This scene is typical: A worker—maybe a woman with a baby strapped to her back and a toddler playing nearby—uses a prehistoric stone mill to grind recently extracted ore into a concentrated powder. Without gloves, she mixes the powder by hand in a slurry of mercury and water. The gold and mercury amalgamate as a metallic globule that shimmies across her gold pan. She pours the globule into a small metal container resting on a nearby fire; the mercury is burned off, leaving flakes of semi-pure gold and releasing poisonous vapours into the poorly ventilated work area.

Mercury is a neurotoxin. Exposure, especially when airborne particles are inhaled, can cause permanent lung and brain damage, and may lead to issues in muscle coordination, blindness, memory problems, and death. To minimize mercury exposure, Fairtrade and Fairmined standards require ASMOs to properly pre-process the ore (higher concentrations of gold can be processed with less mercury) and provide protective equipment such as retorts, which are devices that trap mercury vapours and allow the chemical to be reused.

Cyanide leaching might sound evil, but for larger ASMOs, it’s a cleaner and more efficient alternative to mercury amalgamation. But leaching requires a processing plant—a significant infrastructure investment—and solid management to ensure that used cyanide is properly detoxified through exposure to UV rays or oxygen, which renders it biodegradable. While it produces larger yields, cyanide leaching, which is the standard for major industrialized mining operations, takes longer and requires larger quantities of ore.

The Oro Verde mining program in the biologically diverse Chocó region in western Colombia uses traditional, chemical-free techniques to process ore from alluvial deposits in the rainforest and along riverbeds. By committing to gold panning and gravimetric separation, which uses centrifuges and sluice boxes to separate the gold (techniques handed down from the original Afro-Colombian communities of the Chocó), Oro Verde miners receive additional ecological premiums for their gold. Oro Verde has committed to preventing soil erosion and restoring the rainforest affected by their mining activity—making the program a leader in producing fair and environmentally responsible gold. The Afro-Colombians of the Chocó are given land-access rights by the Colombian government, but despite this formal recognition, the region is inundated with illegal mining operations, which use heavy machinery to decimate the rainforest with little regard for the Chocó’s inhabitants and ecosystems.

According to an August 2013 report by New York–based Human Rights Watch, thousands of Tanzanian children, some as young as eight, work in ASM. They work underground, hauling heavy bags of ore, processing gold by hand with mercury, and working long shifts—up to 24 hours. Some earn sustainable wages, but the gold they extract is worth much, much more. These child miners are often orphans, forced into work to feed themselves and their families. Girls who work in the mines face sexual harassment, as well as the physical hazards of the job. In the Chunya and Kahama districts of Tanzania, girls are pressured into the sex trade, putting them at risk to contract HIV and other STIs, dragging them into the destructive cycle of commercial sexual exploitation.

Tanzania exported $2.17 billion worth of gold in 2012, making it the third largest producer in Africa. Gold is the nation’s primary revenue earner, and the government recognizes the issue of child labour within in its small-scale mining industry. But inconsistent inspection protocol and limited resources prevent its initiatives from being properly enacted and enforced. Launched with the best of intentions, the National Action Plan on the Elimination of Child Labour, which aims to rid the sector of all child labour, and the National Strategic Plan for Mercury Management, which mandates health initiatives to treat mercury-related illnesses and requires registration for ASMOs using mercury, have failed to impact the issues. When inspections for child labour do occur, the inspectors send away the smaller children, but they fail to properly determine ages of older children or conduct follow-up visits. This means the small children who were sent away return to the mines once the inspectors leave.

Other factors drive children to the mines, including a faulty education system. Tanzanian primary schools, which are supposedly free to attend, often demand illegal fees, and the high cost of secondary schools and sparse opportunities for vocational training make mining one of the few employment options for many Tanzanian young people. A lack of a proper support system for orphans also contributes to child labour. Among other recommendations, Human Rights Watch stated that the increased formalization of ASM, along with proper inspection and enforcement, would do much to improve the child-labour rate in the African nation.

Through a funding partnership with Comic Relief, FLO is guiding nine east African ASMOs toward Fairtrade certification, aiming to have some of these mines meeting standards by the end of 2015. A September 2013 report in the Guardian describes the improvements already underway at an ASMO in northwest Tanzania, the Ilani mine, which has worked with FLO to ban child labour, make safety equipment mandatory, and halt the open-air processing of mercury-gold amalgam. Harriet Lamb, chief executive at FLO, says in the article, “Fairtrade is not something where you can click your fingers and magically start paying farmers and miners, but they have started to tackle their problems.” According to the Guardian piece, an important step is the creation of a supply chain to connect the African ASMOs to markets in Europe and North America, similar to the ones established through the work of FLO and ARM in South America.

