Five golden rings … and an environmental dilemma

Hand holding golden rings

Gold jewelry on your holiday shopping list? Before you buy that special someone a statement piece this season, scientists studying climate change and the fate of the world’s vital rainforests ask you to consider some hidden consequences.

The demand for gold is polluting one of the world’s largest remaining pieces of tropical rainforest with deadly mercury. Just like with blood diamonds and sweatshop labor, the product isn’t so much the problem – but how we get it is, and consumers can have a positive effect.

In the Madre de Dios region of Peru, west of the majestic Andes Mountains, nearly 250,000 acres of rainforest – roughly the size of Dallas, Texas – have been razed or transformed into poison sand dunes and contaminated ponds by illegal gold mining since the 1980s. Read more here.

Luis Fernandez

Luis Fernandez

“These are the dense forests the world relies on to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and counteract climate change,” said Luis Fernandez, co-founder and executive director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA) in Madre de Dios.

The World Wildlife Fund’s recent Healthy Rivers, Healthy People report urges reducing the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining to protect the Amazon River system and the people and species that rely on it.

But every day, a multitude of artisanal gold miners uses mercury to tease tiny flakes of gold out of river sediment, a practice that intensified as gold prices surged during the Great Recession. The mining hasn’t abated since.

Miles Silman

Miles Silman

“Consumers can ask for sustainably sourced gold – which basically means vintage gold – when they’re shopping,” said Miles Silman, CINCIA associate director of science and Wake Forest’s Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Professor of Conservation Biology. “Although sellers haven’t developed a sustainable supply chain yet, they are interested in doing it.”

CINCIA scientists are working with the Peruvian government to determine how to take the mercury out of gold mining, and to make mining less damaging to people and landscapes. In the meantime, you can pay a little more for platinum jewelry or buy vintage gold jewelry – anything that doesn’t come from new illegal mining in the rainforest.

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Miles Silman

Director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and Professor of Biology

Silman has been a leader in the sustainability movement since beginning his doctoral research more than 20 years ago.

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