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Gold Mining and its Environmental Impact

Gold has been regarded as a noble metal ever since the dawn of civilization. Soft yet precious, its properties have made it valuable and desirable. Wars have been fought, voyages have been made, new places discovered – all for the sake of Gold. Its power can be understood by the fact that it can change the fortune of its possessor.  We measure persons and other objects in terms of gold to judge their importance in our lives (phrases such as ‘heart of gold’ ‘liquid gold’ ‘green gold’ present in our daily vocabulary).

The epithet ‘Bird of Gold’ highlights the fact that India’s riches attracted people from distant shores, keen to engage in trade and commerce. However much of this wealth dwindled by the time we gained independence from foreign rule. At present the supply of gold from local goldmines is small and hence, gold is imported from other countries.

It is necessary to examine the impact of gold mining in countries that export gold to India.


Gold mining remains one of the dirtiest industries in the world; it is responsible for polluted waterways, decimated forests and displaced communities in many parts of the world.

A single gold ring generates, on average, 20 tons of mine waste. Mining is the leading cause of pollution in the U.S. The average large gold mine uses 1,900 tons of cyanide per year.

Modern industrial gold mining destroys landscapes and creates huge amounts of toxic waste. Due to the use of dirty practices such as open pit mining and cyanide heap leaching, mining companies generate about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring. The waste, usually a gray liquid sludge, is laden with deadly cyanide and toxic heavy metals. 

Many gold mines dump their toxic waste directly into natural water bodies. The Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea dumps over 5 million tons of toxic waste into the Pacific Ocean each year, destroying corals and other ocean life. Companies mining for gold and other metals in total dump at least 180 million tons of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans each year—more than 1.5 times the waste that U.S. cities send to landfills on a yearly basis.

To limit the environmental damage, mines often construct dams and place the toxic waste inside. But these dams do not necessarily prevent contamination of the surrounding environment. Toxic waste can easily seep into soil and groundwater, or be released in catastrophic spills. At the world’s estimated 3,500 dams built to hold mine waste, one or two major spills occur every year.

Toxic waste spills have had devastating consequences in Romania, China, Ghana, Russia, Peru, South Africa, and other countries. In 2014, a dam collapsed at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in British Columbia, sending about 25 million cubic meters of cyanide-laden waste into nearby rivers and lakes—enough to fill about 9,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The spill poisoned water supplies, killed fish, and harmed local tourism. 

Acid Mine Drainage

Dirty gold mining often leads to a persistent problem known as acid mine drainage. The problem results when underground rock disturbed by mining is newly exposed to air and water. Iron sulfides (often called “fool’s gold”) in the rock can react with oxygen to form sulfuric acid. Acidic water draining from mine sites can be 20 to 300 times more concentrated than acid rain, and it is toxic to living organisms

The dangers increase when this acidic water runs over rocks and strips out other embedded heavy metals. Rivers and streams can become contaminated with metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and iron. Cadmium has been linked to liver disease, while arsenic can cause skin cancer and tumors. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and impaired development in children. Iron is less dangerous, although it gives rivers and streams a slimy orange coating and the smell of rotten eggs.

Once acid mine drainage starts, it is difficult to stop. Acidic waters flowing from abandoned mines can raise acidity levels and destroy aquatic life for generations. Roman mining sites in England are still causing acid mine drainage more than 2000 years later.

Mercury Pollution

The use of mercury in gold mining is causing a global health and environmental crisis. Mercury, a liquid metal, is used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining to extract gold from rock and sediment. Unfortunately, mercury is a toxic substance that wreaks havoc on miners’ health, not to mention the health of the planet.

For every gram of gold produced, artisanal gold miners release about two grams of mercury into the environment. Together, the world’s 10 to 15 million artisanal gold miners release about 1000 tons of mercury into the environment each year, or 35 percent of man-made mercury pollution. Artisanal gold mining is actually among the leading causes of global mercury pollution, ahead of coal-fired power plants.

When mercury enters the atmosphere or reaches rivers, lakes, and oceans, it can travel across great distances. About 70 percent of the mercury deposited in the United States is from international sources. Still more mercury reaches the United States through imported fish. Once it reaches a resting place, mercury is not easily removed. Sediments on the floor of San Francisco Bay remain contaminated with mercury left by the California gold rush of the 19th century.

Mercury is extremely harmful to human health. The amount of vapor released by mining activities has been proven to damage the kidneys, liver, brain, heart, lungs, colon, and immune system. Chronic exposure to mercury may result in fatigue, weight loss, tremors, and shifts in behavior. In children and developing fetuses, mercury can impair neurological development.

Destroying the Amazon

A gold mining boom is accelerating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a biologically diverse ecosystem that acts as a check on global warming. Artisanal, or small-scale, gold miners are tearing down the forest to access the rich gold deposits beneath. One study found that deforestation rates in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon have increased six-fold due to gold mining.

