For Companies

Companies Downstream from the Mines

Colored gemstones are notoriously difficult to value accurately.  While it can be easy for unscrupulous middlemen who have some gemological knowledge to cheat miners out of a fair price for their stones, there are also many honest middlemen who provide helpful services like marketing and transportation for the miners’ product.  For precious stones like sapphires, rubies and emeralds, the true potential value of a stone is often hidden until it has been cut and polished by a lapidary artist. As a stone moves downstream across the supply chain, value is added and revealed at each stage.  This unique value-adding process raises complex ethical questions for jewelry retailers, designers and supply companies.

Retail and manufacturing firms who are interested in supporting artisanal mining while maintaining environmental responsibility may be hard pressed to proceed because they have no way of tracking their gemstone supplies.  However, by initiating dialogue with suppliers and pursuing relationships with mining communities, jewelry companies have the potential to provide incentives that could drive environmental protection and sustainable mining practices while helping to alleviate poverty in communities.  Participation can begin with informal questions to gem suppliers, engagement with trade association initiatives, or collaboration with other businesses, non-profit organizations, social and environmental advocacy groups, and the public sector to encourage change.  Organizations of small, independent miners are searching for global networks to support their efforts to improve the economic and social conditions of their members; by collaborating with these organizations and investing in them, companies and consumers can negotiate reasonable terms of environmental protection and contribute to propagation of needed social, human and physical capital for gemstone miners and their local networks.  In some countries, entire socio-economic systems, similar to ecological foodwebs, are creatively evolving to design, brand and market unique jewelry products that feature the stones of artisanal and small-scale miners.  The story in Madagascar provides a strong example wherein collaboration between policy-makers, development agencies, consulting companies, gemological institutions, local entrepreneurs and interested students has lead to a burgeoning infant jewelry economy.  However, effective regulation of social and environmental conditions at the mines is still largely lacking in Madagascar and most other developing countries.

Companies Upstream at the Mines

Mine owners, sponsors and corporate leaseholders for land that is being mined illegally by artisans and is uneconomic for large scale mining can take steps to encourage attention to environmental management and amelioration of health and safety hazards. Business people who invest the time and resources to develop a supply of gemstones that are mined in ways which minimize environmental harm while ameliorating socio-economic conditions of miners and surrounding communities will be able to claim a emerging market share because there is a growing demand in the North for jewelry that is produced in socially and environmentally responsible ways. 

Fundamental Policy Questions for Responsible Mine Planning [1]:

  • Can the mine function without risk of accidents and negative health effects for the local population?
  • Can the environment fully absorb the waste and pollution created by the mine?
  • Will the mine generate conflicts over land and water use or limit other developments in the area?
  • How will the mine impact other natural resource dependent economic activities that have already been established in the area?
  • Is the local infrastructure sufficient for the development of a mine? Schools, first aid, latrines, food supply, construction materials, and fuel availability should all be considered.
  • How will water and other renewable materials like wood be managed for long-term sustainable use?
  • Will the mine have negative impacts on sites of historic, cultural or tourist value, national parks and conservation areas, or community infrastructure?

The main issues to consider in preventing ecological damage at mine sites are deforestation, sedimentation and siltation in waterways, hunting, use of oil for pumps and drills, proximity to protected conservation areas, heavy use of water in dry regions, and the long term condition of the land.  Policy and equipment to prevent deforestation, sedimentation and siltation, and hunting or mining in protected areas are imperative for local and global ecological health.  Trees provide valuable long term ecosystem services like soil maintenance, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and habitat; they should not be cleared, but managed in a way that meets miners’ resource needs without damaging the ecological integrity of the forest.  To avoid sedimenation and land loss, stone bearing gravel and schist can be washed in large tubs or pools of water that are kept separate from rivers, streams and lakes and may also be shaded to prevent evaporation.  This style of washing is used at Wild Fish Gems mines in Sri Lanka.  Once enough sediment builds up in the bottom of a tub, the water can be drained either by hand or by pump and recycled for use in an empty tub, while the sediment is allowed to dry.  Partially dry sediment can be spread or piled on dry ground where it will be stored until it is used to fill in obsolete pits and holes to restore the land to its natural topography.  Pumps and drills that run on some form of oil release harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases into the air and they should not be left running when unnecessary; where possible they can be converted to run on renewable fuels like ethanol, biodiesel or solar power.  Miners who are trained to avoid spilling oil and to make sure that spills do not happen close to waterways will minimize soil and water pollution at mining sites.  Provision of trash receptacles around mining sites can serve to contain oil spills and prevent litter that may be harmful to local wildlife.  Where it is not possible to manage hunting in a way that protects wildlife stocks due to lack of conservation personnel or relevant data, it best to use extreme moderation or avoid hunting altogether especially when sites are in close proximity to protected areas.  Restoration of land when mining is complete may the most daunting environmental management task for small-scale gemstone miners; nonetheless, it is an extremely important.  By refilling holes as they are retired, mine owners and managers can avoid the barriers created by saving all reclamation work for the end of the mines life.  This type of approach can also facilitate agricultural sustainability of the land and in some cases allow for hybrid mine-agriculture operations as seen by the example of the Aussie Sapphire Mine in New South Wales, Australia.

The ILO’s Safety and Health in Mines Convention [2] defines minimum safety requirements for small scale mines and outlines procedures for assessing and preventing accidents.  Due to the hazardous nature of work in a mining environment, there are many precautions that miners should take to protect themselves but for which they often lack the knowledge and the resources.

Minimizing Potential Dangers to Miners in the Work Environment [3]:

  • Dust and other particles released into the air during drilling, rock crushing and explosions can cause respiratory problems for miners.  Dust production can be kept under control by the use wet drilling techniques and water jets during extraction. Water should be recycled if possible, and usage should be minimized when drought is a threat.  Miners may also wear masks and protective eye gear to minimize exposure to dust.
  • Fumes from the burning of diesel and other fuels needed to power mining equipment contain toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and nitric oxide which can cause serious damage when inhaled.  Exposure to fumes should be kept to a minimum.  Fans are recommended to dissipate fumes in underground or poorly ventilated shafts.
  • Prolonged exposure to noise, vibration, and hot sun can cause lasting health problems. Miners should wear appropriate protective gear such as ear plugs or other ear protection, as well as hats and clothing to protect from sunburn and overheating.  Taking breaks and drinking enough water to endure the demanding work of mining without risk of heat stroke or injury from fatigue is an important policy to institute.
  • Terrain that is steep, uneven or slippery can be hazardous for miners.  Precautions to prevent falls should be instituted, and miners should avoid working in compromising positions for long periods of time.  If the resources are available, ergonomic health can be accounted for by using safe platforms in pits and tunnels to allow work at height that is comfortable for the miner’s neck and shoulders.

Opportunities for Companies to Collaborate in Developing Solutions

Multi-Stakeholder Networks:
The Madison Dialogue
Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM)
Association for Responsible Mining (ARM)
Council for Responsible Jewelery Practices (CRJP)
Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA)

Additional Non-Profit Organizations:
Institute for Sustainable Mining
Ethical Metalsmiths

Gemstone Miners Organizations:
Gares-Mines, Madagascar
Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA)
Tanzanite Women Miners Development Union (TWMDU)
Zambia Miners Associations



[1] ATPEM. 2002. Cahier 7- les norms environnementales dans les mines
[2] ILO. 1995.
[3] Walle, M. & N. Jennings. 2001. Guide sur la securite et hygiene dans les petite mines a ciel ouvert. Bureau International du Travail (BIT); Geneva.