TADO, Colombia — Can rain forest plants replace toxic chemicals in the production of gold? The answer is a qualified “yes.”
Instead of using mercury to separate the precious metal from tailings, a small group of miners who pan for gold in northern Colombia work with a natural extract made from the leaves of balsa trees.
“We’ve mined gold like this all our lives,” said Luis Palomino as he plucked several leaves from a balsa tree and mixed them with water in the bottom of a wooden pan. “We don’t like chemicals.”
Palomino belongs to an organization called Green Gold whose members receive higher-than-market prices for their chemical-free gold. Although tiny, Green Gold is part of a growing movement to promote responsible practices among the millions of small-scale miners across the world who use tons of mercury every year.
In 2002, the United Nations founded the Global Mercury Project to introduce cleaner technologies, train miners, and develop regulatory capacities within governments. There are also a growing number of nongovernmental organizations that are trying to do for gold mining what the organic movement did for food production.
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“This is a sector that can transform itself,” said Lina Villa, the executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, which is based in the Colombian city of Medellin. “Miners are willing to change and to do things in a different way.”
With gold selling for about $1,700 an ounce, Villa said it would be unrealistic to try to ban small-scale mining on the grounds of environmental or health hazards. That’s especially true in developing nations like Colombia, where large sectors of the rural population live in poverty.
Instead, she said, governments and NGOs should work with these miners to upgrade their technology and improve their environmental and labor practices. “There is a lot of criticism around mining. But I think we have to change our mindsets because mining will not go away,” Villa said.
About 90 percent of the world’s gold is produced by modern firms that usually leach the gold from ore with cyanide, which causes its own environmental risks.
But according to Villa, the rest is produced by small-scale miners who make up 90 percent of the world’s gold mining work force. And nearly all of them expose themselves and their communities to mercury contamination.
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The chemical bonds with gold to form an amalgam that makes it easier to isolate. But to purify the gold, the miners must then burn off the mercury.
That process releases toxic fumes into the air, while sloppy handling and storage of mercury often causes spills. Mercury can poison soil and drinking water. Exposure can cause brain, lung and kidney damage as well as birth defects. Because mercury levels often build up in some fish species, the US Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant women and nursing mothers not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.
Colombia ranks among the world’s top-15 gold producers. Yet about half of national production is extracted by artisanal and illegal miners — who often work in cahoots with drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas who take a share of profits.
A 2011 United Nations investigation found that these operations release up to 150 tons of mercury into the environment every year, making Colombia the world’s largest mercury polluter per capita from mining. The study found that in some mining areas, the levels of mercury in the environment were 1,000 times higher than the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.
The Green Gold method is not applicable in all gold mining, so the Global Mercury Project and activists, like Villa, are also promoting methods to reduce mercury use and contamination.
For example, better storage and handling techniques can reduce mercury leaks and accidents. When they burn off mercury, miners can use vapor collection systems that reduce air pollution and recycle most of the chemical. Centrifuges eliminate the need for mercury but are expensive and beyond the reach of many small-scale miners.
Miners who agree to carry out better environmental and labor practices are now eligible for a program called Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold. It pays them a 10 percent premium above the international price for gold.
This gold is used for so-called “ethical jewelry” that makes up about 1 percent of the world’s jewelry market. Last year, the first Fairtrade and Fairmined ring was produced in London with gold from Bolivia. Although the jewelry costs more, the idea is to convince consumers that it’s worth it — just as many grocery shoppers are now willing to pay more for free-range chicken or shade-grown coffee.
Felipe Arango, who oversees the Green Gold program in Colombia, says that customers should view the rain forests and rivers they will be helping to preserve as far more valuable than the precious metal they are buying.
But producing gold this way is painstaking.
At one of the Green Gold mining sites in the northern department of Choco, Palomino and several relatives removed rocks by hand, loosened the dirt from the river bank with picks and shovels, then placed the material into a rustic filter. The sediment caught in the filter contained small amounts of gold.
The miners then washed this material in a wooden pan with a soapy extract made from balsa leaves. The extract attached to the lighter minerals that were then washed away, leaving behind the heavier flecks of gold in the bottom of the pan.
The process is so arduous that last year the 377 families in the Green Gold program produced little more than 15 pounds of gold — far less than 1 percent of Colombia’s annual production. Still, no chemicals were used thus the Fairtrade and Fairmined Gold organization paid them a 15 percent premium.
The extra cash is vital because it provides Green Gold miners with more incentive to preserve their land.
Elsewhere in Choco, down-on-their-luck prospectors often agree to rent out their small patches of land in exchange for a percentage of gold profits. The renters are usually illegal miners who move in with backhoes and bulldozers and destroy vast tracts of rain forest and pollute the rivers. After spending their gold profits, the landowners are often left with no gold and a desolate landscape.
Not far from one of the Green Gold sites, miner Alfredo Hurtado trudged across one such wasteland the size of a football field. The jungle was gone, replaced by slag heaps and pits filled with contaminated water.
“They took out all the gold and destroyed the area,” Hurtado said. “They don’t care if the land is turned upside down.”
By comparison, the Green Gold’s footprint is a lot smaller. And because these miners own the land, they have more incentive to take care of it.
As she took a break from shoveling, Green Gold miner Mariveth Mosquera pointed to mined patches of terrain that have been recovered and now sprout yucca and plantains. Mercury-free water means she and her family can cultivate tilapia in fish ponds.
The Fairtrade and Fairmined movement hopes to sign up legions of miners across Latin America, Africa and Asia but responsible mining has failed to catch on. Despite the premiums for eco-friendlier gold, it remains easier and more profitable to extract gold with large amounts of mercury. So far, just 1,400 miners in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia have joined the Fairtrade and Fairmined program.
Arango of Green Gold wants to bump up the premiums through such schemes as internet auctions. He also points out that like-minded campaigns — such as Fairtrade coffee and the Kimberly Process to promote conflict-free diamonds from Africa — started out slowly.
“We’ve seen Fairtrade in coffee and in chocolate grow exponentially,” Arango said. “This is the beginning. The volumes are small but we are starting to see consumers and the mining industry paying attention to a different way of doing things.”