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Flexibilité: Clean gold from the ‘Heart of Darkness’?

The glint of gold in this shovel is about 1 to 2 grams and represents the culmination of hours of work by multiple miners. Photos by Kyle Abram
The glint of gold in this shovel is about 1 to 2 grams and represents the culmination of hours of work by multiple miners.
Photos by Kyle Abram

“The question is this: what benefit have you brought to the lives of miners?”

~Alan Frampton

By Kyle Abram

Editor’s note: In October 2021, Kyle Abram flew to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) project, a model for the future of ethical gold sourcing from small-scale mines. Abram served as a representative for North American jewellers to the project, speaking extensively to many individuals involved with the various layers of the global endeavour.

I awoke under a mosquito net at 6 a.m. on a nearly bare mattress with several lizards and the largest spider I hope to ever lay eyes on staring at me from the walls of the inn. In this moment, I had but one wish: une petite sip of coffee from my beloved moka pot.

Before heading to Mirundu, the author and his colleague, Valery, first had to take a barge across the Congo River. The engine was broken, so a dugout canoe with a small motor was strapped to either side.
Before heading to Mirundu, the author and his colleague, Valery, first had to take a barge across the Congo River. The engine was broken, so a dugout canoe with a small motor was strapped to either side.

Alas, there would be no coffee today—just another challenge added to an ever-growing list.

Just three days before, I had been a complete travel virgin, never having left the continental United States. Now, here I was, preparing for the final leg of my journey to a small-scale gold mine known as Mirundu.

“The theme of this trip will be ‘flexibility,’” a colleague had said to me as we soared over the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. While I didn’t fully appreciate this notion at the time, at the end of my two-week trip, I swore to her I would get the word tattooed on my flesh (in French, of course: flexibilité).

It was October 2021, and I was in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to serve as a representative for North American jewellers to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project. Zahabu Safi, which means ‘clean gold’ in Swahili, represents a new model for folding responsible and traceable artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) into the jewellery supply chain. It is a significant departure from the existing models of Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold. (In the interest of full disclosure: the company I work for, Reflective Jewelry, has a Memorandum of Understanding [MoU] with Zahabu Safi.)

Within 15 minutes of setting off to Mirundu, it was clear my Zahabu Safi colleague and I were at an impasse (even though we had spent five hours travelling over dirt roads in our 4×4 SUV just one day prior). The rainy season had begun, and despite this being the main north/south route in the region, we clearly weren’t going to get any further on four wheels—it was time to pare down to two!

Within the hour, we had hired several young men to transport us on their motorbikes. The day had just begun.

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The reality on the ground

The Mirundu mine, located in the Maniema province, DRC.
The Mirundu mine, located in the Maniema province, DRC.

Three hours and 70 kilometres later, we reach Mirundu. We were coated in mud that had flung from the tires of our motorbikes and clung to our clothing when we were forced to dismount and wade across bogs on foot. I looked around the site, struck by the bustling energy of the place—miners trekking up and down the mountain and the sound of shovels striking dirt.

Dressed in full safari attire (complete with cowboy hat and a broad smile), the landowner, Aimé (not his real name), enthusiastically shook my hand. My caffeine-withdrawal headache began to subside.

The tour Aimé provides is a window into the harsh realities of ASGM in remote areas of the DRC. Mirundu shows tremendous potential to reap the benefits of Zahabu Safi in the future. To have a willing landowner and local co-op structure in place are huge steps toward formalization/legalization that should not be taken lightly. As it stood on that day, however, the site provided a clear illustration of the challenges existing in the sector.

Take child labour, for instance. Dozens of the workers I observed appeared to be under the age of 18—many, perhaps, as young as seven- or eight-years-old.

“You have to understand the situation on the ground,” Aimé says. “Here, you’ll meet a 15-year-old boy who has two wives, or a 15-year-old girl who has two children… They have families to provide for, and, if their income is taken away, they will rebel.”

A blanket ban on child labour looks great on a sustainability report, but what is the real issue: that children are working, or that there is no alternative (i.e. no school within a 100-km radius)?

Of course, I also witnessed the expected specter of mercury use. ASGM is the world’s greatest single source of mercury pollution. These miners—who handle mercury with their bare hands and breathe in supremely dangerous neurotoxins when burning it off—would need to be taught safer methods of gold extraction.

People living in a hand-to-mouth economy, however, aren’t typically willing to risk going hungry over alternative methods and, instead, stick to proven processes. What reason do miners have to trust outside entities warning of potential dangers (especially ones that aren’t immediately obvious)? Even if they are willing to give mercury-free alternatives a chance, there remains another barrier in the cost to switch methods.

