Diamonds Aren't Forever

By Kerlin, Katherine | E Magazine, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Diamonds Aren't Forever


Kerlin, Katherine, E Magazine


Environmental Degradation and Civil War in the Gem Trade

Gleaming gems shining from plush velvet cases in quiet jewelry stores make it easy to forget that some of these symbols of love and prosperity originated in distant lands, deep in the soil of conflict.

It's illegal in the United States to dump the finely ground ore materials known as "tailings" into waterways. But gem mining operations outside U.S. borders are not subject to the same rules, even if run by American companies or if their goods are bought by U.S. consumers. Large-scale demand calls for large-scale mining, which involves massive amounts of sedimentation and tailings falling into water systems around the world. The mercury and cyanide used to separate gold and copper from rock also finds its way into groundwater. The victims of these mining activities are generally local wildlife and indigenous peoples who live in resource-rich regions.

For example, New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan was sued in 1996 by indigenous leaders in Papua New Guinea for dumping 80,000 tons of mine tailings into the local river system daily. Freeport's environmental auditors, Dames and Moore, said plans to expand Freeport's mining activities in Indonesia could "increase its dumping of untreated tailings to 285,000 tons daily."

The diamond trade in Angola, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has become one of the greatest sources of internal and environmental conflict in those areas. According to the Africa Policy Information Center, Angolan rebels made an estimated $3.7 billion in diamond sales between 1992 and 1998 to fund their war effort against the Angolan government. Until the war is over, enforcing environmentally sensitive mining techniques will continue to be placed on the back burner. Meanwhile, diverted rivers are causing people to dislocate, dredging ponds are ruining large areas of land, and the polluted water table has caused sickness in mining communities, local villages and wildlife.

Mining for jewels, however, is not inherently destructive. People have been finding valuable gems and minerals for centuries by panning in rivers at little environmental cost. There are even "theme parks" scattered across America that let you "mine your own gemstones."

Our romance with the stone employs thousands of people in gem-trading countries such as Namibia and South Africa, bolstering their economies. Most mining operations in the U.S. and other countries have extensive regulations requiring environmental assessments and land reclamation plans. Mines are expected to consider how their activities will affect native fish and wildlife, as well as abide by rules regarding air and water protection, waste disposal and the handling of hazardous materials. In the U.S., state reclamation laws call for revegetation, area cleanup and protection of surface and groundwater.

But the jewelry trade is a global, interweaving system of importers and exporters, miners and cutters, buyers and sellers. With no country-of-origin labeling system, consumers can never be sure if their jewelry came from a responsible source or one whose mining funded a civil war, leaked cyanide into groundwater or exploited indigenous people for their resources.

Jewelry Without Guilt

The tradition of diamonds and gold, especially for wedding and engagement rings, is firmly embedded in our culture, but we can adorn ourselves using more environmentally sustainable alternatives. …

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