All That Glitters

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As the world's economic woes deepen, many people will be turning to gold as a safe investment with which to ride out the turbulent times. And, indeed, the price of gold has surged in recent years. But the production of this precious metal has a deadly legacy, in the form of widespread environmental and social damage. Victoria Lambert reports on efforts to add a lustre of responsibility to the gold-mining industry

While philosophers through the ages have searched for ways to turn base metals into gold, there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens around the world who would probably be delighted never to see or hear of the precious substance ever again. For although gold is a remarkable natural asset--despite the fact that currencies no longer adhere to the old 'gold standard'--modern and traditional ways of mining it are remarkably destructive to land, people and history.

And with the drive to obtain it as bullish as the famous gold rushes of the 1800s, those organisations trying to set a standard for ethical gold have quite a challenge, not least because of the sheer geographical spread of gold mining; the metal is mined all over the world, from the USA to Europe to Australasia, with three quarters coming from developing countries.

Indeed, one highly popular tourist attraction in Victoria, Australia, is Sovereign Hill: a faithful reconstruction of what life was like during the 1850s, when the world's second-largest lump of gold--the Welcome Nugget--was found just outside the town of Ballarat. Here, if you wander around the meticulously reconstructed homes and businesses, and try a little hand-panning, the search for gold seems almost benign. But tell that to the indigenous Wiradjuri people, who are currently locked in battle with international mining company Barrick, which is extracting gold from a 26.5-square-kilometre mine at Lake Cowal, in New South Wales.

The Wiradjuri have launched native title suits to protect their rights to land and natural resources they consider legally theirs, and to battle the mining giant they believe is damaging the landscape through the use of chemicals, notably cyanide, and the extraction of water.

DIRTY GOLD

They aren't alone in their fight--according to the organisation No Dirty Gold (NDG), set up by Oxfam America and environmental advocacy group Earthworks in 2004 to raise the global mining industry's standards of human rights and environmental responsibility, around half of all the gold mined between 1995 and 2015 is likely to have come from the traditional territories of indigenous peoples.

Other significant problems NDG has highlighted include polluted air (in the Peruvian town of La Oroya, site of a smelter operated by the US-based Doe Run Corporation, a study by the Peruvian Ministry of Health revealed that 99 per cent of the children have severe lead poisoning, and 20 per cent of these children needed urgent hospitalisation); worker safety (in 1996, Pik Botha, then South Africa's minister for mineral and energy affairs, estimated that each tonne of gold mined costs one life and 12 serious injuries); and the effect on natural habitats (nearly three quarters of active mines and exploration sites overlap with regions that have been judged to be of high conservation value).

'Mining is a major threat to biodiversity and to "frontier forest" (large tracts of relatively undisturbed forest)'explains the NDG website. 'For example, the Indonesian province of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, is home to the 2.5-million-hectare Lorentz National Park, the largest protected area in Southeast Asia, declared a national park in 1997 and a World Heritage site in 1999.

'But in 1973, Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold began chasing veins of gold through nearby formations,' the site continues. 'This operation eventually led to the discovery of the world's richest lode of gold and copper, lying close to the park boundary. …