About 80 percent of the gold mined worldwide goes into jewelry. Activists who believe the environmental and social destruction caused by the mining industry is a high price to pay for gold trinkets are finally taking their message to mainstream consumers. One recent example is 'GoldBusters,' a new anti-mining campaign launched by environmental and human rights groups: 'GoldBusters is a campaign which, it is hoped, will rob gold of its luster, much as the anti-fur campaign has done in the fur industry,' writes one of the group's founders, Ruth Rosenhek, in PanGaia (Summer 1999).
Given recent events, a gold boycott doesn't seem all that far-fetched. In Montana, a state that virtually built itself on gold mining, voters last fall passed a landmark initiative that all but bans new gold mines. Specifically, it forbids companies from using cyanide, a substance essential to modern gold mining. Why did people in the 'Treasure State' give mining companies the shaft?
In 1997, Canyon Resources announced plans for a new gold mine called 'Seven Up Pete.' The proposed site is half the size of Manhattan and is located near the banks of Montana's fabled Blackfoot River (of A River Runs Through It fame). Citing a legacy of contaminated rivers, poisoned groundwater, and the release of 135 million gallons of cyanide by Montana mines since 1982, angry environmentalists set out to rally opposition to the Blackfoot plan while at the same time garnering votes for the initiative.
Missoula, a lefty enclave 90 miles downstream from the proposed mine, became the battle's epicenter. Missoula-based Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) launched a fund-raising program ('Mine Your Jewelry Box, Not the Blackfoot') in which supporters donated unwanted gold jewelry to be recycled into new pieces. 'Quite a lot was donated,' says Sally Brown of WVE. 'Why desecrate the environment to decorate your body? Use some old gold if you need it.'
At Missoula's Hellgate High School, senior Jenna Wilkinson campaigned against class rings. 'People were, like, we need to deal with the class ring and gold issue because it's such a big thing locally,' says Wilkinson, now a freshman at Vassar. 'We talked to as many seniors as we could and convinced a lot of them not to buy [the rings].'
It's not just Montana. Last year, Wisconsin passed a 'mining moratorium law,' which requires companies to show that they have operated a pollution-free mine in North America for at least 10 years before they can open a new mine. On a national level, a number of bills currently in Congress aim to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Law that imposes no environmental standards for hardrock mining. 'Although coal, oil, and gas industries face federal environmental regulations, hardrock mining has avoided specific legislation,' says the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
In developing countries, where there is often scant regulation of mining operations, a grassroots movement is gaining ground to protect the environment and the rights of workers. Mining operations in poor but mineral-rich countries are dangerous, exploitative, and disruptive to indigenous populations. 'Networking is happening at a local level, but on a global scale,' writes Pratap Chatterjee in Dollars and Sense (Jan./Feb. 1999). 'For example, the Amungme peoples of New Guinea, on whose lands Freeport- McMoRan, a New Orleans company, runs the world's largest gold mine, have linked up with human rights groups like Survival International in London and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth in the United States, to fight back.'
Such criticism is uncalled for, say U.S. gold mining industry officials. While admitting past wrongs, they assert that recent years prove their industry as responsible as any. 'The mining industry has no right to be proud of its past,' says John Lutley, president of the Gold Institute, a Washington, D.C.ñbased trade group. 'But the modern industry has a right to be proud--one of the priorities [of the companies that are in business today] is the environment.'
Besides, he says, burying this country's gold mining industry--the second largest in the world after South Africa's--will simply encourage those companies to stake claims overseas. Because of legal challenges, it now takes companies an average of five to ten years to get a permit to mine in the United States, he notes, while in South American and African countries it takes just one year.
And what about the argument that mining isn't worth the consequences? 'You can say you're doing all this desecration for a pair of earrings, that it's a luxury rather than a necessity. So let's ban the music industry,' says Lutley. 'Are we going to ban all development?'
With the demand for gold far outweighing supply, a ban on the gold mining industry won't pan out any time soon. Nonetheless, activists want you to know that every little ounce helps. 'For every ton of gold the U.S. industry produces today, it also generates 3 million tons of waste rock,' reports Project Underground, a Berkeley-based group that supports communities threatened by the mining industry. 'On a personal scale, an average pair of wedding bands could make a 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep, 10-foot-long pile of tailings in the happy couple's backyard.'
And don't even ask about silver.