Yoke of Gold

The history of gold – that is, the history of gold extracted from the planet surface – is inextricably linked with human history.

Gold has always been as much a shining harness as a coveted bauble.

Gustav Klimt's Judith 1

Gustav Klimt’s Judith 1

It has so many qualities we would like to think we ourselves possess: It’s rare but not lonely and scarce, it’s easy to handle and mold but keeps its shape once formed, it doesn’t corrode, and it doesn’t react explosively with other elements.

It’s so pretty, and so desirable.

A nice symbol for the ages, which is probably why we’ve used it in so many different capacities since before recorded history, and why we still like it so much today.

Anything rare and precious to us always comes at a price. And it’s not just the one we pay upon purchase.

The Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, is just one in a long line of gold mines around the world and through the ages, but it has the distinction of being the largest. The mine embodies so much of humanity’s relationship with gold.

There’s much for some and very little for others: The mine has brought vast wealth to its owners, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., and the Indonesian government.

Those almost nothing for those who extract the gold in the thin air of Puncak Jaya, the highest island mountain in the world (16,024 ft/4884 metres). And whatever else isn’t considered precious – the mine is also the world’s third-largest copper source – is simply discarded.

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine. Source: GoGeometry

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine.
Source: GoGeometry

According to Earthworksaction, a single gold ring generates more than 20 tons of mine waste on average. And the Grasberg mine produces and dumps over 200,000 tonnes of tailings (mine waste) per day (over 80 million tonnes per year).

Mining waste is toxic – the ‘rest’ of the earth from Grasberg mine, the parts considered not precious enough for harvest, have buried over 230 sq. km (88 sq. miles) of forest and wetlands, the surrounding rivers are considered unsuitable for aquatic life.

View of the Grasberg mine. Source: Mine.com

View of the Grasberg mine.
Source: Mining.com

The high price also includes human rights violations and displacement of indigenous peoples. Half of the gold extracted around the world is mined on the territories of traditional indigenous peoples.

So the next time you find yourself reaching for the gold ring, you might consider its real price.

You can also consider reaching for a gold ring mined and made by supporters of the FairGold initiative.

Gold ripples Source: Pixabay

Gold ripples
Source: Pixabay


What we talk about when we talk about war (III)

As with any kind of accounting process, in order to track changes in the environment and climate, a certain level of baseline knowledge is necessary – a point of departure.

The past decades have seen a steady compilation of information that allows society to gain a better grasp on the state of the planet, human impact, and possible trajectories. Conflict zones present particular difficulties – not only does war compromise the human and natural environment on almost every level, from bombing to landmines, from water and land pollution to habitat destruction, but it can also render environmental research into a lethal undertaking.

A FARC rebel stands guard on a hill in Montealegre Colombia.  Credit: Juan B. Diaz/AP

A FARC rebel stands guard on a hill in Montealegre Colombia.
Credit: Juan B. Diaz/AP

One place where research slowed to a trickle was Colombia. According to a new article out in Science, the country estimated to “rank first in the world in number of flowering plants, second in birds, and sixth in mammals” saw environmental accounting all but stop during the years of armed guerilla warfare and intense drug-trafficking from the mid-1980s until recently.

But with conflicts receding in some areas (though not all), scientists have started re-entering the field. And they have some interesting observations.

 A 2012 study reported on a decade's changes in forest cover in and around Colombia. Source: Science - AAAS

A 2012 study reported on a decade’s changes in forest cover in and around Colombia.
Source: Science – AAAS

Aside from the sheer number of new species to be named, bioprospecting bonanzas and new insights into a place of extremely diverse climates and topologies, there has been an unexpected benefit – if one cares to call it that – of the years of disarray: The areas that were no-go zones also avoided the massive land development and deforestation that has taken place across the South American continent. Areas previously under cultivation have seen reforestation.

And these effects will probably be temporary, because as areas become conflict-free, developers will follow.

From the Science article:

“As fighting ebbs, road builders, miners, and ranchers are racing into many of the same regions that biologists are exploring. 

The national government is encouraging development with tax breaks for palm oil plantations and biofuels. Foreign investments in Colombia’s petroleum sector leapt 20-fold in 2011 over the level a decade ago, to more than $9 billion. Mining companies looking for coal and gold account for $4 billion more invested per year.”

Colombia is poised to again become the world’s top producer of gold. Source: Escape from America

Colombia is poised to again become the world’s top producer of gold.
Source: Escape from America Magazine

This is contrasted with a modest budget of $30 million dollars allocated by the Colombian government towards the protection of its 57 national parks.

It would be a sad paradox if these unique ecosystems were better protected by conflicts that render them too dangerous for most people to tread, as opposed to peace that opens them to exploitation.


Science articleVenturing Back Into Colombia by Antonio Regalado

Escape from America Magazine articleGold Mining in Colombia Legally by Don Ewert

What we talk about when we talk about war (I) & (II)