The Shadow of Gold:
The cost of luxury

Choose your gold carefully for the sake of our planet

By Georges R. Dupras

All that glitters…

Recently I was asked to comment on global gold mining practices, and on a documentary called The Shadow of Gold. I was struck by the similarities that exist between that industry and others having a seemingly disproportionate impact on the natural environment. I am referring to the economics, transportation, environmental and health impact behind the production of gold, conflict diamonds, dirty oil (Bitumen) and others.

There are of course differences but the consequences to humans and the environment in the production of even small quantities of gold, are in a class apart. Though many people have some knowledge of the precious metals industry, few know the origins of the gold they are wearing.

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Jewellery fashion show in China

What is not generally known is that much like the diamond industry which has both, stones mined equitably and blood diamonds, there are also similar categories for gold.

Money laundering 101

Money from dirty gold does not go through the banking system and therefore no one knows how much currency from that production is out there (billions perhaps). There is no supply chain management with dirty gold and because of the lack of a paper trail, it is referred to as “money laundering 101”. This money is used to finance terrorism and civil wars (DCR Congo). In a few South American countries the value of illegal gold actually exceeds the value of the illegal drug trade. Due to Mafia interests, workers in both of these occupations risk injury, environmental violence, even death.

Work hazards

Mining for gold is hard and safety often sacrificed in the interest of profit. The mines are deep and treacherous; the biggest find was discovered two miles beneath the surface in South Africa. Even breathing masks, among the most obvious of protective equipment, are in short supply, if at all. Workers, mostly poor immigrants, suffer from a variety of lung ailments that can incapacitate them. When they are no longer able to work, there are no health benefits to fall back on. These lung ailments are frequently fatal.

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Gold miners in Peru

Health hazards

Mercury, the most powerful neurotoxin known to man, and widely used in the gold mining industry, is a health hazard to users and to the communities where gold miners work. It is a global pollutant impacting on fish including some used in making sushi, which is a current favourite. Along with the use of Cyanide it is one of the greatest hazards to both man and the natural environment.

Impact on natives in the Amazon (our greed, their need)

In the documentary The Shadow of Gold by Robert Lang, natives speak passionately about how their simple way of life has changed since the influx of thousands of gold prospectors. They complain that the Amazon basin cannot support the onslaught of miners trying to make a living. Their fear for the ecological viability of the Amazon drainage basin is justified. The basin covers an area of about 7,500,000 kilometres or some 40% of South America. Most of the basin is covered by the Amazon Rain Forest (Amazonia) and includes 5,500,000 kilometres of tropical forest.

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Aerial shot showing impact of artisanal mining on the Amazon Basin

This is a territory that sustains life. It is an ecology that once deforested will no longer produce the clean air we count on, and will undoubtedly damage one of the world’s largest freshwater supplies.

Natives in the Amazon have lived in that region as long as they can remember. They worked only to educate and feed their children. Much like their brothers in North America, they have now been expelled from their homeland by settlers.

North America

In at least one instance a tailing dam¹ containing 10 million cubic meters of drainage breached into the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. The residue is non- biodegradable and the area is now a wasteland. Clearly the Mount Polley breach, and subsequent damages to the Fraser, proves that the risks far outweigh the rewards. The first Nations people who fished the Fraser for salmon have been affected.

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Industrial-scale mining

Disproportionate return (For the few rich, there are many more poor)

In surface mining, water jets² are used in order to up-root rocks that contains small gold deposits. This has the same impact as clear cutting³ and results in the creation of some twenty tons of waste in order to produce just enough gold to make one small gold ring. When I say sacrificed I mean that the land is lost to re-forestation due to the use of mercury and sulphur cyanide employed in gold recovery (leaching). When an area has been exhausted or is no longer viable, mega operations simply abandon sites.

Gold deposits

The largest concentrations of gold deposits are located in Southern Australia, China, South Africa, Peru and in the Western United States of America. Gold can be found in rock, quartz, rivers and in river bends. Canadians should be concerned because 50% of all major mining companies (head offices) are based in Canada.

Economic greed “trumps” human rights

The value of gold has risen some 3000% in the past fifty years and only about 160 tons have been found worldwide. Mining by U.S. prospectors in the mid to late 1900s didn’t have the same devastating impact on the natural landscape as present day technology. That said, old family miners did clear large areas of trees in search of gold – the impact can still be witnessed today.

The nature for prospecting has changed with the discovery of ‘“mother loads” resulting in the increased use of heavy machinery, chemicals and technology.

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Digging for Gold in Democratic Republic of Congo where the Artisinal Gold Council is helping miners eliminate mercury

Moving forward – new technology

There is a place for the clean gold industry that will benefit all investors including native inhabitants. Clean gold differs in as much as it does not use harmful chemicals nor does it wash away precious topsoils. In many cases it is produced by small family operated groups and is monitored through banking institutions. Their viability can be seen in initiatives such as Just Gold, Fair Trade and the Artisanal Gold Council.


To turn this industry around, we need knowledge, patience and commitment. We must insist on knowing the origins of the gold being sold to us, no matter how small. This is not an inconvenience; this is an opportunity to reject current destructive practices.

By doing this, we develop a greater market for clean gold, predicated on artistic creation, self-expression and respect for both the people who produce it and the environment from which it originates.

Note: Information taken from The Shadow of Gold by Robert Lang and other sources

  1. Reservoirs used to contain spent liquids (drainage) from the mining process
  2. Aqua jets that can strip hillsides of trees and remove rich topsoil
  3. Washes away topsoil prior to the use of chemicals.

Feature image: gold jewellery in Shenzen, China
All images are frames from The Shadow of Gold, courtesy of Kensington Communications and Films à Cinq.

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Read also: other articles by Georges Dupras

Georges Dupras

Georges R. Dupras has advocated for animals for over fifty years. A member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a Director of the Animal Alliance of Canada (AAC), Quebec Representative of Zoocheck Canada and past Board member of the Canadian SPCA, he worked on the original Save the Seal campaign in 1966 that culminated in the founding of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 1969. Georges Dupras has published two books, Values in Conflict and the eBook Ethics, a Human Condition, and currently lives in Montreal, Canada.

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