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While investors flock to new gold-backed funds, jewelry still accounts for two-thirds of the demand, generating a record $53.5 billion in worldwide sales in 2007. In the U.S. an activist-driven "No Dirty Gold" campaign has persuaded many top jewelry retailers to stop selling gold from mines that cause severe social or environmental damage, but such concerns don't ruffle the biggest consumer nations, namely India, where a gold obsession is woven into the culture, and China, which leaped past the U.S. in 2007 to become the world's second largest buyer of gold jewelry.

For all of its allure, gold's human and environmental toll has never been so steep. Part of the challenge, as well as the fascination, is that there is so little of it. In all of history, only 161,000 tons of gold have been mined, barely enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. More than half of that has been extracted in the past 50 years. Now the world's richest deposits are fast being depleted, and new discoveries are rare. Gone are the hundred-mile-long gold reefs in South Africa or cherry-size nuggets in California. Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. It's an invitation to destruction. But there is no shortage of miners, big and small, who are willing to accept.

At one end of the spectrum are the armies of poor migrant workers converging on small-scale mines like La Rinconada. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), there are between 10 million and 15 million so-called artisanal miners around the world, from Mongolia to Brazil. Employing crude methods that have hardly changed in centuries, they produce about 25 percent of the world's gold and support a total of 100 million people. It's a vital activity for these people—and deadly too.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past decade, local armed groups fighting for control of gold mines and trading routes have routinely terrorized and tortured miners and used profits from gold to buy weapons and fund their activities. In the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, the military, along with security forces of an Anglo-Australian gold company, forcibly evicted small-scale miners and burned their villages to make way for a large-scale mine. Thousands of protestors against expansion of a mine in Cajamarca, Peru, faced tear gas and police violence.

The deadly effects of mercury are equally hazardous to small-scale miners. Most use mercury to separate gold from rock, spreading poison in both gas and liquid forms. UNIDO estimates that one-third of all mercury released by humans into the environment comes from artisanal gold mining. This turns places like La Rinconada into a sort of Shangri-la in reverse: The pursuit of a metal linked to immortality only serves to hasten the miners' own mortality.

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