We all know that old saying; ‘all that glitters is not gold’. This has never rung truer than during my recent visit to Geita, a gold mining district in North Western Tanzania. I saw the rusty dust of the disturbed earth form a suffocating blanket over the community that lived beneath it. I saw with my very own eyes the darkest secret of one of the world’s most glittering trades. I saw children playing near gaping excavating sites, people entering the mines with no hard hats and meager footwear and ladies breaking their backs chipping away at rock. I felt like the contents of my gut had fallen to my feet. The poverty was stark and absolute. It is estimated that over a 100 million people rely on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) for their livelihoods; ensuring an existence for millions of families in rural areas of developing countries across the globe. Individuals risk their lives everyday to mine for what is still considered one of the world’s most luxurious signs of love. It’s merely gold dust for them, able to feed their family – provide healthcare and education only if it stretches that far.
Mercury is ubiquitously used in ASM gold extraction. A chemical so corrosive, carcinogenic and toxic it should be no where near the bare skin of young boys or the cooking bowls of mothers. I watched as a man sat up to his knees in the ominously glittering mercury infused water; a man that may already be suffering headaches, which could lead to tremors and hallucinations in a few months time; ultimately killing him. But if you can’t put food on the table that evening, death doesn’t even make the menu. These are the desperations that those that rely on ASM face. Putting their life on the line daily, for you to admire that sparkling golden ring! Still think it’s as beautiful? I certainly cannot look at gold and see its beauty without knowing that it’s source is traceable, and that those responsible for its unearthing are treated fairly.
Fairtrade certification of gold holds the answers to many of the issues surrounding ASM. I visited a site that’s working towards becoming the first Fairtrade certified gold mine in East Africa – and what a difference it makes! Miners were equipped with protective hats and boots, ladders and safe passageways were installed to get the miners in safely – and out safely. There are also winches for extracting the gold. Women have roles in the processing, clearance and also preparation of food for the 400 strong staff body: balancing the gender roles. When certification is granted, the miners’ community will benefit from its premium – to help tackle their greatest needs.
As we drive away and leave the lucrative trade that has so many in its grips behind, I feel the weight of the small globules of gold that sat in my hand just an hour earlier transcend to my shoulders. My concern at knowing that a great deal of the world’s population has no idea that ASM and its issues exist. I make a pact with myself to ensure that I use my experience to get as many to hear about the lives of those that bore fruit the precious item that hangs from their neck or the essential mobile phone that’s gripped in their hand. There’s hidden gold everywhere, and its time the hidden stories behind it are released to the masses!