All That Glitters Is Not Gold

You shop at co-ops, eat dolphin-friendly tuna, invest in socially
responsible companies, bike to work, use unbleached,
recycled-content toilet paper–all fine and dandy, but where do you
stand on gold jewelry? If you’re buying it, say anti-gold mining
activists, you’re more Cleopatra than Rachel Carson.

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.

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