Though the California gold rush may have petered out long ago, the search for this most precious of all metals is a far cry from over. Gold has always had an unshakeable appeal to humans of all cultures, appearing in statues, jewelry, sacred rites, tombs, household items, coins and national vaults; it has been sought after, pined after, longed for and even killed for. The 21st century gold rush that is currently ransacking natural landscapes is fueled by this longstanding obsession with the lustrous metal. Yet, for all the shimmer and mystique, gold’s powerful grip on the human psyche has consequences that are anything but benign.
The Current Day Obsession
With the price of gold currently on the rise and reaching new all-time highs on a regular basis, fluctuating between $1,400 and $1,900 per ounce in 2011, compared to a fairly stable $300 per ounce in 2003, gold is increasingly an object of cold desire. The world is witnessing the precarious combination of an excruciatingly high demand for gold, particularly from China and India, and a diminishing supply. Since the major gold rushes of the 19th century ended (the ‘49ers may be the most famous to Westerners, but riches were also found in droves in Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Canada), the amount of gold still residing in landmasses is poorly concentrated and energy-intensive to extract. In other words, if someone wants gold, they are going to have to blast away much of the earth to get at it, and only tiny flecks at that. This has created a vicious cycle of obliteration with little reward.
Nonetheless, countless missions to find tiny scraps of gold are still commonplace, spearheaded by large companies and independent small-scale miners alike. Since gold is a highly desirable yet scarce resource, the methods to extract it are often devastating for the environment and the lives of local peoples. Though it is easy to take gold for granted as a beautiful decoration, the world’s infatuation with gold hasn’t waned – if anything, the obsession to find more of it has grown into a sledgehammer of destruction.
So even though gold has a powerful allure to people of all cultures, the question then becomes, what is the true price of gold in terms of environmental destruction and impact on local communities?
Destruction of Land
There are two main large-scale methods for extracting gold: underground mining and open-pit mining. Underground mining is the more expensive and more traditional of the two, and the method probably more familiar to most people. Mine shafts are built downward into the earth and miners descend into them to chip away at the rocky crust.
The other method, open-pit mining, is the highly controversial and extremely destructive practice of scraping or digging away large portions of earth one layer at a time, extracting gold along the way. Though advanced technology is usually employed to identify areas of gold before blasting away, all that is left behind is a huge, cavernous pit in the earth with discarded piles of rubble around it, often easily distinguishable by the desecrated look of deforestation. Any remnant of open-pit mining is more than just an eyesore, but also a lasting disruption to the surrounding ecosystem.
Though underground mine shafts impact the environment, they do not annihilate an area as profoundly as open-pit mines do; open-pit mines produce eight to ten times more waste than underground mines and the aboveground effects on animal and plant life are far-reaching. According to most estimates, extracting one ounce of gold through open-pit mining leaves 30 tons of rubble in its wake. That’s 60,000 pounds of destroyed earth for roughly one and a half gold bracelets.
Similar to open-pit mining is the use of hydraulic force and heavy machinery to literally blast away entire mountains, riverbanks, lakes, deserts and forest areas. Needless to say, simply destroying large chunks of land, especially in lush and diverse places like the Amazonian rainforest, can have disastrous effects on local wildlife, water flow, vegetation and nearby human communities.
Displacement of Local Peoples
When a gold operation is underway, it often forces people off their own land, since if a gold deposit happens to lie inconveniently beneath a town or village, the entire area must be turned upside down using methods like open-pit mining and hydraulic blasting. People are forced to relocate if the mine is approved, and thousands of people the world over, including in Peru, Guatemala, Indonesia and even the United States, have been unwillingly removed from their land and their livelihoods.
Land rights of local people have been a contentious issue in places like Glamis, Guatemala, where a Canadian mining company approached the city in the early 2000s to start building gold mines under the guise that it would help the poor, though it only provided 450 full-time jobs and, more significantly, displaced 8,000 people. Cajamarca, Peru saw thousands of local protestors take to the streets in December of 2011 in response to the extension of the Yanacocha Mine, the largest gold mine in Latin America, citing major disruptions to local life, like roads built through villages, environmental pollution and corporate exploitation of native peoples, as some of their reasons for opposition.
