ourEconomy: Investigation

Behind the shine: how the jewellery trade relies on minerals tainted with death

Leading companies are turning a blind eye to violence, exploitation and environmental destruction in the global mining industry.

Tansy E. Hoskins Bio Pic
Tansy Hoskins
4 December 2020, 12.14pm
Kristin Palitza/DPA/PA Images
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15-year-old Richmond Asiamah working with mercury at a gold mine in Brong-Ahafo, Ghana

The crunching sound of bulldozers came as a death rattle for men working deep in a gold mine in eastern Zimbabwe. On 15 November, contractors’ bulldozers converged on the mine on the outskirts of Mutare. They planned to “reclaim” it from the local community, who had been mining there independently with low-tech tools and without the backing of a company (known as artisanal or small-scale mining). However, the tonnes of soil and rock poured down the mineshaft to block up its entrances created a living grave for the men still at work underground.

Reports of how many people died inside the mine range from two to twelve. Rescuers recovered the bodies of two men and then stopped searching. The Chinese company responsible says it thought the mine was empty and had given fair warning of the reclamation – a claim disputed by the miners. No criminal charges have been filed over the incident.

“Artisanal mining is giving people a livelihood but to a large extent it is modern-day slavery,” says Farai Maguwu, director of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Natural Resource Governance, who visited the mine in the aftermath of the deaths. “There is a big contradiction between what you see in the jewellery shops and the source where these minerals are extracted.”

Zimbabwe’s gold and diamond mining industry is characterised by violence, frequent accidents and corruption, according to Maguwu. Zimbabwe is just one of the countries highlighted in the latest report by Human Rights Watch, which scrutinises the supply chains of some of the biggest jewellery companies in the world. In the run up to Christmas, the report is urging brands and shoppers to put human rights at the heart of the jewellery industry.

An estimated 42 million people work in artisanal mining. Around the world, artisanal miners are villagers trying to make a living, farmers looking for work in the dry season, or small-scale commercial operators who are sometimes funded by organised crime. It is low tech, poorly paid, dangerous work, which produces 20% of the world’s gold and diamonds.

In contrast, large- and medium-scale industrial mining, which employs seven million people, is dominated by multinational corporations, with De Beers and Alrosa controlling approximately half of the world’s rough diamond production.

Pandemic gold

As COVID-19 swept the globe, mining was declared an essential service in many countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Zimbabwe. The virus has severely affected this sector because employees work in close proximity deep underground. In May, South Africa’s Mponeng gold mine – the world’s deepest – had to close after 164 miners tested positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic has also increased the risk of human rights violations in mining areas, explains Juliane Kippenberg, one of the co-authors of the Human Rights Watch report. “Production has gone down overall so many families working in small-scale mines faced a loss of livelihood and food insecurity.”

Mining in the Amazon has a devastating effect on the environment

Observers have also recorded an increase in child labour in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Zimbabwe, both because of greater family poverty and the closure of schools during the crisis.

In Latin America, illegal small-scale mining increased under the cover of COVID-19 – with destructive consequences. “Mining in the Amazon has a devastating effect on the environment,” says Kippenberg of the illegal operations pushing deeper and deeper into the rainforest. “Illegal gold mining also poses a particular threat to indigenous communities who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”

Opaque supply chain

“The human rights abuses happening in artisanal mining are not worth the end product, which is supposed to be an expression of love and other things,” says Maguwu. So why do minerals tainted with death end up in glittering shop window displays?

“There aren’t really any strong legal requirements for jewellery companies to conduct human rights due diligence,” explains Kippenberg. She says that existing audits are “largely office-based” and unable to detect abuses, and that the standard for diamonds – the Kimberley Process – is not fit for purpose. As a result, Kippenberg says that “jewellery companies themselves most often don’t know where the materials are coming from”. And it’s not just jewellery companies who are dealing in these minerals – laptop and mobile phone components are also key destinations for gold supply chains.

These issues mean that no jewellery company has been ranked as ‘excellent’ by Human Rights Watch in its latest report. “There is no company implementing all the standards or undertaking all the steps they should take under international norms,” says Kippenberg.

jewellery companies themselves most often don’t know where the materials are coming from

Two companies, Tiffany and Pandora, ranked as ‘strong’, while others fell into the ‘weak’ category or – like Rolex – were not ranked because they did not provide any information about sustainability or human rights. British company Boodles, which does not have an annual sustainability report, ranked as ‘fair’. Human Rights Watch says the findings are an improvement on previous years but there is still a very long way to go.

Pandora, the only company from the list above that responded to openDemocracy, says it continues to work towards environmental and social targets: “We are proud to receive the ‘strong’ ranking from Human Rights Watch and will continue to address our most salient human rights impacts and increase transparency in our supply chain.”

Fair trade is possible

Cristina Villegas, Director of Mines to Markets at PACT, believes that mining, which is a crucial economic lifeline for millions of people, could be transformed into a fair industry. For jewellery companies, she says there is “literally no excuse not to act on gold right now”, and lists a host of initiatives including Fair Trade Gold, Colombia’s Fair Mined and Just Gold, which are “working in the most difficult conditions and showing it’s possible to have traceable, responsible gold” from many areas including eastern Congo.

The diamond industry, Villegas says, needs to “act meaningfully, with haste and with proof” and move on from the “insufficient” Kimberley Process. Tired of industry excuses, Villegas points to her own passion project, Moyo Gems, which uses blockchain to trace gemstones back to individual female miners in Tanzania.

One problem is a corporate expectation that there is no price increase for ethical gold and gems, she says. “What we need is companies being willing to pay a little bit more to show that they have legal supply chains. It takes money to move from illegality to legality.”

The Responsible Jewellery Council is a voluntary standard-setting group for jewellery and watch companies that is based in London. In a statement to openDemocracy, it called for a combination of policy and robust standards such as its own code of practice. “The RJC code of practice includes the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Minerals and alignment on the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Our members contribute to improving responsible business practices – both in their own companies and with their suppliers as a process of continuous improvement.”

The industry experts we spoke to recommend interrogating companies before buying jewellery – asking which country and which mine the materials come from and what human rights standards are in place.

Ultimately, Kippenberg says the jewellery industry cannot be left to self-regulate: “Industry standards are not the solution. They can help bring about good practice and support companies who want to do the right thing, but to get the jewellery industry to the right place, we need legislation – laws requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence.”

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