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Dirty Gold

Worldwide demand for gold has unleashed a torrent of illegal mining, human rights abuses, and environmental destruction. What can be done to clean up gold’s dirty international record?

Climbing prices for gold have sparked a growing wave of illegal mining, leaving illicit activity and abuses in its wake. From the Amazon to Sub-Saharan Africa, drug trafficking and organized crime connected to gold prospecting is on the rise. Gold-producing regions too often suffer from weak governing bodies and scant oversight, which means lax protections for workers, environmental degradation, and local corruption.

Professor Mark Pieth joins Altamar to help shed light on the gold industry’s intricate labyrinth of miners, bankers, traffickers, and enablers – and how to clean it up. Pieth is the head of Basel University’s Institute on Governance, a research and policy institute he founded that explores methods to challenge abuses of power in international settings and the private sector. Pieth is also a Professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Basel, and was previously an international and national regulator, defense lawyer, and judge. He is moreover the author of a recent book on the gold industry, Gold Laundering: The Dirty Secrets of the Gold Trade and How to Clean Up.

As Pieth explains, things quickly become complicated when talking about the illicit gold market: “The actual problem is, you have illegal, really organized crime or warlords controlling the gold market… you have lots of informal, let’s say simply not officially registered, miners.” On both large and small scales, miners are considered illegal when they fail to get proper permits, work in environmentally protected areas, fail to pay taxes or employ workers under-the-table without contracts. And illegally mined gold commands a serious share of the market. In the case of Latin America, for example, experts estimate that one third of the region’s exported gold is mined illegally. 

In 2019, the price of gold bullion surged to its highest rate in six years. While the gold trade is insanely lucrative, the cost to local communities is often devastating. When mining for gold, mercury is mixed with the precious metal to help remove any natural impurities. The two elements react and emit noxious fumes into the air, leftover mercury seeps into soil and local waterways. Exposure has been linked to cancer, neurological damage, shock – and even death.

According to Pieth, violence tends to follow gold mining productions close behind, resulting in “a whole plethora of different human rights problems.” In many countries, cartels with massive earnings from the illegal drug trade buy gold to further diversify their profit portfolios. In terms of organized crime, “Colombia is at the forefront at the moment where the peace process has actually created a lot of so-called bandas criminales, criminal gangs, and if you talk about conflict, it’s enough to go to Darfur in Sudan. You have lots and lots of people being killed over fights over gold.” And though one might expect large-scale, industrial gold mining to face more stringent regulations, there’s often little oversight as well: “You frequently have a kind of land grabbing, you have expropriation without adequate remuneration of indigenous populations, or you have toxic waste… And you have, as a consequence of all that, conflict with local communities.”

Ultimately, Pieth argues that pursuing binding legal standards will help ensure that more gold is produced ethically worldwide. The OECD, for example, has a legal framework to safeguard against malpractice in the gold industry – the problem is that it’s completely voluntary: “These rules are not really taking root, they’re not really translated because the people, the independent evaluators who should secure the whole system, they’re not up to it… governments are very slow to do something very meaningful because they’re trying to protect their economic interests.”

Learn more about the black market behind the world’s gold trade – available for download here.

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