New Internationalist

Factfile On… Gold

Issue 327

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The human cost of gold - a miner in Essakane, Burkina Faso.
NEIL COOPER / PANOS PICTURES

The Gold Rush
The impact of the Gold Rush in California in the mid-1800s was to decimate the native population, reducing it from 150,000 to 31,000. Sixty per cent of these deaths were due to diseases brought in by gold rush settlers. Between 1848 and 1857 24.3 million ounces of gold were dug up; today this would be worth more than $6.9 billion.

All that glitters...
• South Africa is the world's largest gold producer; in 1997 it produced 494 tons of gold. For every 1.8 tons mined a life is lost and 11.3 people are seriously injured.

• Brazil is the biggest single small-scale producer, with annual production of 80 tons. Some 500,000 gold miners work in the Amazon region, extracting gold by dissolving ore in toxic mercury. Tests in several mining communities found that more than 30 per cent of miners had mercury levels in their bodies that were above World Health Organization limits.

• Asia buys 70 per cent of all new gold. India is the most important gold market in the world. China has a substantial and growing market.

• Today, central banks and international institutions hold in excess of 33,000 tons of gold - more than 13 times annual global production.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
'Gold is a devilish thing. You lose your sense of values and your character changes entirely. Your soul stops being the same as it was before.'

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - The Hollywood film based on the book by B Traven
GOLD STANDARD
Until the 1970s the US dollar was linked to the price of gold at $35 an ounce. The 'gold standard' was then abandoned, and the price has fluctuated wildly ever since, as with other commodities produced largely in the South.

Waste not...
[image, unknown] Over 80 per cent of all gold dug out of the ground ends up as jewellery. The rest goes to industry, with electronics using about five per cent. The gold mined in 1992 produced an estimated 650 million tons of waste - more than iron mining, even though the world produces 200,000 times more iron. The amount of earth excavated to produce a typical pair of wedding rings would create a hole two metres wide, two metres deep and three metres long. The waste generated each year by gold mining operations could fill enough 24 ton dump trucks to form a bumper-to-bumper convoy around the equator.

Poisoned legacy
In the past three decades gold has been mined by pouring sodium cyanide solution over rocks which otherwise would be uneconomic to mine. This process can extract flakes too small for the eye to see. The problem with this is the leftover cyanide, which, though it can be re-used is often stored in a pond or even dumped into rivers. A recent cyanide spill at a Romanian gold mine devastated 40 kilometres of the River Danube.

Sources: Project Underground http://www.moles.org/ProjectUnderground/alerts/gold.html


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