Last year, Americans spent almost $20 billion on Valentine’s Day – with about a quarter of that spending on jewelry.
While most jewelry shoppers now know to avoid conflict or blood diamonds, less is understood about the true cost of gold. There’s no romanticizing it – unless your sweetie longs for the gift of climate change, mercury poisoning or poverty, you owe it to your relationship to learn more about sustainable gold sourcing.
Scientists studying climate change say it’s a hidden consequence of the growing consumer demand for gold: Mining is doing irreversible damage to one of the world’s largest remaining pieces of tropical rainforest and threatening its survival. 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 an impact.
In the Madre de Dios region of Peru, east 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.
“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), a research center established in Madre de Dios through a partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).”
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, artisanal gold miners in Peru, seeking a steady income in a country where poverty rates are rising, use mercury to tease tiny flakes of gold out of river sediment. This practice intensified as gold prices surged during the great recession, and mining hasn’t abated since.
“Consumers can ask for sustainably sourced gold – which basically means vintage gold – when they’re shopping.” 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,” said Silman.
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.