The real tragedy, however, is the miners at Mirundu produce around 10 kilograms of gold per month, which is valued around US$600,000 (nearly Cdn$748,000). At the time of my visit, the site had been in operation for almost 18 months. This adds up to $11 million that could be—and should be—in this community. Where is it, though? Hidden in the mud brick walls of their homes? Doubtful, given they lacked even access to clean drinking water.

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On the way to Mirundu, Maniema province, DRC
On the way to Mirundu, Maniema province, DRC

Though this sort of mine is often demonized by the outside world, one can draw parallels between this and common misinterpretations of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness. In this book, when Kurtz cries out, “The horror! The horror!” he is not referencing the jungle, nor its inhabitants; rather, his sudden revulsion stems from a realization of the animalistic greed of colonialists like himself and the abhorrent conditions unfolding under King Leopold II of Belgium.

Such horrors have echoed in the past century and a half, and are perpetuated today through what’s known as the ‘resource curse.’ The miners of Mirundu should not be demonized for the conditions in which they live and work. These conditions are a direct result of neocolonialist practices for which all those involved in the supply chain bear responsibility.

As a small example, consider that, despite the price of gold spiking during this 18-month period, the lives of these miners have not changed one bit.

Since 2011, however, there has existed at least one path to break to this chain in the form of Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold.

The irony of Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold

Fairmined currently supports 308 miners across four mines: two in Peru and two in Colombia. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, there are an additional 1500 miners working at a total of 15 Fairtrade Gold-certified mines, all located in Peru.

Yet (although precise statistics are exceedingly difficult to ascertain), a 2017 report from the United Nations estimates there are roughly 10 to 15 million small-scale gold miners worldwide, including 4.5 million women and one million children. This report also estimates as many as 100 million people worldwide depend, directly or indirectly, on small-scale gold mining for their livelihood.

Why, after 11 years, are there so few certified Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold mines—particularly when interest in ethical jewellery sourcing has seen such a dramatic uptick of late?

In search of an explanation, I reached out to Alan Frampton, the former owner of CRED Jewellery. Over many years, Frampton made dozens of trips to mines across South America and Africa, developing close relationships with communities and sorting out the challenging logistics of export and distribution. He essentially served as the keystone of the Fairtrade Gold movement for a time, supplying not only jewellers but major supply houses. As such, Frampton is held by many to be largely responsible for the success of Fairtrade Gold’s expansion beyond its initial formation.

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The author, Kyle Abram (centre), at Mirundu with two representatives from the local co-op. Photo courtesy Kyle Abram
The author, Kyle Abram (centre), at Mirundu with two representatives from the local co-op.
Photo courtesy Kyle Abram

“The question is this: what benefit have you brought to the lives of miners?” he asks. For Frampton, it’s not about labels, certifications, or how one can spin this to promote their own business; it’s about people and planet.

A few years back, Fairtrade Africa seemed poised to make breakthrough on gold, but this never materialized. Frampton told me that, after years of effort and investment, only one mine was ever certified. It was online for just six weeks before being de-certified—and he never received a “sensible answer” as to why this decision was made.

Additionally, he says, a Tanzanian site had once shown real promise. The mining organization made huge strides in implementing labour and safety standards and otherwise working to improve the lives of the miners. In the end, however, it didn’t fit into the Fairtrade structure, which meant it was never considered for certification.

Failures of Fairtrade Africa aside, Frampton was successful in organizing sizable imports of Fairtrade Gold from Peruvian sources. He regularly supplied his clients—including Reflective Jewelry, the only Fairtrade Gold jeweller in the United States—at eight per cent over spot. This wasn’t a charity; it was a successful business model when run at scale.

Frampton was forced out of business in 2019 when his primary source was bought out by Valcambi and Fairtrade refused to send an auditor to a second sizable source (which had previously been certified). At the time, he personally offered to finance the expenses of the audit and a number of jewellers sent Fairtrade a petition on the matter.

“The deck is stacked against you,” Frampton says. “You’ve got consultants who run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds, you’ve got the Swiss refiners who are very clever corporate beasts… I genuinely thought I could take on the big boys.”

Unfortunately, the biggest losers in this story are the miners. When Valcambi began offering Fairtrade Gold for sale, Frampton says it was around 20 per cent over spot, which essentially killed the market.

“They’re getting more ‘social benefit’ than the miners!” he says.

Fairmined and Fairtrade Gold have, unquestionably, done a lot of good for a few thousand miners, but they have failed to provide a scalable, market-viable model that can significantly impact the mainstream market. As Frampton puts it, “How can you say it’s a success when nothing has changed in the past seven or eight years? It’s not a success if the movement isn’t growing.”

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