High in the barren Atacama Desert of Peru, fair gold is being extracted, processed, and exported directly to North American and European jewellers. The AURELSA mining cooperative has been certified Fairmined since May 2012, and has built a direct-trading relationship with a group of United States–based jewellers, the Ethical Metalsmiths Consortium. This relationship allows AURELSA to export fair gold directly into the United States, broadening its market and reducing its reliance on intermediaries. The knowledge and experience gained through certification has also allowed AURELSA to help other regional ASMOs; the co-operative holds workshops and trains miners to better manage their finances and understand the nuances of exporting gold—skills that weren’t practiced when gold was sold to middlemen.

To achieve Fairmined certification, the 86 shareholders, who include nine women, devised a long-term development plan for the mine and the community of Relave, a town of 4,000 supported by the mine. AURELSA has made efforts to improve gender equality, and Fairmined Premiums have financed the opening of jewellery workshops in town, where women make a living outside the mine, giving them flexible schedules and rewarding projects. AURELSA has also used premiums to build an industrial park outside of Relave, moving mining activities away from their homes and children.

But how does a product like gold, with its multiple stages of processing and refining, maintain its fair provenance? Taylor explains his supply chain: “[Our refiner, Patrick Schein,] purchases the gold, then he gets the certification documentation on the weight and the assay. Then it is taken back to France. It’s put through its own process. It’s weighed again. It’s assayed again. That documentation is provided back to ARM and Fairtrade, and then it’s shipped to us with a weight and an assay, and we document when we build with it again… how much we used and for what project. And it’s actually tracked, for us, down to the consumer.”

Operating in an abandoned American hard-rock mine in the Atacama desert, the SOTRAMI mining organization employs 300 workers and supports 500 families. Miners work underground wearing orange hardhats and personal ventilators, safely breaking apart veins of ore with explosives and pneumatic drills. SOTRAMI was established in 1989 and had already made significant efforts to align with international labour standards and eliminate child labour when it began working toward Fairtrade and Fairmined certification. One of the biggest challenges faced by SOTRAMI is the region’s poor water supply, which limits the options for processing ore. To maintain Fairtrade and Fairmined certification (received in the spring of 2011), SOTRAMI will have to continue to make their gold as chemical-free as possible.

The nearby community of Santa Filomena has benefitted from the Fairtrade and Fairmined Premiums paid through SOTRAMI. They’ve opened a preschool for 140 local children, and hope to hire more teachers and improve the school’s water supply. SOTRAMI also employs 180 women, although none of them work in the tunnels. Rather, they sort ore for processing, raking through piles with a tool called a manito, or “little hand.” The women are members of the Pallaqueras association, established in 2003 to organize the workers in shifts, allowing them to work reasonable hours around their commitments to child care.

Since SOTRAMI and AURELSA are in the water-starved Atacama Desert, the opportunity to embrace processing methods that are less dependent on chemicals is limited. Gravimetric separation, in particular, demands significant amounts of water. At SOTRAMI, only trained workers chemically process the ore; this reduces the environmental impact and ensures safe disposal. The Fairtrade and Fairmined certifications require ASMOs to control emissions, limit dust and mud outflow, protect biodiversity, restore damaged ecology, reduce the use of toxic chemicals, and implement cleaner technologies wherever possible.

For ASMOs like SOTRAMI and AURELSA, the premiums paid through Fairtrade and Fairmined are their main incentive for certification; unlike smaller, less-formal ASMOs, these larger operations in South America usually receive fair market value for their gold. The cost to comply with Fairtrade and Fairmined certification can be as high as $100,000 over the course of two years. ASMOs seeking certification have to pay royalties and taxes; these are new and significant expenses. Other cost requirements for Fairtrade and Fairmined certification include formal contracts for all mine employees, social security payments, safety equipment and training, and upgrades to processing systems.

The jewellery industry represents billions of dollars. “If we can divert some of that money down to these communities for education, healthcare, supporting women in the workforce, and doing micro-financing—this is exciting stuff, and that sort of 

In April of 2013, with its price hovering around US$1,550, gold experienced its largest one-day dollar drop in over thirty years. But today, with three ASMOs certified to market Fairtrade and Fairmined gold, an additional Fairmined certified ASMO, and as many as 30 others in process, fair gold brings potential stability to producers. In fine-tuning their certification systems and standards, ARM and FLO

are transitioning to a fixed premium per gram, replacing the existing percentage-based system. This will benefit producers and buyers alike, giving both a steady platform from which to plan their businesses—an added buffer against the everfluctuating price of gold. Ideally, as more ASMOs become certified, formal recognition from governments should also increase. In addition to Europe and North America, Fairmined certified gold is being sold in Australia and Japan. Now, more than ever, through the work of ARM and FLO, impoverished workers can turn to ASM for an achievable economic future. It’s a future that requires hard work, something miners have always welcomed. But now they have a potential to receive 


“Prospecting Sustainability” was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2014 edition of


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