If you have found your way to this part of the website, I thank you.
Wrap your arms around yourself, take a deep breath and know that you are amongst the growing community of warriors taking initiative to look after our precious earth. A place that has given us everything we have and will ever know without reservation.
It is time to start giving back with gratitude and standing up for what we hold to true to our hearts.
It is time to wake up.
As a student at jewellery school I was taken aback at the amount of harsh chemicals used in the making process, the blatant disregard of human and ecological welfare in sourcing materials and the high consumer demand for unethical metal and gemstones.
The attachment to dated tradition allowing some makers to be unable to see past archaic unethical practice, whilst exhibiting a blatant refusal to adopt new techniques, materials, tools and production products or even consider a greener future for jewellery making was alarming.
Please don’t assume that in saying this, I am implying we throw traditional techniques out the window. Metal smithing is one of the few forms of ancient craft that still exists in its venerable entirety; this is something we have to hold on to like a precious little potato, but instead of sitting with it in stagnant water, we must step out of the antiquated pools of the old unsustainable ways and move forward, stepping lightly whilst soaking up as much knowledge about how do so more efficiently and ethically.
I am addressing the attachment to archaic tradition, the inability to move forward and accept that there could potentially be a cleaner more efficient way to be producing the same work at a less of a cost to the earth and its inhabitants.
Not only this, but the lack of information surrounding such issues, mainstream jewellery industries creating marketing ploys to create illusions of rarities and precious commodities, and on the other end of the spectrum; mass produced poor quality products laced with carcinogenic elements such as nickel that have a wear like of a week before oxidisation begins to tint and damage the skin.
The avoidance of these unethical and damaging effects can be put into place with the right knowledge and understanding. I feel as though it is my moral obligation as a maker to use ethicallty sourced material, eco friendly alternatives to chemicals and spread awareness about these issues to allow for a deeper understanding of sustainable jewellery.
It is no secret that the mining industry is interlaced with a monumental amount of environmental issues, though when it comes down to it there is a global ‘head in the sand’ attitude when it comes to the correlation between wearing a beautiful piece of jewellery and the fact that by doing so, you could potentially be supporting a corrupt industry.
It has been estimated that after factory farming, the mining industry is the second largest contributor to green house gasses, taking up 40% of all reported toxic pollution release globally.
To produce enough raw gold to make a single ring band, 20 tones of rock and soil must be dislodged and discarded, producing between 20 to 60 tones of toxic waste in the process. Much of this waste carries with it mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract the gold from the rock. The resulting erosion clogs streams and rivers and can eventually taint marine ecosystems far down steam from the mine site. Exposing the deep earth to air and water also causes chemical reactions that produce sulphuric acid, which can leak into drainage systems. Air quality is also compromised by gold, silver and gemstone mining, which released hundreds of tones of airborne elemental mercury every year.
Around mining sites like Pajuela, Peru, the waterways are so poisoned that wildlife and livestock alike have died drinking tainted water.
In South Africa, pollution of ground and surface water from acid mine drainage and contaminated dust and soil from mine dumps is an every day occurrence and has exposed the population living close to the mines and on the waste dumps to high concentrations of heavy metals and radiation.
A majority of diamond, precious and non precious metals and even semi precious stones such the turquoise mining industries are directly correlated to multitudes of human rights and environmental issues. Enforcing child and slave labour, ravaging landscapes, contaminating water supplies and contributing cyanide, mercury and 36 other toxic substances to the landscape, resulting in the destruction to vital ecosystems.
Once mining sites are deemed useless the raw earth is left untouched, the deep holes bored out by acid and heavy machinery during the excavation process fill with excess putrid run off and rain water to form stagnant pools that are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos. And alas, malaria is born and spread throughout neighbouring communities that have minimal means to treat patients. Obviously there is such a thing called land restoration, though some governments and companies involved in large and small scale mining would prefer to turn a blind eye to the crucial factor of rehabilitation with the bulky pocket of cash.
Like many mines, the Yanachocha mines use a cyanide-heap process to extract tiny amounts of gold ore from rock. They start with an underground explosion creating a mix of gold, soil and rock, sending nitrates into the streams, and then use a wash of cyanide to dissolve the gold from the carbon it was bound to. This is only a small portion of the arduous process. One of the worst by products of this method is heavy metal that is incredibly dangerous to all living creatures. In 2000, for example, mercury leaked from its container en rout from the mine, causing over 1000 people to fall ill.
Human Rights Issues
For many people, there is no choice but to work in the mines. Families, including children, fleeing violence are faced with the choice between almost certain starvation or exploitative work, giving them just enough food to rest and survive. Some mines demand a month of labour before the workers are paid in whatever they can find (old clothes, tires, small pieces of ore etc). It Is common for many of these corrupt mines not to pay at all, but instead allow exhausted workers with a few moments of reprieve to go back into the mines to find gold for themselves in their minimal amounts of spare time. According to the Amazon Aid Foundation, the mining industry of Peru is also host to sex trafficking. Girls as young as 12 are promised work and sent to Peru by their family in hopes for a better future, only to be forced into prostitution for the primary male miners.