Gold mining is also responsible for releasing large amounts of mercury into the Amazon’s air and water. The mercury is poisoning plants, animals, fish, and people. In one city in the Peruvian Amazon, unsafe mercury levels were recorded in 80 percent of local residents. The gold mining boom does not bode well for the Amazon or the people, both locally and globally, who depend on it.

As more accessible deposits of gold and other metals are depleted, mining companies are increasingly looking to mine in environmentally sensitive areas, including rain forests, forest reserves, and fragile mountain environments. Areas protected for cultural or historical reasons have also come under threat from mining. Such areas can never be fully restored to their pre-mining conditions, even with appropriate reclamation measures. In some cases, mining companies have sought to overturn local or national protected area designations in order to pursue development of valuable deposits.


Labor practices in gold mining are often far from responsible. Most gold miners work in dangerous conditions and earn so little money that they live in poverty. The most vulnerable gold miners are the youngest. Globally, about 600,000 children are gold miners


Although gold mining can be a path to riches, for most miners it leads to grinding poverty. About 15 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are artisanal, or small-scale, gold miners. These miners use simple techniques to mine for gold, such as panning in riverbeds or digging makeshift tunnels. Unfortunately, very few of them earn a decent living.

Gold discoveries are sporadic and uncertain. The gold that is found may be split among workers or shared with village elders. Because most artisanal gold mining is unregulated, miners have few legal protections. Most lack the bargaining power to get a fair price for their gold. As the gold industry earns record profits, many gold miners struggle to meet basic needs like food and shelter.

Gold miners working for large companies can be exploited too. Wages and working conditions can be abysmal, and miners are often prohibited from organizing to defend their rights. In South Africa, some gold miners working for major corporations earn very low pay. They live in shantytowns with no electricity or running water in their homes.

Gold mining companies have traditionally disregarded labor concerns, favoring profits over worker rights and safety.

Workplace Safety

Hundreds of thousands of gold miners worldwide are slowly poisoning themselves. Mercury is the gold extraction agent most often used by artisanal gold miners. But mercury is a toxic substance, and miners regularly exposed to it may suffer health problems including kidney disease, respiratory ailments, and neurological damage.

In addition, because small-scale gold mining is poorly regulated and many miners lack safety equipment and expertise, accidents occur all the time. Landslides and tunnel collapses can injure miners or bury them alive in a single moment. In 2013, a tragic gold mine collapse in the Darfur region of Sudan killed 100 gold miners. Smaller accidents happen frequently too.

Safety is also a problem at gold mines run by large companies. In 2014, nine workers at a South African gold mine died when a rock fall triggered a fire. Thousands of former gold miners in South Africa also now suffer from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust that leads to tuberculosis.

Reports of gold mining accidents in China repeatedly surface in the international press. In 2013, for example, a massive landslide at a gold mine in Tibet buried 83 mine workers. Across all types of mining in China, including coal mining, more than 1,000 people die in accidents each year. 

Child Labor

About 600,000 children worldwide, some as young as five years old, work as artisanal gold miners. These children suffer immeasurably from a practice that exploits them and violates their rights.

Children do many of the same tasks as adults: panning in streams, digging tunnels, and hauling and crushing ore. But because their bodies are still developing, they are more likely to be injured, sickened, or killed.  Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of mercury, used in the gold extraction process. When child miners are exposed to mercury for prolonged periods, they may develop neurological damage and other serious health problems.

Child laborers often receive lower pay than adults for the same work. Some receive no pay at all. Many children also work full-time and do not attend school. Their right to an education denied, many of these children will have little choice but to keep working in the mines as adults.

Informed Consent & Respect of Sacred Places

Communities around the world are increasingly resisting mine development that is carried out without their free, prior, and informed consent. The concept of FPIC, which gives communities a significant role in decision-making about a project that would affect them, is rooted in international human rights law, such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, and is also recognized by several national governments. The World Bank, an important financial backer of mining projects, now recognizes what some see as a weaker form of FPIC, called “broad community support,” in its policies.

Under FPIC, a mine cannot begin operations, or expand existing ones, without the consent of local communities. Indigenous peoples and local communities argue that respect for FPIC is essential for protecting their ways of life and for ensuring that they play a meaningful role in determining the sort of development that is most appropriate in their area. For indigenous peoples, respect for FPIC is also a critical means of protecting sacred sites and lands that hold important cultural, spiritual, and historical significance and that make up a critical component of their indigenous identity.

