Gilded Disaster: Gold in Southeast Asia

Gold has been a treasured metal in human societies for millennia, and that trend continues today as people demand gold as an investment, jewelry material, electronics component, and decorative metal. To meet all that demand, mines across the world are constantly at work extracting this sometimes stubborn resource, but they aren’t the only ones. Small-scale mining operations in many regions consist of single families or small groups of people who use crude tools and tactics to get gold and sell it to dealers in their communities, who in turn bundle it for sale to larger firms.

Major gold mining companies rip apart mountains, destroy forests, generate streams of pollutants, and exploit a variety of natural resources to get what they came for. In the process, they ravage indigenous communities, go head to head with governments and environmental agencies, and foster corruption everywhere they go; think of it as King Midas’ touch, as it were. Where gold companies go, little happiness follows.

Smaller mining operations aren’t much better, though they doesn’t operate on the same staggering scale. They use the same harsh chemicals to extract gold, usually without protection for the environment or their workers. They cut through forests and the earth in search of gold without paying particular attention to the environmental impact of their actions, and their focus is always on extracting more metal, nothing else, even if it means endangering their communities.

Big mines are hard to regulate because they invest a great deal of money, lobbying, intimidation, bribery, and threats in being ungovernable. They argue that they contribute to national economies, for example, and thus can’t be regulated tightly because that might interfere with their operations and make it harder for them to offer economic benefits. Many are based overseas, and can lean upon treaties, trade agreements, and international relationships to keep themselves above the arm of the law. Meanwhile, small-scale mining is hard to identify, locate, and crack down upon simply because it happens in remote areas, and government agencies typically lack adequate inspectors for going out, finding them, and addressing their environmental and human health violations.

Much of the most dangerous, abusive gold mining practices take place in the global south, though US-based firms do their part to tear up North America, too. The CIR recently published a detailed look at gold mining in Southeast Asia, where dangerous mining practices don’t just threaten the environment and workers, but child labourers in particular. Millions of children work in the gold industry, and unfortunately, they’re the ones most vulnerable to the heavy metals used in gold processing, and thus the least safe even in controlled, reasonably healthy workplaces; but in some locales in Southeast Asia, they’re working with metals like mercury without even the most basic of protections, absorbing toxins through their skins, mouths, noses, and eyes.

Meanwhile, waterways, farmland, and the rest of the natural environment are heavily polluted with harsh chemicals used in metals processing, along with other waste from gold mining sites. Entire communities sicken, are forced to relocate, and experience dramatic changes in their way of life due to irresponsible mining practices, and tragically, many small-scale mining operations are overseen by people who have few other options for survival. While they may be aware that they’re poisoning the environment, they can’t afford to put environmental protections in place, and gold mining is the only viable way to make a living, the result of social and economic disparities.

As without precious metals and materials like diamonds, it’s very difficult to track gold back to its origins. This is one reason the industry feels comfortable with abusive labour practices and environmental destruction; it’s confident that dirty gold can be slipped into the global gold supply without notice. People wanting to avoid it would have to effectively stop buying anything with gold in it, which might prove surprisingly difficult given how often the metal is used in electronics, where people may not even be aware that it’s present.

Yet, organisations like the No Dirty Gold Campaign aim to help consumers avoid bad sources of gold, focusing on increasing consumer awareness and putting pressure on the jewelry industry to source this metal safely and reasonably. Recycled gold is one option, reducing the demand for new raw material, as is gold from mines committed to more responsible environmental and social practices. But the jewelry industry is only one component of the very large global market for gold, and consumers aware of the issue when they’re buying earrings also need to be thinking about where else gold might be living in their lives.

How can we tolerate conditions like these in Southeast Asia and other regions where mining is tearing communities apart? In part, it’s a function of not knowing about them, because many people aren’t aware of how destructive gold mining is and how widespread these practices are across the industry. It’s also a function of distance, though, and the knowledge that many of us will never directly see, confront, or be affected by dangerous mining practices. In that position, it’s easy to avoid the problems with the industry, especially in the face of so many other social ills clamoring for attention, and that allows the industry to continue with such practices.

What will it take to fight the tarnish on the world’s gold supply? There is no easy fix to the problem, and certainly a colonialist approach involving forced reforms isn’t the solution. Global governments need to work with each other to address the poverty and desperation that contribute to illegal mining and small-scale mining done without safety precautions, and they also need to be compelling larger firms to modernise their practices. Global cooperation may hold the key to changing the gold industry.