For Environmentalists

Many environmental organizations have refrained from addressing the issue of environmental impacts of artisanal gemstone mining since the mining often involves the livelihoods of impoverished indigenous communities with whom they may want to foster strategic alliances [1].  However, avoidance of the issue is not the best policy for environmentalists who wish to make a positive difference.  By partnering with mining cooperatives and human rights organizations to bring about positive change in mining areas, environmentalists may be able to successfully broaden their lenses and approach the issues more holistically. 

Recent research suggests that it may be easier to establish strong environmental management in the small-scale mining sector than in the large-scale mining sector [2].  Environmentalists have traditionally opposed large industrial mining operations and in recent years have begun to use strategic campaigns to pressure large mining operations into cleaning up environmental harms as seen through the “No Dirty Gold” campaign of Earthworks and Oxfam America. Given that it is generally uneconomic to mine most colored gemstones on a large scale, this sector of the jewelry market represents an opportunity for environmentalists to fight large-scale mining operations by shifting demand and educating consumers as jewelry companies with a fair trade focus have begun to do.  At the scale of artisanal and small-scale mining, gemstone extraction is often less offensive to environmentalists than equivalent gold mining because it does not rely on the usage of any toxic chemicals like mercury (it should be noted that gold mining can also be carried out without toxics but many operations employ mercury for efficient amalgamation of the ore).  Nonetheless, gemstone mining often does have serious environmental ramifications including: siltation and sedimentation of waterways which kills fish and other biological assets; direct deforestation to access soil for mining and harvest timber to reinforce mine shafts and build equipment; indirect effects on forests and wildlife due to hunting and increased fuel needs in gemstone boom towns; stressed water supplies and subsidence because of heavy usage of water for mining related activities; use of oil powered pumps, drills and other machinery which causes air pollution and contributes to global warming. 

Rather than avoiding the issue or attempting to fight artisanal and small-scale gemstone mining in developing countries, environmentalists can serve as catalysts for improving awareness and environmental management in this sector.  Environmental groups are likely to possess the technical knowledge and capacity to connect interested miners to networks, consultants, microfinance institutions and funders who can facilitate transitions to practical environmental solutions.  They may also have the motivation and creativity to draft innovative new technology designs to assist miners with their environmental dilemmas.  Perhaps as the global carbon market develops, reclamation and restoration of mined land can be driven by incentives to develop small-scale carbon sequestration projects that will allow higher rural profits without the hard work of mining.  Tourism based on cultural and ecological capital could be another significant incentive for restoring the ecological integrity of mined land while at the same time preserving signs the unique story of poverty and precious gems that also lives in the land.

Endnotes

[1] Ali, S. 2003. Mining, the Environment, and Indigenous Development Conflicts. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.
[2] Burke, G. 2006. Opportunities for environmental management in the mining sector in Asia. The Journal of Environment and Development.15(2), 224-235.