Take a moment to admire the way the light catches your gold necklace. The chances are that anyone who has bought gold jewellery is connected to the so-called “dirty” gold trade.
Similar to the controversy surrounding blood diamonds, there is no way to trace how gold is produced, leaving many mining companies free to put their workers’ lives at risk and pollute the air and water.
An Irish Examiner investigation into conditions for miners in the west African country of Ghana has found that the trail of gold from the miners’ mercury-tainted hands leads to jewellery sold here.
From the hands of the illegally employed miners, the gold is passed to Ghanaian government buyers, who turn it into gold bars. These are sold to a major European refinery, which in turn supplies gold to the Irish market.
Irish jewellery manufacturers deny any responsibility for buying dirty gold and stress it is a matter of trusting the larger gold refineries and suppliers.
There are major concerns amid claims of bloody brutality being perpetrated by mining companies, the environmental destruction of villages and the spread of mining-related diseases.
As the price of gold surged last year, international attention finally turned to the negative effects of the gold mining industry. Non-Governmental Organisations in Europe and in Ghana want a traceability system put in place.
The Ghanaian government has been accused of turning a blind eye to the hazards and often fatal impacts of the industry.
What our investigation in Ghana has uncovered is shocking: families displaced from their farms and bought out by mining companies are having to risk their lives in the shafts to survive.
It is estimated there could be up to half a million small-scale and illegal miners in the country. Many of these poor gold miners, known locally as “galamsey”, dig illegally on concessions owned by large mining companies in extremely dangerous conditions, often coming into conflict with security guards.
One of the biggest risks the miners face is the common use of mercury which helps extract the gold from the ore. The toxic metal can cause tremors, speech impediments, retardation, kidney damage and blindness.
Life in the mines is harsh. Men, women and children roam the dusty orange mounds dragging sacks of rock and pots of rich soil from the dusty tunnel entrances that dot the outskirts of the Ghanaian town of Obuasi.
Red-eyed and tired, artisan miners have been digging through the night and into the day. This is the life of a galamsey, chiselling away hundreds of feet below ground for the elusive precious metal.
The galamsey pay little heed to the daily threat of disease, fatal accidents and violence that come with the trade.
Perhaps the gold on your finger or around your neck has a bigger price than the tag in the jeweller’s window may have suggested.
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