The Jewelry Industry’s Role in Illegal Amazon Destruction

You may have seen photos of the illegal gold rush in the Amazon rain forest, which is sometimes described as the lungs of the planet for its tremendous biodiversity. The images of gold mining in the region are devastating: swaths of the Amazon rainforest felled (an estimated 64,000 acres, but possibly much more, large beige pools of waste, workers using mercury to separate the bits of gold.

Most news reports have blamed this destruction on small-scale miners desperate for income. But what’s fuelling the demand for this gold?

A recently published investigative report by Peruvian investigative news site OjoPúblico paints a disturbingly more complicated picture. Reporters traced some of the dirtiest gold  — illegally extracted, mercury processed gold from the Amazon — to large American and European companies — including two certified by the Responsible Jewelry Council, a controversial, industry-exclusive gold and diamonds certification system.

Reporters from OjoPúblico (or “Public Eye”) travelled to four South American countries, where they analyzed court reports of illegal gold trafficking and gold export statistics. They found that “the major financiers of the gold fever” are a handful of corporations from the US, Switzerland, Italy and the United Arab Emirates.

Remarkably, two of these companies, Metalor Technologies and Italpreziosi are certified members of the Responsible Jewelry Council. OjoPúblico’s investigation implicates these companies in purchasing hundreds of tons of illegal gold from exporting firms linked to money laundering, organized crime and cross-border smuggling of metals.  Yet the RJC has certified their supply chain as being “responsible.”

The Responsible Jewellery Council was formed in 2005 in response to increasing public outcry over conflict minerals and dirty gold. But its industry-centered approach, which excludes civil society and affected communities from decision-making power, has resulted in a weak system riddled with problems.

Several RJC standards are weak and violate widely accepted social and environmental principles, from mercury management to workers' rights to join unions. The Code also fails to place limits on water and air pollution and allows toxic waste disposal into lakes and ocean environments. RJC’s weak auditing system, in which it chooses its own auditors who mostly rely on company-provided information, also allows for irresponsibly sourced gold to pass through the system.

In our report on the RJC, More Shine than Substance, we concluded that the certification system its current form cannot perform what it claims to do — assure consumers that the jewelry they purchase is responsible.

This latest piece of news reinforces our conclusion.  We hope the RJC takes the allegations made in the OjoPúblico article seriously, and drops Metalor Technologies and Italpreziosi’s certifications. While dropping these two companies will not solve all its problems, this is one step the RJC can take to make good on its claims of building a responsible supply chain for jewelry.