When is a new mining operation good for local communities and when is a new mine a bad idea? That is the question facing Ierissos, Greece, where construction has begun on a new open pit gold mine. A recent New York Times article draws attention to the controversy.
Ierissos is a picturesque seaside town located in the northeastern part of Greece. It is surrounded by mineral-rich, forested mountains, where according to legend Alexander the Great once mined for gold. The new mine could provide as many as 1,500 jobs to the community, adding life to the Greek economy at a time when Greece is experiencing its most severe economic crisis in generations.
But what factors should be considered when deciding to approve a mine? When is opening a new mine worth it? We have some experience in thinking about these questions, since in choosing our own suppliers we have needed to carefully evaluate whether the net effect of a mining operation is positive or negative.
One of the first questions we ask about any mining operation is whether it is linked to any civil wars or serious human rights abuses. On this score, the mine in Ierissos does not pose a problem. There are no civil wars in Greece. Human rights abuses such as child labor and torture would be absent from mining operations. Greece does much better than a country such as Zimbabwe or Angola in ensuring that basic human rights are observed.
However, on some of the other measures we normally look at, the picture becomes murkier. The new mine will be a gold mine – and gold mining is notoriously one of the dirtiest forms of mining. Although the mining company will be regulated by Greek environmental laws, which are probably stricter than in some countries, the new gold mine’s environmental impact could be significant. The mine will not only disrupt the landscape, but could potentially poison the air and water with dust and toxic chemicals.
Another factor is whether a new mine contributes to long-term economic development. Governments should be able to collect revenue from mining activity and reinvest it back into local communities. In Ierissos, there are doubts on this score as well. Greek authorities reportedly made a backroom, sweetheart deal with the mining company that does not require it to share a portion of its profits.
In addition, in any mining operation, it is vital to build strong relationships with community members. Mines should not be foisted on local communities against their will. At minimum, community concerns should be taken into account. Unfortunately, in Ierissos, relations with some community members have turned ugly. There have been many public demonstrations against the mine, and police have responded to protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas.
For all these reasons, we are skeptical about the project. But probably the overriding factor for us is the potential for environmental catastrophe. Gold mining is so environmentally harmful that we generally believe there should be less gold mining altogether. Not only does gold mining pose serious environmental risks, but there is an eco-friendly alternative: recycled gold, which is of identical quality to newly-mined gold. In our own wedding and engagement rings, we therefore use only recycled gold and platinum.
But when can the net effect of mining actually be positive? We think our own sourcing decisions provide good examples. For instance, we have begun to buy a small amount of fair trade gold because it reduces the use of toxic mercury and benefits local communities in developing countries. We also offer newly-mined diamonds. Diamond mining is generally less environmentally harmful than gold mining. Responsible mining practices in countries like Canada also can significantly reduce the risks and increase the benefits.
That said, we realize that reasonable people can disagree on what constitutes ethical mining. The article in The New York Times reports that community members in Ierissos are divided about the new mine. Many oppose it, but some support it, believing that the economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs. On the other end of the spectrum, some passionate environmentalists believe it is never responsible to open or operate any kind of mine.
At Brilliant Earth, in choosing our suppliers we have made our own judgments about what is ethical. But we also believe in empowering consumers to make their own ethical judgments as well. We therefore are transparent about our diamond sources. We are the unique jeweler able to identify a country of origin for each and every diamond in our collection. We also provide choice. Colored gemstones, lab-created diamonds, and antique jewelry are excellent alternatives to traditional diamonds.
These questions are hard and the answers are not always easy. Hopefully, though, everyone is able to find beautiful jewelry that they are proud to wear. And everyone should be able to agree that the jewelry industry needs to move in a more socially and environmentally responsible direction.