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Fairtrade Gold and the Environment.

If you’re anything like me, when you think of The Fairtrade Foundation, you think of bananas and the iconic Fairtrade sticker. I remember a Channel 4 documentary from the 90’s about slave labour in the banana industry. The documentary showed whipping marks on the backs of the banana farmers that shook my very small world. I remember ordering an info pack that I still have to this day. This was about the time I first learned about the concept of Fair trade. The Fairtrade foundation’s efforts to protect workers rights and increase labour standards are also very much at the forefront of their mission when it comes to their relatively new arm in Fairtrade Gold, and with larger profits to be made, they are under increasing scrutiny. Amidst our climate emergency, I have been wondering how the Fairtrade Gold standard measures up when it comes to the environment.

A recent feature on Channel 4 news drew attention to the environmental effects of Gold mining, in particular the deforestation that happens in order to clear areas of land for mining as well as the toxic chemical contamination of water. The report highlights the fact that even though gold mining provides essential livelihoods for people, deforestation is rife in order for mines to exist.

I have taken some time to speak to David Finlay, the Senior Responsible Minerals Manager from Fairtrade. You can read David’s responses in full here, but here is a summary of the main points we discussed.

Rehabilitation of Land and Reforestation.
After the closure of a mine site, when all the available gold has been extracted, it is important for the environmental wellbeing of an area for it to be filled back in, re-vegetated and reforested with flora and fauna that matches it’s surroundings so that ecosystems can be rehabilitated, and where possible, trees can absorb carbon dioxide again if they were cut down to make way for the mine.

David points out that with mines that are not certified, this can be challenging because of inherent tensions between the miners, the ministry of mines and the district authority. Nobody wants to take on the responsibility of leading or funding the rehabilitation work.

Fairtrade enforces a standard of rehabilitation where it is relevant, as there are some mining sites in mountainous areas for example, where there was no deforestation to begin with.

In areas where it is relevant I suggested that reforestation efforts 2-3 years after mining has ceased, may be too little too late, as trees can take 10-20 years to grow back. I asked if there could be an attempt at mitigation such as goals for carbon offsetting initiatives. Perhaps this is something we could all make more of an effort with. Here are some interesting articles on carbon offsetting.

On Chemicals
Gold mining is notoriously a filthy industry when it comes to chemical usage. Cyanide and mercury are used, (sometimes by children) to extract gold. These fatal chemicals are often disposed of in a way that contaminates water bodies and therefore ecosystems and is harmful to vulnerable humans in many ways.

As yet there are no entirely mercury free mines operating under the Fairtrade standards. The Oro Verde mines in Columbia were a good example of this, but they ran out of gold deposits. David mentions that they are working with partners to create mercury free sites, but until then they encourage their mines to reduce, reuse and dispose of mercury safely. These standards are checked by Fairtrade’s auditing body FLO-CERT.

Fairtrade are exploring the idea of launching ‘Eco- Fairtrqade gold’, gold that is produced without the use of mercury or cyanide, but the standard is often very hard for mine sites to maintain. There is support available from Fairtrade for mines keen to make this grade, but ultimately it requires a premium that the market is often unwilling to pay. What do you, the reader think about this? Would you be willing to pay a premium for your gold if you know it was mercury and cyanide free? According to my calculations it would be an extra £6 per gram on top of what stands today at £56 a gram for 22ct Fairtrade gold. What would you pay, if for example you knew a tree was planted with every 10 grams of gold sold? Would that make it environmentally a Fair trade?

On Fossil Fuel Usage
Fairtrade is working towards a framework called “climate smart mining” which is particularly focused on ways of reducing carbon and other emissions. This will be addressed in their standard review.

In Conclusion
Overall I was encouraged by the responses from David. What I also find interesting is that they hold consultations where they include input from NGOs, consultancies, businesses, government ministries and mine sites in order to include as many expert positions as possible, but I think there is a lot more that could be done. When it comes to reforestation it seems to be the case that as Fairtrade are not creating new mines sites, but auditing existing ones. The environmental damage that took place to create the mine occurred before they got involved if at all, but it does seem that they at least have a standard in place to ensure some rehabilitation. How thoroughly this is implemented, we may never know. Carbon offsetting initiatives could help to mitigate somewhat.
When it comes to chemicals and fossil fuel usage, again it comes down to how stringent the enforcement of standards is.

It would be interesting to speak to somebody who has been to the mine sites who is in no way profiting from Fairtrade so that they can give impartial expertise because even FLO – Cert, the auditing body they use to check and enforce standards, with their main client being The Fairtrade Foundation, are not impartial.

Who would be willing to visit these mine sites independently for no profit whatsoever? Human rights organisations? Environmental charities? Perhaps you have been, or you know somebody who has?

To continue this discussion please leave a comment below. I will get back to you as soon as I can.

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