Oscar Leiva for CRS

The Transformative Power of Fair Trade Gold

Marc Choyt

Under the green Kenyan savanna, three men were digging for gold. They were twenty feet under the ground in a six by six hole supported by stacked logs. I leaned over the opening, trying to catch a glimpse of the miner’s headlamps.

I had traveled over thirty hours from my Santa Fe, New Mexico home to visit this mine, invited to Africa by Fair Trade International as a jeweler and commercial representative from North America.

To me, this scene was radically positive. This community mine was on the road toward Fairtrade Gold Certification, a three to five-year process of bringing the mine up to auditable international labor standards and responsible environmental practices.

While most people know about Fair Trade coffee and chocolate, Fairtrade gold is a relatively new global initiative. Fairtrade gold gives miners and their families the opportunity to be paid a fair price and build their futures. It supports: investment in schools, better working conditions and improved healthcare.

In Africa alone, Fairtrade gold has the potential to alleviate poverty for hundreds of thousands of small scale miners. The biggest missing piece of the equation is you.

Where Does Your Gold Come From?

These days, only a few people even consider where the material that makes up their jewelry comes from, yet, jewelry has funded detestable conflicts that has killed millions and destroyed many indigenous producer communities. Even if you don’t wear jewelry, electronics use hundreds of tons of gold per year. It is highly likely that part of the gold in your smartphone or your computer has dirty gold or even conflict gold.

Most gold is mined in large scale operations which have massive negative global environmental and social impacts. Governments prefer dealing with these larger multinational mining companies because they can be monitored and taxed. These larger companies export all but a minute value of the mineral out of the country, leaving little money in the local economy.

Although large scale mining produces about 75% of gold, they provide only about 10% of gold mining jobs worldwide. The rest of the gold mining jobs belong to approximately 25 million artisan and small-scale gold miners worldwide, a quarter of whom are children and women. Small-scale miners supply anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the global gold supply, mainly through the black market. Statistics about small-scale miners are always estimates because small-scale mining is almost always illegal and unregulated.

The small-scale gold mining operations I have visited employ between 40 to 60 people, who might produce a mere kilo of gold a month. These days, a kilo of gold has a value of about $40,000, but the miners rely on middlemen who buy gold up to 30 percent below its real value. Because refining methods are less efficient, miners leave another 25 percent of their gold in the rock tailings unextracted.

The miners, sometimes literally paid in dirt, make between $100 and $300 a month, often struggling to feed their families. And while they sit on a gold mine, working incredibly hard, they are still stuck in the poverty cycle.

Additionally, their environment and often their entire communities are highly toxic. Worldwide this small-scale gold mining is the largest source of mercury pollution, using 1,400 metric tons of mercury annually. Mercury is the common method to separate gold from crushed rock. Mercury is one of the most dangerous known neurotoxins. I have personally witnessed miners washing gold and mercury with their bare hands. They will then take the collected gold and burn off the mercury in a frying pan that will later be used to cook their food!

How Fairtrade Works with Small-Scale Miners

For decades, many have tried to devise a way to transform the small-scale mining activities into a sustainable economic development initiative. But the challenges have been daunting for these impoverished communities.

But there is plenty of incentive to change!

When Fairtrade gold standards are in place, gold is purchased initially at 95 to 98 percent of the international spot price. Miners are given $2,000 per kilo as a premium, which is collectively used for community investment.

Fairtrade International sends trainers into the mines to build international business capacity which takes several years. Miners are taught audited labor standards and environmental safety such as mercury usage, though ultimately the goal is to eliminate mercury use entirely. Operations that do not use mercury will even receive a greater significant premium for their “eco” gold.

Fairtrade gold mines have been operating in South America since 2011. This past October, the first African Fairtrade gold mine was certified in Uganda. This is great news because Africa has millions of small-scale gold miners and Fairtrade gold has the potential to transform many of those mining communities.

For the miners, more money stays in their local economy. And, more radically, the miners have control of the full economic resources garnered from their own land.

Instead of being a resource curse, small-scale gold mining can become an economic driver that alleviates poverty and preserves the environment.

Fairtrade gold certified jewelers, who like the miners are also heavily audited, know exactly where their gold is coming from. They have a new gold story and can tell their customers why Fairtrade gold is the most precious gold in the world.

How You Can Help

It’s simple. One of the biggest obstacles in spreading Fairtrade gold is that, in the US, there are only a few people who have even heard of it. I’ve been the first and only Fairtrade gold jeweler since April 2015.

We need people to spread the word, which is why we’ve partnered with Catholic Relief Services.

Think about it. Jewelry is an expression of culture with tremendous emotional and spiritual value. Think about the symbolism that a wedding ring represents!

With Fairtrade gold, we now have the privileged opportunity to make a real difference in the world by aligning our values with our economic decisions while simultaneously unifying the symbol of the wedding ring with its fair sourcing.

Annually in the US, there are a little over 2 million marriages a year. Based on the Catholic population of 76 million, Catholics purchase about 500,000 wedding rings annually, which amounts to approximately 100,000 ounces of gold.

If the gold used in those rings were Fair Trade, that would save about six tons of mercury from poisoning our environment and provide 13,000 jobs a year. It would also generate 6 million dollars of premiums for these mining communities which are typically used for schools, clinics and elderly care.

In April 2015, my company, Reflective Jewelry, became the first and only certified Fairtrade gold jewelry company in the US. We’ve worked hard to land this initiative in the US and the good news is, a lot more companies will join this year in part because of our pioneering efforts.

Plus, here’s a secret you should know when shopping for your Fairtrade gold ring. Using Fairtrade gold for your wedding ring should only add between $25 and $50 to its actual cost of a similar ring made with any other gold.

Protectors of Creation

As Pope Francis said, “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

That first trip to the mines deep in the grounds of Africa was about building greater community around common values of ecologically responsible mining as well as economic and social justice between the global south and north.

And if you’re getting married, what could be better than wearing a Fairtrade gold wedding ring, that in its very sourcing, is aligned with the Pope’s message of love for our brothers and sisters around the globe?

* Note: When purchasing from Reflective Jewelry use promo code CRS and a percentage of the purchase price will be donated to CRS to support projects around the world. 

The author, Marc Choyt, is President of Reflective Jewelry, a small designer jewelry company located in Santa Fe New Mexico.