In Papua New Guinea, a team of environmental scientists reported that many communities living close to gem and metal mines suffer from episodic water insecurity, poor sanitary conditions and chronic poverty. Farming land is scarce and dwindling thanks to the draw of these mining industries. Many mining sites are plagued by sexual violence and human rights violations. Major rivers near the mines have also tested positive for heavy metal contamination, though the rainwater didn’t, proving that the source is indeed the mine. Ghana, another large distributor of gems and precious metals faces similar problems.
Schemes such as the Global Witness and the Human Rights Watch have been put in place in an attempt to ensure the integrity, and document the issues surrounding the mining and smuggling involved behind the scenes of the jewellery industry. Highlighting the fact that there is a desire for ethics and a consumer demand for a more sustainable process. A hashtag #behindthebling, has even surfaced, thanks to the Human Rights Watch. Aiming to address and expose the exploitation and corrupt nature surrounding the mining industries.
If consumers were aware that the process involved in creation the gold ring on their finger produced 20 to 60 tones of toxic waste to be mined, leaving traces of arsenic, lead, mercury, petroleum by products, acids, cyanide and over 30 more dangerous chemicals to the land, they would be outraged.
If they knew they were supporting forced and child slave labour, a common occurrence in the corrupt nature of the industry, depriving them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. Exposing them to extremely dangerous conditions that can lead to silicosis; an occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, asphyxiation, respiratory system damage, joint disorders muscular and orthopedic ailments from carrying loads too heavy for their age and bodies, nervous system damage from the mercury used in the excavation process; resulting in neurological conditions leading to tremors, coordination problems, vision impairment, headaches, memory loss and concentration problems, would they not stand against it?
These human rights and environmental issues are appalling, as anyone with a conscience would agree. If consumers knew the real price of their product, they would not invest their money into it.
It is time to change that ‘if’ into a comprehension and understanding, and in doing so give the customer the power of knowledge, the potential to choose where their products are coming from and the insight to avoid supporting corrupt industries.
The Mainstream Fabrication
We as consumers are beginning to sleepily open our eyes, and understand that our naivety and ignorance is destroying the planet. We don’t want poorly made goods, we are steering away from supporting sweatshops, child and slave labour, cheap merchandise and becoming aware that our decisions have a monumental effect on the world we live in. We want to support sustainable brands and ethical makers, though so much truth and information gets lost in the maelstrom of advertising, marketing and the general shit show that is our industrial world; and that is exactly why these corrupt industries pay millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. They want to keep us in the dark.
To give you an example, the fact that the mainstream ideal of a diamonds rarity and value is simply due to an incredibly successful advertising campaign, rather than that of the actual inherent value of the stone. A stone that exists in excess and is simply compressed carbon; the same thing you used to learn to write the alphabet in kindergarten.
Shouldn’t the knowledge that a yield of only 0.240971 kg of gold comes out of every truckload of 180 tones of rocks and soil be well known upon purchasing a gold ring? Or perhaps the fact that erosion, deforestation and water contamination are a part of the every day effects of gemstone and metal mining industries? And surely we should we aware that in our purchase we are supporting an industry that forces miners to work in unhealthy, unsafe and poorly constructed mines, that contribute to public health hazards such as improper treatment and disposal of raw sewage?
Human and environmental costs are rarely considered when large companies make strategic decisions. While they might care whether something is safe in theory to avoid a PR backlash, its unusual that one finds a business plan that will refuse profit if it comes at too high a secondary cost. Human and environmental casualties are merely unfortunate side effects of the pursuit of profit to many unscrupulous mines. What are a few thousand sheep and the livelihood of farmers to the owners? This is a repetitive cycle, and it exists thanks to complacency in the markets in which they sell. Companies aren’t held accountable for their actions in the developing world, and it is time that changed.
These corrupt mines seem far away, almost imaginary to many westerners, who would never allow their own child to be forced into manual labour or prostitution. It’s that separation and disconnect that gives a silent consent to these dishonest companies and an unscrupulous industry.
The reality exists in that wealthy companies go to poverty stricken countries with precious commodities beneath their feet and exploit and ravage the land and its inhabitants. Then turn around and make a 1000% profit on a natural resource by shitting all over the hard work of the miners and fabricating a romantic notion to a blissfully unaware society that falls or advertising slogans like ‘Diamonds are forever’.
For lovers of adornment, this is a problem that involves all of us. This is a system that needs to be broken. Like most extractive industries, the process of mining is destroying our planet.
By understanding the fact that we as consumers have the choice and power to play a part in the demise of an industry built on the mistreatment of millions of people and the earth, we can then begin to make our mark and plant the seed of knowledge in the next generation of consumers and makers.
We have the privilege of knowledge and the power to make change; it is time we start using it.
Image copyright: Mario Sánches Nevado