Gold. A mineral that, despite its distinct lack of essential, practical applications, has been the cause of hundreds of wars and a disgustingly high number of deaths throughout time and throughout the world. It was a major factor in overseas expansion in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially the Spanish and Portuguese into South America; it has been the root cause of a vast number of the African continents problems; and in the 19th century sent people flooding to America’s West coast, taking with them all variety of social ills. These are but a few in the huge litany of examples of gold’s destructive affects. It has destroyed whole civilizations, great swathes of natural beauty, and the lives of many an individual.
Then, as now, it remains vitally important as it truly does, in the metaphorical sense, keep our world turning.
It’s relatively recent reemergence in abundance throughout parts of Africa has been a cause of great wealth but also great social problems. Reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) have shown that these problems are occurring in such places as South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Interestingly, and possibly slightly more shocking, is the degree to which these social problems are also arising in the stable, and often regarded as more developed, Tanzania. A recent 96-page HRW report details how and why these problems are occurring and is attempting to bring attention to the plight of hundreds of children and families who are suffering as a result of unsafe working conditions, exposure to toxic chemicals and exploitation.
A large degree of the gold-mining operations in Tanzania take place in what is termed small-scale operations. A pit-holder leases pits from the people who control the mines and many unskilled laborers then come to work in these. Key features of these small-scale operations often include a limited adherence to laws regarding labour, a lack of regulation, and insufficient degrees of observation and inspection. Consequently, there are a great number of children and families who live and work in terrible conditions and put themselves at direct and indirect risk of harm in various forms.
What this recent HRW investigation has found is that there are children as young as 8 working in unsafe mines, many of which are prone to collapse, with at least 77 deaths being reported as a result of this in recent months. These children work up to 24 hour days digging mines and carrying heavy sacks of gold ore at great personal risk. The other dangers that these families are exposed to are consistent with many of the risks associated in mining where minors and lack of regulation exists. In addition to the direct physical affects mentioned here, the risk of girls to sexual abuse or of their entering into the sex trade is high in communities around mines. Furthermore, those working in mines have been found to often be doing so at the expense of attending school. The deficiency in their education can have grave consequences later in their life, especially with regards to social mobility and breaking the cycle of poverty.
With this mining of gold, the communities are exposing themselves to an additional severe health risk. Gold can be extracted from the gold ore with the use of mercury. Mixing water, gold ore, and liquid mercury in a metal bowl, the mercury attracts the gold particles to form a gold-mercury amalgam. When heated, the mercury evaporates leaving gold. This causes a variety of health risks. Simply touching liquid mercury is poisonous to the human body, and exposure over a period of time can be damaging to health. Moreover, the mercury vapour given off when it is heated, when inhaled, can lead to a number of serious and debilitating respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological problems. In addition, the mercury that enters the water stream can be ingested when drinking and is also absorbed into the wildlife in the area, particularly fish, and when ingested can produce similar medical complications. The affect of mercury is, thus, not only apparent in those directly exposed to it. It has shown to be particularly damaging to fetuses and the young who are still developing many of their functions.
Gold is a precious and important commodity in our world. However, as with many minerals worldwide, it is being mined unethically in many places and a large number of people who will gain the least from its extraction are suffering the most. HRW have suggested a number of important reforms that are needed, and both aid and pressure from the international community are needed to implement these. What also needs to happen is for those companies buying gold to fully know their supply chain, and where child labour is at use, or there is uncertainty, action needs to be taken to address this.
We have made these mistakes so often before and need to start realising that just because it has always been done this way, and many others use these supply chains, that does not make it ok to still do so and destroy the lives of thousands of people worldwide.