American school children learn all about the U.S. gold rush in the Western part of the country. Goldmining was a speculative, but potentially highly rewarding endeavor and attracted, almost exclusively, adult men. But the entrepreneurship of gold mining (though not mining as wage work) is long gone in the U.S. Still, gold is in high demand: “The price of gold, which stood at $271 an ounce on September 10, 2001, hit $1,023 in March 2008, and it may surpass that threshold again” (source). Who are the gold entrepreneurs today? Where? Under what economic conditions do they work? And with what environmental impact?
I found hints to answers in a recent Boston.com slide show and a National Geographic article (thanks to Allison for her tip in the comments). While there is still some gold mining in the U.S., there is gold mining, also, in developing countries and all kinds of people participate:
According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), there are between 10 million and 15 million so-called artisanal miners around the world, from Mongolia to Brazil. Employing crude methods that have hardly changed in centuries, they produce about 25 percent of the world’s gold and support a total of 100 million people…
Environmentally, gold is especially destructive. The ratio of gold to earth moved is larger than in any other mining endeavor.
It makes me rethink whether I really want to buy gold (because, you know, I do that constantly, darling, constantly). In fact, jewelry accounts for two-thirds of the demand. In the comments, HP reminds me:
Gold (along with even more problematic metals) is found in pretty much all consumer electronics. It’s in your computer, your cellphone, your .mp3 player, your TV/stereo, etc. You’re buying gold all the time already, whether you know it or not.
Below are images of gold prospecting around the world.
Near Lodwar, Kenyan children mine for gold to help support their families:
In Colombia, about 8,000 prospectors seek gold illegally on the Dagau river:
Miners in Abangares, Costa Rica, scrape tiny amounts of gold out of abandoned mines; the work is dangerous and potentially toxic:
An illegal gold mine in a national park, Paral, Brazil:
This woman, in Indonesia, is collecting mud to sift for gold:
Also in Indonesia, this illegal mine is opposed by villagers who argue that the waste is polluting:
Mining in Myanmar:
UPDATE! A reader, Heather Leila, linked to a picture she took of gold prospecting in Suriname (at her own blog). She writes:
The gold mines aren’t what you are thinking. They aren’t underground, you don’t carry a pick axe and a helmet. The garimpos are where the miners have dammed a creek and created large mud pits. The mud is pumped through a long pipe lined with mercury. The mercury attaches itself to the specks of gold and gets filtered out as the mud is poured into a different pit. The mercury is then burned off, while the gold remains. This is how it was explained to me. From the plane, they are exposed patches of yellow earth dotting the endless forest.
See also our posts on post-oil boom life and gorgeous photos of resource extraction by Edward Burtynsky.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.