When gold and diamond miners die on the job, deliberate violence is very often the cause. In Zimbabwe and Angola, mining company security guards have been shooting and killing local diamond miners. In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gold miners work in the midst of a bloody civil war. But there is another very common way in which miners can suddenly lose their lives – and that’s when the mines they work in collapse.
Recent news stories from three different African countries demonstrate how serious a problem this is. The BBC reported last week that a gold mine collapse in the DRC killed at least 20 people. The miners were almost 100 feet below ground when the tunnel above them collapsed due to heavy rain. Last month in Ghana, a gold mine collapse took at least 16 lives. The miners were working in abandoned gold mine that caved in unexpectedly. Additionally, in the Darfur region of Sudan, a gold mine collapse earlier this month killed about 100 people.
These accidents are not unusual. Reports of mine collapses appear in the news with alarming frequency, such as this gold mine collapse in the DRC in 2012 or this collapse in Ghana in 2010. And these reports don’t capture the entire problem. Many deaths never make international news. A government minister in Ghana recently stated that over 300 people in his country probably died in mining accidents over a two-year time span between 2011 and 2012.
Although people have always died in these sorts of mine collapses, we suspect that the problem has gotten a lot worse lately. The high price of gold during the past few years has attracted more and more people into artisanal gold mining – the kind of gold mining that relies on simple methods like panning in streams or digging makeshift mine shafts. Artisanal gold mining has long been dangerous. It is poorly regulated and miners often don’t take safety precautions. (It is also extremely bad for the environment because most artisanal miners rely on mercury, a toxic substance, to isolate gold.) But the influx of new gold miners – there may now be as many as 15 million artisanal gold miners worldwide – has multiplied the chances of accidents occurring.
In Ghana, another factor seems to be contributing to the mine collapses. Many of the gold miners dying in accidents are Chinese nationals who have come to Ghana to try to strike it rich. The fact that many of these miners do not have legal status gives them an incentive to mine without government approval, which means they are not subject to safety regulations. In addition, some of the miners come to Ghana with capital to finance their operations – which may increase the amount of mining they can do and possibly the overall chances of accidents.
Any death tied to gold or diamond mining – whether due to violence or a workplace accident – is a needless tragedy. Unfortunately, eliminating these accidents won’t be easy. In the DRC and Sudan, the governments are weak and corrupt. (Eastern DRC is in a civil war so the government isn’t even fully in control.) Ghana’s government is better positioned to enforce stricter safety regulations. President John Mahama last week announced that his government will clamp down on illegal mining. But better enforcement carries its own risks, such as the risk of violence against illegal miners.
In spite of all this, we still have hope. We know from experience that jewelry can be produced without causing great harm to people or the environment. (We use only recycled precious metals in our own jewelry and obtain our diamonds from ethical sources that follow strict labor and environmental standards.) We also believe that by raising consumer awareness and building consumer demand for ethical jewelry, governments and the mining industry over the long term will make it a bigger priority to ensure that all mines are safe.