Mining to be conducted in conflict-free zones

As in the case of “blood diamonds,” gold has fueled violent conflicts in parts of Africa and the Pacific. In Africa, the struggle for control of lucrative gold deposits has contributed to violence among armed factions. In at least one situation, a gold-mining company provided financial and logistical assistance to armed groups. In 2015, the decision of Ghana’s central bank to restrict gold exports brought the issue of conflict gold into the limelight. Industry observers say some of the conflict gold is being routed to various refiners, including some in India. Conflict gold is mined illegally or by employing child labour or using illicit means of mining. Funds generated by such means are used to support military, war or illegal activities. The issue of conflict diamonds has largely been addressed by making a Kimberley certificate a must.

Conflict gold started entering India due to the import duty differential. In 2015, conflict gold imports in India in dore form was estimated at 30-35 tonnes, valued at around Rs 8,000 crore.

Conflict gold is not confined to Ghana. Money made from gold mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being used for funding armed groups and corrupt members of the Congolese military, according to a report released by the US Government Accountability Office.

On Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville Island, concerns among local populations about mining’s negative environmental impacts and lack of community benefits led a local group to take up arms and, ultimately, precipitated a civil war.

The Aftermath of Mine Closure

Given the enormous environmental footprint of large, open-pit mines, properly closing down and cleaning up such mine sites can be extraordinarily expensive, running into billions of dollars in some cases. All too frequently, mining companies do not provide adequate bonds or funds for cleanup and governments are left with a massive cleanup bill when mining companies leave the site or go bankrupt. This is particularly worrying in developing countries, where laws on mine closure rarely exist and where cash-strapped governments often simply do not have the resources, capacity, or political will to ensure that mine closure costs will be covered adequately. This is also a serious problem in the US, where taxpayers face the potential of more than $1 billion in unfunded cleanup costs for mine sites in the western part of the country.

Lesson for India

India is planning to revive a cluster of colonial-era gold mines—shut for 15 years but with an estimated $2.1 billion worth of deposits left—as the world’s second-largest importer of the metal looks for ways to cut its trade deficit, officials said.

State-run Mineral Exploration Corp. Ltd has started exploring the reserves at Kolar Gold Fields, in the southern state of Karnataka, to get a better estimate of the deposits, according to three government officials and a briefing document prepared by the federal mines ministry

The ministry has also appointed investment bank SBI Capital to assess the finances of the defunct state-run Bharat Gold Mines Ltd, which controls the mines, and the dues the company owes to workers and the authorities, said the officials, who are involved in the process.

India imports 900 tonnes to 1,000 tonnes per year, but local gold output is minuscule, at 2 tonnes to 3 tonnes per year.

Troubled mines

The Kolar fields, located about 65 km (40 miles) northeast of the technology hub of Bengaluru, are among the world’s deepest gold mines.

Mining was started there by John Taylor and Sons, a British engineering firm, in 1880, when Britain ruled India. India took over Kolar soon after independence in 1947, but struggled to profitably mine the reserves. In 2001, Bharat Gold was forced to cease operations due to mounting losses, the result of a large, unproductive workforce and dated, economically unviable methods of mining.

Responsible Mining Practices

The Golden Rules are a set of criteria for more responsible mining. These criteria are based on broadly accepted international human rights laws and basic principles of sustainable development. The No Dirty Gold campaign developed the Golden Rules based on extensive reviews of documents and research prepared by the mining industry, civil society organizations, scientific researchers and technical experts, international bodies such as the UN, the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Review, and other multi-stakeholder processes.

The No Dirty Gold campaign calls on mining companies to meet the following basic standards in their operations:

  • Respect basic human rights as outlined in international conventions and laws.
  • Obtain the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities.
  • Respect workers’ rights and labor standards including safe working conditions.
  • Ensure that operations are not located in areas of armed or militarized conflict.
  • Ensure that projects do not force communities off their lands.
  • Refrain from dumping mine waste into oceans, rivers, lakes, or streams.
  • Ensure that projects are not located in protected areas, fragile ecosystems, or other areas of high conservation or ecological value.
  • Ensure that projects do not contaminate water, soil, or air with sulphuric acid drainage or other toxic chemicals.
  • Cover all costs of closing down and cleaning up mine sites.
  • Full disclose information about social and environmental effects of projects.
  • Allow independent verification of the above.


As shoppers, we can take care to reduce the possibility of having conflict or tainted gold by ensuring that the retailers who sell jewellery to us, have bought gold from ethical sources. Or else we can re-utilize family heirloom pieces.

Let us pledge to utilize and buy gold in an ethical manner. This includes the respect of basic human rights outlined in international conventions and law and the respect of workers' rights and labor standards, including safe working conditions. Environmentally it ensures that projects do not force communities off their lands and that projects are not located in protected areas, fragile ecosystems, or other areas of high conservation or ecological value. It further ensures that projects refrain from dumping mine wastes into the ocean, rivers, lakes, or streams, that they do not contaminate water, soil, or air with sulphuric acid drainage or other toxic chemicals and that they fully disclose information about social and environmental effects. Only then we can smartly and successfully reduce our carbon footprint in the gold industry.

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