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11 December 2023

Small-scale miners lured into market

By The New York Times Syndicate

Victoria Paxi used to live in Lima, the capital of Peru, working in a restaurant or washing clothes to earn about $60 (Dh220) a month, while her husband worked hours away in a mine. "It was expensive to live in Lima and when the opportunity came for women to be part of small-scale mining, it gave us a chance to live with our husbands," Paxi says.

Today Paxi is president of Gutierrez, a women's mining co-operative, and her family no longer lives apart.

"All of Peru is a mining country. In places where there are no jobs or education, it offers the only opportunity for the poor," says Paxi.

She earns $100 a month helping sift for gold and says mining gives the poor and unskilled a chance to earn an income.

According to Cleotilde Chuquicondo, part of another women's mining cooperative called Esperanza (Hope), many in Peru were internally displaced after intense fighting in the 1980s.

"Those who worked in agriculture lost their land but have since found refuge in mining," says Chuquicondo.

Gold is a multi-billion dollar global industry that conjures up images of glitz, glamour and wealth. However, it is also a business that hides an underbelly of exploitation and environmental damage.

In resource-rich Peru, a miner can work 12 hours a day and still struggle to bring home $50 a month. On top of that, a simple 10-gram gold wedding ring can create up to three tonnes of toxic waste.

While the movie Blood Diamond has helped create some awareness of the exploitation of miners, little has actually changed within the jewellery industry. According to the International Labour Organisation, more than 100 million people depend on small-scale mining as a seasonal way of earning an income.

Every year 60 tonnes of gold, approximately $1bn worth, is produced by miners who almost never get a fair share of the profits.

However, a number of organisations are hoping to change all that by bringing ethically-sourced precious metals to the market.

"Fair trade will create more environmentally-sound living conditions, and additional money from a premium will allow us to create women's shelters and support groups in our community," says Paxi.

The pioneering Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) was formed in 2004 to show that a transparent supply chain can be created. ARM is not only helping improve environmental, social, labour and economic standards in mining, but also help facilitate small-scale miners to enter international markets.

The organisation has partnered with Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) to create the world's first international fair-trade certification system for gold. In 1996, long before ARM was formed, its co-founder Greg Valerio created Cred Jewellery and began advocating transparent sourcing of gold.

"The poor have access to less than 20 per cent of the world's resources and this hasn't changed for decades. But these statistics don't mean anything. Fair trade has become a vehicle to communicate this reality," says Valerio.

Providing education alone was not enough; he wanted to prove that you could successfully sell a high-end product, while creating job opportunities for communities.

"I wanted to sell a product where the skills and quality assurance are there and not just something people would buy out of guilt, you cannot build a major business that way. We had been calling for a transparent source of gold since 1997, but there wasn't one to be found," he explains.

That was true until 1999 when social entrepreneur Catalina Cock and a group of friends set out to create a certification system for ethically-sourced metals. Her efforts soon gained international attention with several groups joining forces in order to improve mining conditions worldwide.

"Getting a call from Catalina was a real breakthrough as the market finally began to connect with the source," says Valerio.

Cock's work began while trying to stop the Pan-American Highway from being built in the volatile rain forest region of Chocó in Colombia. Her group, Amichoco Foundation, quickly realised that mining was creating the biggest environmental problems for the area.

Although the region was rich in gold and one of the few places in the world where platinum can be panned, the local population lived in poverty while rampant deforestation, along with water, soil and air contamination, damaged the environment.

Uncertified miners were renting pieces of land for nominal amounts of money and often left it so polluted from mercury and cyanide that the local people were no longer able to farm.

"On the global context, there was no existing certification for metals or gems. Nobody was talking about a socially- and environmentally-responsible supply chain for gold," says Cock.

Almost a decade ago, not only did Cock help develop Oro Verde (Green Gold), the first certification system for 'environmentally-friendly' metals, she led the creation of ARM as a mechanism to scale up and adapt the Oro Verde initiative to other regions around the world.

Through a certification scheme, and by providing economic incentives, the people of Chocó were encouraged to take up mining themselves rather than rent out their land to others that would not treat it responsibly and reap its profits.

Community members were taught how to do traditional and more responsible mining practices using no mercury or cyanide, land restoration techniques and water management.

Ervin Renteria, a miner from the Chocó region, is part of a local non-governmental organisation called Fundamojarras that was one of the first to work with the Oro Verde programme. He comes from a mining family and says working with Oro Verde gave him a different vision on the responsibility miners have to their land.

"It is especially relevant in Chocó where protecting the land is very important since people make a living from mining, fishing and agriculture. Bad mining practices create so much pollution that many are no longer able to farm or fish," he says.

More than 1,400 miners have joined the programme which has helped protect over 7,900 hectares of land from the impact of conventional mining.

While not all miners are part of Oro Verde, Renteria says that many are becoming better organised and moving in the direction of responsible mining

by no longer burning mercury, using retorts and taking part in land restoration projects.

In 2007, ARM began nine pilot projects in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia as a mechanism to adapt and replicate the Oro Verde scheme. It has also given small-scale miners from different South American countries a chance to learn from one another.

"In Bolivia and Peru, there is a formalised sector for artisanal mining. We are aiming to create that in Colombia too but the progress has been slow," says Renteria. ARM has set out to demonstrate that responsible mining can happen in all different contexts from indigenous Afro-Colombian communities in a tropical area like Chocó to a small community mining in the middle of a Peruvian desert and it has chosen to expand the Oro Verde criteria to include social, labour and economic factors as well.