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On Wednesday, UK jewelers announced the launch of “Fairtrade” gold jewelry.  Some jewelers have already been using gold from these same Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) mines, but two of the mines have recently been certified “Fairtrade.”  What are these mines, and what does “Fairtrade gold” mean?

The mines, one in Colombia and one in Bolivia, demonstrate both the potential benefits and the problems of the Alliance for Responsible Mining/Fairtrade Labeling Organization certification standards for “Fairtrade” and “Fairmined.”  The mining and certification may well benefit the communities on the short-term, and the Colombian Oro Verde mine does not use mercury or cyanide. On the other hand, reclamation and restoration standards are poorly defined at both mines, and the Bolivian mine allows mercury use and is located in a National Park. The Colombian mine is in the Choc , a department that has experienced significant armed conflict.

Seeking to support struggling artisanal mining communities, to fairly distribute benefits, and to reduce the negative impacts of mining practices is obviously a laudable goal.  ARM/FLO labeling may help do that. 

Certifying a mining project as responsible (fairtrade, fairmined, ethical, green, etc.), however, comes with a heavy responsibility.  If not done carefully and with high standards, one risks actually promoting mining that is unsafe, unhealthy, or has destructive environmental impacts. 

ARM/FLO standards remain in need of improvement in order to minimize that risk.  The concerns EARTHWORKS raised in 2007 and 2009 still remain, as explained in the No Dirty Gold campaign’s 2010 comparison of standards for responsible artisanal and small-scale mining of gold and precious metals.  Reliably verifying compliance with more “responsible” use of mercury or cyanide would be challenging.  Certifying the use of mercury as responsible risks promoting its use during a time when the international community is seeking to limit mercury use in the world through actual treaty discussions.  Certifying operations in a protected area (even more so a National Park) also risks encouraging damage to important areas of biodiversity.  Certifying operations in areas of armed conflict risks making it more acceptable to mine in armed conflict zones, where mining often becomes a source of and fuel for conflict.  The standards also have yet to provide any detailed requirements for what reclamation and restoration results should look like after mining.

The press coverage of the recent UK launch has left me with an additional question about “Fairtrade” gold.  The Reuters article indicates that “‘Fairtrade’ gold is forecast to account for 5 percent of the global market in the next 15 years.”  Five percent of a year’s global market for gold these days would be around 200 tonnes of gold per year.  That would mean a very large number of certified mines, and it’s hard to imagine how they would accurately verify compliance at that many operations.  Maybe they meant a subset of the overall gold or gold jewelry market. Either way, scaling up to such quantities would place an even greater responsibility on the shoulders of “Fairtrade” promoters to ensure high environmental and social standards.

With inadequate standards and a mine allowing mercury use in a National Park, I am concerned about the direction this could go.  ARM has done a lot of work on this project, and I strongly hope that they will improve standards as the initiative evolves.

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