Wednesday, October 5, 2022
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All that Glitters: The Problem with Jewellery

“The more you know, the less gold glows.”

Throughout history, jewellery has been seen as status symbol and a symbol of wealth as well as a token of love. The more valuable the jewellery the bigger the gesture. What most people do not realize is that jewellery, whether it is made from diamonds, gold, silver, or any precious gems or metals, involves mining from the earth.  Large spaces of land need to be dug out, deep holes drilled and, more often than not, precious river sources ruined.  In this article, I will look at the many harms associated with mining and sourcing jewellery. These include violence, displacement, human rights abuses, corruption, the financing of war, pollution and damage to the environment and ecosystems.

Mining:

Mining can have numerous harmful negative impacts on the environment.  Mining is also a dangerous occupation and child labour is endemic, particularly in countries in the developing world.

Environmental Harms:

  • Because mining involves moving large amounts of earth, it contributes to land erosion and can alter local ecosystems.
  • Sinkholes can occur when the closure of a shaft mine has not been performed correctly.
  • In Sierra Leone for example, miners have littered the landscape with thousands of abandoned mining pits. These pits fill with stagnant rainwater, become infested with mosquitoes, and serve as breeding grounds for malaria.
  • Mining companies around the world routinely dump toxic waste into rivers, lakes, streams and ocean. 
  • Mines in developing countries that don’t have the money to invest in proper processing equipment use highly toxic chemicals to speed up their process.  These chemicals end up in local waterways.
  • The carbon footprint of these extractive industries is vast.

Danger to workers:

  • Mining is a dangerous job and countless lives have been lost in mines over the centuries.
  • In one city alone – the Andean city of Potosí in Bolivia – 8 million miners have lost their lives in the silver mines over the past 450 years.
  • Gemstone mining can be hazardous to the health of workers and communities alike.
  • Diamond miners often work in cramped and unsafe conditions in tunnels.
  • Dust from the mines can cause respiratory diseases in workers and residents of nearby communities.

Child Labour:

  • Although many of the countries where gems are mined have laws setting a minimum age for workers in hazardous occupations, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has also documented child labor in mines. 
  • One survey of diamond miners in the Lunda Norte province of Angola found that 46% of miners were between the ages of 5 and 16.
  • Child labor is also a problem in the cutting and polishing phase of both diamond and coloured gemstone production, much of which takes place in Asia. 
  • According to the ILO, India polishes 70% of the world’s diamonds. Child labor is illegal in India, but this law is frequently ignored.

Armed Conflict:

  • In Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, profits from diamond sales have funded weapons purchases for armed opposition groups such as Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, which perpetrate human rights abuses.

Diamonds:

Many of the world’s diamonds are mined using practices that exploit workers, children, and communities, and an estimated one million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day.

Diamond miners work in extremely dangerous conditions.  They can easily die or be injured in landslides, mine collapses, and other accidents. Child labour is widespread and human rights are routinely non-existent.  Zimbabwe is a country notorious for killing, raping and maiming hundreds of diamond miners.  Residents are often evicted from their homes to make way for the expansion of diamond mining.  Governments and government officials are often involved in this corruption, as diamonds are a valuable source of revenue.

1,750 tons of earth needs to be extracted to find a 1.0 carat rough diamond.  The environment also suffers at the hands of small-scale independent miners as they are not regulated, often using chemicals such as mercury to extract the diamonds which then seeps into the groundwater and soil.

Diamond mine in Yakutia, Russia (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, diamonds from the Central African Republic (CAR) were banned, but despite these sanctions it is estimated that upwards of 24 million dollars of diamonds have been smuggled out of CAR, and the amount of diamonds sold illegally has increased.

Gold:

Gold mining is one of the most destructive industries in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, injure or kill workers, and destroy local environments. It pollutes water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems. Producing gold for one wedding ring alone generates 20 tons of waste.

Many gold mines employ a process known as ‘heap leaching’ which includes dripping a cyanide solution through huge piles of ore.  The solution strips away the gold and is collected in a pond, then run through an electro-chemical process to extract the gold.  This method is enormously wasteful.  99.99% of the heap becomes waste. Gold mining areas are frequently studded with these immense, toxic piles, some reaching heights of 100 metres.

