we were setting up for Sampat’s interview, I asked her a question about my jewelry of choice – silver.  What could she tell me about how it is mined?  Sure enough, my choice also has its unseen price – because it is typically produced as a byproduct of the industrial mining of other metals, such as gold.

“In reality everything has a consequence,” says Ernesto Ráez-Luna.  “When we are in the economy we act as if doesn’t happen. It’s a closed box.  You do something with your money and nothing else happens. So we need to think about the ecological mindset.  And it’s very easy.  You just ask yourself,  ‘where does this thing I’m buying come from and where does this waste I’m getting rid of go to.”  Try to ask those two questions every time you make a decision.  And tell me if you can live with yourself for one week doing the kind of stuff we are doing.”

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