Dirty gold mining has contributed to violence, worsened public health problems, and threatened indigenous cultures. Too often, the costs of gold mining far exceed the economic benefits.
Gold mining is fueling a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 1998, more than 5 million people have lost their lives to violence, disease, and starvation associated with the war. About one million people have been displaced and over 200,000 women have been raped. The war is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since World War II.
Although the war is an ethnic conflict, it is also a fight to control the supply of gold and other mineral resources. Rebels often take over gold mining communities and force local miners to give up a portion of their earnings. The soldiers use the profits to buy more weapons. When the gold is exported, it is blended with gold from other sources, making it indistinguishable in the global gold supply.
Despite a peace settlement, violence in eastern Congo continues. In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring large U.S. companies to disclose the origins of certain “conflict minerals” in their products. It is hoped that increased transparency will make it harder for rebel groups to profit from the gold trade, helping to stem the violence.
Brilliant Earth Blog
The promised benefits
of gold mining
often never arrive,
ruined lands and
torn social fabrics.
A rise in gold prices has led to a modern gold rush. About 10 to 15 million people worldwide now make a living as artisanal gold miners, panning or digging for gold. Unfortunately, along with this gold rush has come a spate of crime and violence.
In remote areas of the Amazon, people are being found dead, the victims of hot tempers and greed. “You can’t trust anyone, even your friends and those you work with,” said one miner in Guyana who was shot and robbed of his gold. “Your own friends would kill you.”
Gold mining boomtowns are often lawless places rife with theft, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, and murders. The people who suffer the most in these towns are not always gold miners. In 2011, authorities in one Peruvian gold mining town rescued 293 women and girls who had been forced to work in prostitution.
Gold mining harms the health of miners and communities by releasing dangerous substances into the air and water. Mercury and cyanide, the two most common gold extraction agents, are toxic to humans.
Public health problems also result from the lifestyle and migration patterns of some gold miners. Many miners work at remote locations, spending months at a time away from their homes and families. These circumstances encourage the growth of the commercial sex trade in mining towns, leading to the spread of HIV. Some gold mines in South Africa report that one in three miners are infected with the virus. The disease is spread when the miners return home, infecting their spouses and unborn children.
Tuberculosis, similarly, has been linked to the work patterns of gold miners. Dusty gold mines and crowded living conditions leave gold miners susceptible to the disease. When miners go home, they spread tuberculosis to their families and communities.
Mines often require a significant amount of land to operate, but communities may rely on that same land for housing, farming, ranching, or other purposes. Battles over land are often the result, with local communities losing out.
A related problem is that governments may neglect to consider the historical, cultural, or legal rights of indigenous peoples when negotiating with mining companies. Even when surface land rights are clearly titled to indigenous groups, governments often sell the subsurface rights, forcing indigenous peoples to cede control. About half of all gold is believed to come from native lands.
In the Peruvian highlands, indigenous peoples have fought for more than a decade against the Newmont Mining Company and its plans to expand the Yanococha gold mine, already the largest in Latin America. And in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, a proposed gold mine would interfere with indigenous ways of life by threatening the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.
No Dirty Gold
New York Times
The economic benefits of gold mining do not always meet expectations. Most artisanal gold miners earn wages that barely allow them to meet basic needs. Large gold mining companies often hire workers from abroad, disrupt local economic activities such as farming and fishing, and leave environmental devastation in their wake.
Economic development is frequently held back by the poor quality of government institutions. In many gold-rich countries, tax collection is disorganized and prone to corruption. Revenues from gold mining are often misspent or kept by power-hungry leaders. In the end, little money is available to invest in education, infrastructure, or the foundations of a stronger economy.
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