The Cost of Our Appetite for Gold

Posted on: December 11, 2023 by

The Allure of Gold

Mansa Musa, King of Mali

Gold is undoubtably the most seductive of the noble metals. It is revered, considered sacred and mystical in many cultures. It is associated with the supernatural, royalty, wealth and prestige – we hear of alchemists of yesteryear turning lead into gold and stories of mythical creatures who inhabit mines around the world. Stories ranging from those of Hephaestus, King Midas and Rumpelstiltskin, to the legendary Mansa Musa (King of the ancient empire of Mali) have continued to captivate our imagination. It is extremely strong yet as malleable as butter. The warmth and richness of gold represents the essence of the sun, and its association with the heavens and purity makes it the choice metal in religious iconography to highlight their divinity. It can be beaten into very fine gold leaf and applied onto religious manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, furniture and so on. It is raised into beautiful vessels and formed into intricately beautiful jewellery; its uses are seemingly endless.

The Human and Environmental Cost

Our ravenous appetite for gold keeps growing and with that, ethics and morals seem to dissipate. Bubbling underneath the glistening surface of this incorruptible metal is a plethora of issues. Lands rich in gold deposits have been explored and mined for significant periods of time. When the Portuguese set sail to West Africa, it was because of their quest for gold and riches. They found a bountiful supply of the sacred metal but the desire to amass more wealth inevitably led to one of the worst crimes against humanity:  the Transatlantic slave trade, a dark period in history which saw the capturing, selling and enslavement of millions of Africans. Today, the discovery of new gold deposits continues to fuel and fund wars and conflicts globally. Networks of criminal gangs powered by insatiable greed target small scale miners who are driven by the primal need to survive. Organised crime syndicates funnel gold through established illicit trade routes. It is worth noting that unregulated artisanal mining could have been achieved using child labour with children as young as five years old, knee-deep in water contaminated with mercury. Damage to the environment, ecosystems and water supplies caused by toxic chemicals used in unregulated mining is immeasurable. The chemicals cause serious illnesses such as kidney failure, birth defects and impaired neurological development.

Gold rich lands are a blessing and a curse. The Pra river in Ghana, which was previously a thriving life-giving source to the communities it flows through, has tragically suffered due to heavy metal pollution caused by illegal mining (locally referred to as ‘Galamsey’, which means ‘gather them and sell’). The 240 km long river flows through cocoa and timber plantations as well as mineral rich dense forest towns, and the thick vegetation provides cover which enables the illegal activities to occur undetected for lengthy periods. The river, which used to be crystal clear, is now muddy in appearance. The illicit activities are carried out by both foreigners in search of riches, and locals themselves.

The Pra river in Ghana

A Battle of Greed and Morality

All gold which was mined and refined since its discovery is still in circulation and continues to be recycled. It is impossible to trace because it is indistinguishable. It is not farfetched to consider that a simple wedding band may contain a percentage of gold obtained from a grave robbery in the 14th century, the loot stolen from people of Jewish descent in a concentration camp or from the finds of a little child in modern day Ghana. Nobody wants to be associated with dirty gold and there is an overwhelming interest in the ethics of gold mining. However, attempts to regulate the industry are voluntary and rely on the conscience and morals of mining companies. Foreign industrial scale mining corporations continue to amass immense wealth from the extraction of gold whilst the inhabitants of many gold producing countries sink deeper into dire poverty. Artisanal small-scale miners put their lives in danger by using extremely toxic chemicals which aid the extraction of gold, and they are targeted by bandits and money launderers who are at times willing to pay over the global spot price of gold per gram.

There appears to be a real lack of rudimentary education on the lasting damage caused by illegal mining and unless these basic issues are addressed, governments, companies, local chiefs and self-serving individuals will continue to inflict damage on the inhabitants and environments in a never-ending cycle. Gold, and our obsession with it, indisputably has qualities which bring out the worst of human nature.

Attempts to Address this Issue

We cannot tell from looking at gold if we owe it to such disastrous extracting techniques. There is an ongoing effort to make this realm more ethical.

In recent years, companies such as Single Mine Origin (SMO), have emerged to tackle some of these issues. SMO gold is mined according to WGC Responsible Gold Mining Principles, is segregated from other gold throughout the supply chain and monitored by independent auditors.

The gold is transported from mines in Mali and Ivory Coast to Switzerland by world class logistics partners to ensure that it remains segregated during transit. Once in Switzerland, London Bullion Market Association refiners maintain segregation throughout the refining and manufacturing process and this entire process is overseen by the independent Bureau Veritas. As such, each batch is fully traceable through the chain of custody from mine to maker and can be hallmarked with the SMO stamp. The finished product is supplied with a QR code which enables the consumer to learn about where their gold was sourced from as well as the social and environmental impacts associated with their purchase. Other organisations like Fairmined and FairTrade offer alternative solutions.

Provenance is the focal point of Museums and Cultural Heritage institutions and there is a vast presence of gold in collections held within these global institutions. Some of these pieces of art may contain gold mined by the hands of children but such pieces cannot be scrutinised because the metal is untraceable. It is impossible to undo the past but we can all make the conscious decision to prioritise ethical gold moving forward and how we relate to this today determines how we will be judged in the future.

Image Credits:

Mansa Musa, 1375, public domain via Wikimedia Commons – File:Catalan Atlas BNF Sheet 6 Mansa Musa (cropped).jpg – Wikimedia Commons.

The Pra river in Ghana, Jamiaghana, 2014, CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – File:Pra River Ghana.jpg – Wikimedia Commons.