Mercury, as is well known, is a chemical that can be harmful to wildlife and humans, especially because of its bioaccumulative properties. Since it becomes more concentrated the higher up the food chain it travels, it’s a widespread threat to larger animals like fish and humans when ingested. Through a process called amalgamation, which is used to separate gold from sediment and ore, mercury is combined with fine particles of gold to produce an alloy of both metals. Once combined, the mercury is then dissolved, leaving behind isolated gold.
The danger in using mercury in this way is that more often than not mercury seeps into the surrounding soil, water and atmosphere. Small-scale operations are especially inefficient with their use and disposal of mercury, and are rarely regulated by local governments. Many miners may be unaware that mercury can be harmful even at the most miniscule level, and they often use their hands and skin to mix the two substances. In December of 2011, southeastern Peru reported prolific mercury contamination in communities where 20,000 miners lived and worked. In addition to sickening miners who come into close contact with these free agents, the toxic compound travels through the food chain and becomes concentrated in fish served on dinner tables even countries away, leading to mercury poisoning in numerous cases. Also, when mercury is released as vapor in large quantities from gold mines, it can damage the brain, liver, lungs, heart, colon and immune system of people who breathe it in.
Other toxic compounds are often brought to the surface through the process of exposing gold, and the generally lax environmental regulations of developing countries tend to neglect safe waste removal oversight. Mining exposes metal sulfides, which combine with oxygen to form sulfuric acid, an extremely corrosive substance that is harmful when ingested, inhaled or brought into contact with skin. Other heavy metals like cadmium, lead and natural mercury are often uprooted to the detriment of workers and the environment.
Once heavy metals and toxic compounds are released, they almost always make their way to nearby rivers, lakes and streams, where the pollution saturates a greater range. Communities living downstream from mining operations face the danger of drinking toxic water and having their agricultural lands poisoned, fish and fish-eating animals are at high risk for poisoning, and natural ecosystems may face large die-offs of wildlife and vegetation. In 1995, all of these things happened in Guayana when a waste-holding pool of contaminated water from a gold mining operation broke and spilled over one billion gallons of pollutants into the surrounding area. Even with large-scale die-offs of fish populations and devastating blows to the communities in the area, the government granted additional gold mining permits shortly thereafter with no greater regulations for environmental accountability.
Often used in conjunction with open-pit mining, the use of the toxic chemical cyanide is one of the most common and also most controversial methods of extracting gold. During a process called heap leaching, cyanide is poured over large piles of ore that have already been isolated through open-pit mining or industrial blasting. Because cyanide naturally combines with gold, the chemical is left to trickle through the rocky minerals over a long period of time, and the newly formed gold and cyanide compound collects at the base of the heap, where it is then sent to a mill to chemically isolate the gold. The remaining cyanide waste is kept in artificial dams, like the one that broke in Guayana, and even without a major spill, it is extremely difficult to prevent cyanide from leaking into surrounding areas. One of the most disastrous cyanide spills occurred in Romania in 2000, dumping 100,000 gallons of cyanide-laced water into the Tisza River, destroying more than 1,000 tons of fish and polluting the water of 2.5 million people.
Is There Such A Thing As Clean Gold?
Rarely are gold deposits found by panning in rivers or chipping through rock without toxic chemicals or large-scale devastation. On top of humanity’s timeless infatuation with the shimmering metal, a seething demand due to the unprecedented high price of gold and the cultural relevance of gold to industrializing nations like India and China has created a climate of drastic excavation.
It may be the most precious metal in the land, but is there any way to unearth it sustainably? Organizations like No Dirty Gold advocate that all gold mining must respect human rights and the environment. Indeed, when the astounding repercussions of modern gold mining are viewed from an environmental and humanitarian perspective, the long-lasting consequences seem to outweigh the immediate result. This is not to say that people who value the commodity’s spiritual, economic, aesthetic or cultural significance should not buy gold, but that the current obsession with finding more of it has wreaked so much damage on precious ecosystems that excavators and jewelry retailers must find better ways of supporting the search. Fair-trade gold and fair-mind practices have been endorsed by a small number of European mining and jewelry companies, and the more exposure the harms of gold mining receive, the more pressure excavators will face to operate sustainably.
Like all finite resources, however, one day the supply will end, or be so miniscule compared to the efforts to retrieve it. Some say that day has already come or is very near; if all that glitters isn’t gold, the ruins aren’t worth the glitter – or the litter.
Nancy Woo is a prolific writer from California that has been writing for the past 10 years. She enjoys browsing the web and reading books on her free time. Photo by Andrew Parnell