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‘Ethical gold’ seen to open doors for small miners

/ 04:41 PM December 24, 2011

BAGUIO CITY—While visiting Japan a few years ago, Dr. Victor Maglambayan, a geologist and researcher, found out that there was a growing trend for what is called “ethical jewelry.”

He notes that, as with coffee and other products, discussions about fair trade in the jewelry business have been gaining ground in other countries.

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“In one of my early visits to Japan, I realized that the green trend has already taken hold even for gold, especially for gold produced by small-scale miners,” says Maglambayan, division manager for exploration of Philex Mining Exploration.

He was relating this story when he spoke about small-scale mining in the Philippines during the 58th annual national mine safety and environment conference held in Baguio early this month.

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Blood diamonds

“The traditionally wealthier countries in the world have shown concern for problems associated with small-scale mining by preferring jewelry that is untainted by issues normally associated with small-scale miners like child labor, use of toxic substances and other environmentally hazardous practices,” he says.

Maglambayan says this trend is not much different from the phenomenon of “blood diamonds” in an earlier time in some African countries. Blood diamonds are those extracted using slave labor enforced through kidnappings and other illegal means.

He cites examples of ethical jewelry companies such as Cartier and Fifi Bijoux in France, and Hasuna jewelry in Japan.

This trend, he says, is in its infancy in Latin America, especially in Colombia where an association of small-scale miners (Asociacion por la Mineria Responsable, or ARM) is based.

Standard zero

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The ARM is pushing a “standard zero,” which is a process to certify gold, silver and platinum that conforms with the following standards:

Gold and gemstones are from socially and environmentally responsible mines.

They are fairly traded, ensuring miners receive a fair price for the goods (and employees are paid over the local minimum wage).

No child and forced labor or exploitative practices are used in the mining, refining or trading of the gold and gemstones.

The gold mines operate an eco-sustainability program—no chemicals are used (for example, cyanide, mercury or arsenic).

Topsoil is replaced.

Maglambayan was unsure if the trend for “green jewelry” and fairly traded minerals had taken hold in the Philippines.

“But in the context of our national minerals policy, where the development of downstream industries is encouraged … one direction [may] need our attention,” he says.

Research initiatives in looking for ways to produce and to promote “ethical gold” to benefit small-scale miners are apparently lacking, he says.

Mercury use

For example, Maglambayan says, he found it ironic that studies to help solve the problem of mercury use by Filipino small-scale miners had been started by a few foreign researchers.

While the Philippines often remains in the “fact-finding mode,” foreign researchers have already progressed to “problem-solving mode,” he says.

Maglambayan cites initiatives by Dr. Peter Appel of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, who documented the extent of mercury use in the small-scale mine sites in Zamboanga del Norte and Camarines Norte.

Armed with what he found, Appel collaborated with the Department of Science and Technology, the University of the Philippines-National Institute of Geological Sciences (UP-NIGS), the Federation of Benguet Small-Scale Miners and other researchers.

Appel’s earlier campaign was to propagate the use of borax instead of mercury, says Maglambayan, who served as UP-NIGS director from 2001 to 2004.

“Aside from helping clean up the process of small-scale miners, this may have economic benefits,” says Maglambayan.

“Consider how much gold can be recovered from the mercury that can be recovered from the tailings. If it becomes successful, maybe large mining companies may show more interest in small-scale miners’ activities finally.”

International agencies concerned with development see artisanal, or small-scale mining, as a way to help uplift the plight of poor rural folk, says Maglambayan.

He cites the Communities and Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (CASM) group, an international network for information-sharing covering a range of issues involving pocket miners.

It was launched in 2001 with funding by the World Bank and other major donors such as the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom and the government of Denmark.

Maglambayan says the Philippines belonged to the CASM-Asia sector. The two other regional groups are CASM China and CASM Africa.

One country frequently cited for  alleviating the conditions of small-scale miners is Mongolia, says Maglambayan.

Mongolia’s Sustainable Artisanal Mining (SAM) project, which is supported by the Swiss government, has produced a mercury-free gold processing plant in Bornuur province after its small-scale miners were gathered into a cooperative.

“I heard that its success is being duplicated in other small-scale mine sites now,” says Maglambayan.

Records provided at the mining conference here showed some seven to 10 million people are engaged in small-scale mining around the world. These include those who mine for diamonds, coal, gemstones and other resources.

In the Philippines, the Environmental Management Bureau has estimated 300,000 small-scale miners. In Benguet alone, at least 16,000 people are involved in the trade.

Maglambayan says small-scale mining “should be engaged constructively as the problems in this sector impact largely on mining companies.”

“Small-scale mining is a reality in the Philippines because it is driven by poverty and the lack of opportunities,” he says.

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TAGS: ethical gold, Jewelry, small mining
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