They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. But behind the sparkle, the jewellery industry plays a large role when it comes to human rights violations, civil wars and environmental destruction. The communities rich in natural resources, such as gold and diamonds, are far from benefiting from this. These communities are close to, or below, the poverty threshold even though their natural resources are worth millions. It’s other people and companies who are benefiting from their hard labour.
For centuries, jewellery denotes social or personal status of individuals. It’s a form of art and although some might argue it doesn’t relate to fashion, I see jewellery as being an extension to fashion. With that, I am delving further into the issues behind this industry.
Jewellery consists of many various types of materials and gemstones. Most modern jewellery usually includes gold, white gold, platinum or silver metals with precious or semi-precious stones, such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and pearls.
Although each industry has its own fair share of controversies, I am focusing on diamonds, gold and sapphires for today’s post.
On an annual basis, approximately 130 million carats of diamonds are mined. Top producers for diamonds are Russia (22.4%) and Botswana (19.9%), although significant sources of the mineral have been discovered in Canada, India, Brazil and Australia.
The mining and distribution of natural diamonds are subjects of frequent controversy. In some of the more politically unstable regions of central African and west African countries, revolutionary groups seize control of diamond mines to use the proceeds from diamond sales to finance their operations. Selling diamonds through this process has become known as conflict diamonds or blood diamonds.
THE KIMBERLY PROCESS
In response to public concerns regarding diamond purchases and the possible links to war and human rights abuses, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in support of an international certification scheme for rough diamonds. This landmark decision resulted in negotiations between governments, the international diamond industry and civil society organizations and by November 2002, the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was born. The Kimberly Process (KP) aims to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds by ensuring diamond-producing countries prove the proceeds from diamond sales do not fund criminal or revolutionary activities.
The Kimberly Process has been moderately successful in limiting the number of conflict diamonds entering the market. However, some still find their way in. Limitations within the KP enable diamonds tainted by human rights abuses to make their way into the market, even being certified as “conflict free”. Furthermore, the process does very little to address ongoing violence, worker exploitation and child labour practices within the industry.
Gold mining is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of mining. Methods such as open pit mining devastate the landscape while acid mine damage and mercury contamination wreak havoc to water sources, the air and soil. Gold mining produces massive amount of toxic waste. It’s actually the leading cause of man-made global mercury pollution. For a single gold ring, modern industrial gold mining creates 20 tons of toxic waste!
Many gold mines dump their toxic waste directly into natural water bodies. The Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea dumps over 5 million tons of toxic waste into the Pacific Ocean each year. Other mines creates dams to deposit their waste, but this does little to mitigate the overall waste. Waste contained in the dam just leeches into the surrounding areas.
ACID MINE DAMAGE
Acid mine damage occurs when underground rock is exposed to air and water, a result of mining. Iron sulfides (often called “fool’s gold”) in the rock react with oxygen to form sulfuric acid. Acidic water drainage from mine sites can be 20 to 300 times more concentrated than acidic rain. The danger increases when this acidic water runs over rocks and strips out other embedded heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and iron.
Mercury is most common in artisanal and small-scale gold mining as a way to extract gold from rock and sediment. For every gram of gold produced, artisanal gold miners release about two grams of mercury into the environment. Together, the world’s 10 to 15 million artisanal gold miners release about 1,000 tons of mercury into the environment each year, or 35% of man-made mercury pollution.
For the most part, colored gemstone mining is largely unregulated. This lack in regulation allows untraceable gems to enter overseas markets freely. It also leads to dangerous working conditions and enables child labour practices.
Due to their small size and agility, children often find work in gemstone mining. Children often find themselves climbing into small holes, in extremely dangerous situations, just to see if gemstones are present.
Illegal mining activities are common and often can be found in locations with poor safety standards. Injuries are common, caused by dangerous conditions such as falling shards of rock, collapsing pits and underground fires. Little to no access to health care services exacerbate these dangerous working conditions. Most countries have yet to embrace fair labour practices in sapphire mining.
Minimal regulations in sapphire mining also leads to the wide spread of disease and water shortages. Oftentimes clean drinking water is contaminated by nearby sedimentation. Standing water found in open mine pits act as a breeding site for mosquito populations, increasing the risk of malarial diseases.
Be sure to check back next week when I share some awesome ethical jewellery brands!