Toxic Love

In Time for Valentine's Day, Oxfam Points to Cyanide and Human Rights Abuses Behind Gold Jewelry

Environmentalists this week are giving us an excuse to spend less on our Valentines. Dozens of activists in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston will hand out copies of a Valentine's Day card depicting a bouquet of roses, and warning shoppers of the ugly facts behind their gold-jewelry purchases.

"The production of one gold ring generates 20 tons of mine waste," reads the card, which will be distributed by members of Oxfam and the Mineral Policy Center at subway stations in Washington and Boston and on Fifth Avenue in New York.

The cards, which include the admonishment, "Don't tarnish your love with dirty gold," also coincide with the release of "Dirty Metals," a report from Oxfam and MPC and the launch of the groups' No Dirty Gold campaign website.

"We're trying to build [consumer awareness] about gold products, and to strip away the anonymity of the mining industry," says Keith Slack, senior policy advisor at Oxfam, and co-author of the "Dirty Metals" report. Unlike motorists at the gas pump, who know which company produced the fuel they are purchasing, buyers of gold jewelry typically cannot name a single gold producer, says Slack.

"Dirty Metals" highlights the gold mining companies' most destructive practices, like open-pit mining and the leaching of gold from rubble with cyanide and other toxic chemicals. "Dirty Metals" also accuses gold-mining companies of capitalizing on weak environmental laws outside the United States (particularly in South America and East Asia), colluding with the Indonesian military, and contributing to human rights abuses.

It's an ugly picture, and one the mining industry does not deny. "We're doing a lot of mining on low-grade ores, some as low as .05 ounces [of gold] per ton," says Doug Hock, spokesman for Denver, Colorodo-based Newmont Mining Corp., the world's largest gold producer.

MPC and Oxfam are asking Newmont and other producers to stop dumping their toxic waste into rivers and oceans, and to discontinue mining and exploration where local communities are opposed to those activities. The campaign's organizers want to establish a system for the gold-jewelry trade such as those that ensure diamonds are conflict-free, or that certify coffee as coming from producers who are well-treated.

Newmont insists it is already a good corporate citizen, however. The company cites its current effort to limit the amount of cyanide the industry uses through a set of voluntary rules, the International Cyanide Code. "The fact that we use cyanide has a very charged meaning," says Hock. "But cyanide is not a problem if it is used properly and safely."

MPC and Oxfam are also asking jewelry retailers to pressure the mining industry into cleaning up its act. Oxfam's Doug Slack applauds New York-based Tiffany & Co. for trying to avoid "blood diamonds"—stones mined from war-torn African countries—in the wake of another Oxfam Valentine's Day campaign three years ago. Tiffany did not reply to an interview request, although Slack says a number of retailers have expressed interest in the No Dirty Gold campaign.

Slack insists his aim is not to prevent people from buying gold jewelry this week. "We're not saying you should boycott gold," he says. "Instead, we want to generate demand for an alternative, because no alternative exists today."

 
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