Are You Buying ‘Dirty' Gold Jewelry?

Illegal mining is destroying wildlife habitat in one of the most biologically important places on the planet.
Sep 5, 2014·
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Before you buy something made of gold, you might want to ask yourself a question: Were any animals harmed in the making of this product? If the gold came from illegal, small-scale “artisanal mining” in places such as Costa Rica, the answer could very well be yes.

Unauthorized gold mining in protected wildlife areas such as Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park is not only degrading the land and water but harming the plants and animals that live there, according to biologists.

The fight to stop gold mining in Corcovado to protect endangered wildlife is featured in the next episode of The Operatives, a new television series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. (A preview is above.)

Corcovado is teeming with wildlife, including jaguars, ocelots, anteaters, sloths, and scarlet macaws. The vast park contains 3 percent of the planet’s animals and half of Costa Rica’s animal and insect species, prompting National Geographic to call it “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”

Illegal gold mining, while a source of income for poor, rural people in developing nations, is deadly to animals and their habitats.

Most artisanal miners run sediments excavated from streams and riverbeds through a large sieve and then dump the waste on the landscape after gold is extracted. Miners often divert rivers to increase flow through their sieves and build tunnels, dams, and canals to boost water pressure.

Such large-scale waterway manipulation and dredging of sand and gravel has resulted in landsides and massive areas of sediment buildup within Corcovado. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that 80 percent of all landslides there are mining-related. Those landslides and tree clearing on riverbanks create temperature and light fluctuations that disturb a delicately balanced ecosystem.

A study sponsored by the WWF found that just two miners can poison as much as six miles of a medium-size stream. Such heavy damage, the report said, transforms streams into “liquid deserts” that can take between 10 to 1,000 years to fully recover.

“Erosion caused by the mining mechanical process asphyxiates the rivers and living things in them,” Alejandra Monge, executive director of the Corcovado Foundation, said in an email. “Therefore fish, crabs, otters, and other fauna are affected by the stream degradation.”

Then there is the mercury.

The cheap but toxic metal is widely used in processing artisanal gold. The byproduct, elemental mercury, enters the water system, where microscopic organisms convert it into organic methylmercury, which then is eaten by fish, traveling up the food chain to humans.

“Birds and mammals that eat fish are more exposed to methylmercury than any other animals in water ecosystems,” states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. “Similarly, predators that eat fish-eating animals are at risk.”

If methylmercury exposure doesn’t kill fish, it can reduce their fertility and disrupt endocrine systems.

Illegal mining also leads to more people living and hunting in Corcovado’s protected but vulnerable paradise.

“The main impact is the presence of illegal humans polluting, defecating, cutting trees to make their camps, and hunting to eat,” Monge said. “Sometimes, they even bring their hunting dogs in order to make it easier for them to find prey. So illegal gold miners have a direct impact on fauna, especially white-lipped peccary, wild turkey, and in some cases the spider monkey, in order to feed their hunting dogs.”

Illegally mined gold, often trafficked by organized crime groups, is typically mixed with legitimately acquired gold, making it nearly impossible for consumers to know whether their jewelry and bullion are “dirty.” In August, the United Nations announced that it will conduct a global study of illicitly obtained precious metals.