Does thinking about a diamond ring give you the warm fuzzies? Does the gold necklace behind the jeweler’s counter make you drool? Does the thought of purchasing a used diamond or gold necklace seem a little “off” to you? If so, you might want to reconsider.
Did you know that mining for diamonds, gold and other precious stones and metals has a significant impact on the earth and its inhabitants? In fact, gem mining is not just detrimental initially—it has ongoing environmental consequences.
As Mara Opperman, co-founder of I Do Now I Don’t, explains in a Consumer Affairs article, environmentally conscious consumers increasingly choose gently used, “pre-loved” or secondhand jewelry because the environmental and societal debt has already been paid.
Why are the effects of gem production so devastating to both the earth and its people? Consider the following.
- Diamonds Are Forever
Diamonds have an allure all their own. Diamonds are without question the preferred engagement ring gem. The United States is the world’s largest diamond jewelry market and, after a down year in 2014, the industry rebounded to record sales worth $39 billion in 2015.
But diamonds don’t grow in gardens. They are mined. And mining causes waste that not only devastates the land but poisons the water. Think about it: In order to mine anything, diamonds included, there has to be a hole—a huge hole. The Better Diamond Initiative estimates that for every carat of diamond mined, 3.1 tons of earth are displaced. In addition, each diamond carat mined uses 8.9 liters of fuel and 2,534.78 liters of water.
The largest diamond mine in the world is in Orapa, Botswana. The mine produces 11 million carats annually and creates 40 million tons of waste rock per year. Where does this chemical-infused waste go? It’s simply piled in the countryside where it damages the ecosystem and pollutes drinking water.
Angola has been home to diamond mining for over a century. The African country is also one of the hardest hit by reckless diamond mining practices. Unscrupulous companies have gone so far as to reroute rivers and construct dams for the disposal of mining waste. The effects on wildlife and fish have been catastrophic.
Eastern Sierra Leone’s Kono district has experienced a complete ecosystem collapse because of diamond mining. Farmland is unrecognizable and devoid of the soil and nutrients needed to sustain crops. Water-filled mining pits are infested by malaria-causing mosquitoes, and stagnant water increases the risk of waterborne diseases.
The ecological impact of diamond mining is one many diamond miners prefer to keep secret; however, the effects can no longer be ignored or denied. Some companies are taking measures to clean up their act, but in many regions, the damage is done.
- All That Glitters Is Not Gold
In 1848, James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. More than 300,000 people subsequently descended on the nearby town of Coloma, and California changed overnight. The discovery of gold not only bolstered the nation’s economy and brought a wealth of immigrants to the region, it also meant the end of the indigenous populations in the area due to genocide and forced removals. The Gold Rush spelled fortune for some and heartbreak for others. The same can be said about today’s Gold Rush.
There’s nothing like an economic recession to drive the demand for gold. That’s just what happened after the 2008 economic crash. As demand shot up, gold mining companies went to work, developing new mines in South America; however, the new mining sites have, in a very short length of time, substantially impacted the environment.
According to research conducted by the University of Puerto Rico, 650 square miles of tropical forest were lost between 2001 and 2013 due to mining, with losses significantly increasing from 2007–2013. Peru’s Madre de Dios region, home to the country’s largest national park, was one of the hardest hit.
Duke University evaluated the effects of small-scale mining (which is how much of South America’s gold is produced) on rivers and food chains. Although most small-scale mines are illegal, they’re still plentiful. Miners use mercury to bind gold ore particles. The mercury then makes its way into the soil and water, contaminating fish as it goes; mercury-laden fish have been found as far as 350 miles downstream. These fish are an essential food source for people living in the region. Fish taken from the river contain dangerously high amounts of mercury, which is unsafe for women of childbearing years and children.
Additional training and technological advances could lessen the damage, but cleanup resources are scarce. The modern Gold Rush, like the California Gold Rush, is lucrative for some and deadly for others.
- The People Behind the Jewels
Mining diamonds and precious metals takes a toll not only on the ecosystem but on people as well. Diamonds may signify the promise of wedded bliss in the West, but in many of the places diamonds are mined, diamonds mean child labor, war and death.
Diamond miners who work in Africa’s small-scale mining operations are some of the poorest people on earth. They are paid less than a dollar a day, and they live in squalor without safe drinking water or sanitary facilities. Workers are sent into the mines without proper safety equipment. Corrupt leaders funnel money away from communities into their own pockets. Small-scale mines typically go unregulated, but in the off-chance there are laws, no one enforces them.
And then there’s war. Civil wars, millions of lives lost, mutilations and death—all because of the illicit diamond trade. Blood diamonds fund war after war. The human cost of diamond mining is tragic.
- Pearls Before Swine
Pearls are not mined, but they still have an effect on the environment. Pearl oysters are grown in nets, but the creatures aren’t alone. Barnacles, sponges and other organisms take advantage of the ideal conditions and grow right along with the oysters, in much greater numbers than normal. Simply washing off oysters releases an unnaturally high concentration of organisms back into the water, potentially overwhelming native fish and plants.
Clearly, purchasing jewelry that’s gently used, secondhand, pre-loved or whatever you want to call it is a wonderful way to enjoy diamond rings, gold necklaces and pearls without further impacting the world we live in.