The majority of the world’s gold is extracted from open pit mines, where huge volumes of earth are scoured away and processed for trace elements. There are roughly 500,000 defunct metal mines in the US that the EPA has plans to clean up. Remediation of these sites may cost more than $35 billion.

Gold is now harder to find.  What is left in most mines is very low-quality ore, with a greater ratio of rock to gold.  This makes the energy required to mine that gold—and the waste and pollution produced in the process—proportionally greater and greater.

White Gold:

White gold is usually an alloy containing about 75% gold and about 25% nickel and zinc.

Emeralds, Rubies and Coloured Gemstones:

Mining of colored gemstones such as rubies and emeralds is generally done on a smaller scale than diamond mining, but still presents risks.  According to the ILO, many small-scale miners are unable to invest in the tools and equipment that could prevent accidents, so there is a high risk of injury or death.

Silver:

One third of silver produced originates from dedicated silver mines and the other two thirds is a by-product from the production of copper, gold, lead, and zinc, so silver is subject to many of the same concerns as other mined metals.  Most silver production results in large emissions of mercury to air, soil, and water.  Where silver is extracted by small-scale miners, large quantities of mercury are used, resulting in health and environmental damages. There is no such thing as fair trade silver, as the silver industry has not gained as much attention as gold or diamonds.

Copper:

According to Earthworks, a NGO that raises awareness of the environmental hazards of mineral production: “A peer-reviewed study of the track record of water quality impacts from copper sulfide mines found severe impacts to drinking water aquifers, contamination of farmland, contamination and loss of fish and wildlife and their habitat, and risks to public health. In some cases, water quality impacts were so severe that acid mine drainage at the mine site will generate water pollution in perpetuity.

Platinum:

The majority of commercially obtained platinum is a byproduct from nickel and copper mining. 

Ivory:

Ivory is made from the tusks or teeth of large mammals, primarily elephants.  Around 15,000 African Elephants are killed each year for their tusks – an average of 40 a day. It is estimated that over 80% of the planet’s African elephants have been lost in the past century.

Photo credit: Geoff Livingston

The international commercial trade in ivory was banned in 1989.  In 2016 China, the world’s biggest ivory market, announced that all ivory sales within the country would be banned, and the following year the UK followed suit. Today, international criminal networks are still smuggling huge quantities of ivory, and evidence shows that legal ivory markets can provide a cover to launder illegal ivory. 

Pearls:

A pearl is an ulcer that is formed when an irritant, such as a parasite, enters an oyster, who responds by coating it with nacre (a crystalline substance that gives pearls their lustre). Because pearls naturally form in only one in 10,000 oysters and because the creation of a pearl can take up to three years, pearl-makers have devised a process called “culturing,” or cultivating, that allows them to exploit oysters faster and cheaper.

Culturing involves surgically opening each oyster shell and inserting an irritant in the oyster. Fewer than half of the oysters may survive this process. After the pearls are extracted from the oysters, one-third of oysters are “recycled” and put through the culturing process again. The others are killed and discarded.

Sustainable Ethical options:

Jewellery made from glass or wood is probably the most sustainable option.  Other options include vintage or second hand jewellery, recycled gold or silver, lab-grown diamonds and cubic zirconia.  It has been estimated that about 165,000 metric tons of gold have been mined in all of human history – most of which is still in circulation.  Historically, the silver industry has always recycled, as silver can be melted down and reused again and again.  So recycled metals would seem to be a better option.  The problem is that when we continue to wear gold, silver, diamonds or gems, even if they are second hand, recycled or synthetically made, we contribute to their popularity and hence to the demand for newly mined metals and gemstones.

Other uses for mined metals and gemstones:

The jewellery industry is not the only one that uses precious metals.  In 2020 just over a third of the world’s mined gold was used to make jewellery.  The rest was bought by investors and central banks, with a small percentage used in technology. About a quarter of the world’s silver goes into jewellery and silverware – the rest is used in the technology sector.  Diamonds are used in dentists’ drills, for example.  So we are not laying all the blame for the world’s problems on the jewellery business.  However, as we move towards a more ethical and sustainable society, it is important to be aware that there are often serious downsides to the products we buy, and we should be giving careful consideration to these.

Further Reading/Viewing:

Earthworks.org – mining

No Dirty Gold

Dirty Gold – Episode 4 of ‘Dirty Money – Season 2’ on Netflix

Blood Diamond – 2006 movie starting Leonardo diCaprio

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