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Good as Gold

Sep 12

Written by:
12/09/2017 12:56  RssIcon

Phil Clarke Hill travelled to Uganda to report on efforts to create a more accountable and sustainable jewellery industry


In February 2017, a group of small-scale miners made history by producing the first gold from Africa that was mercury free and made under certified ethical conditions, with a fully traceable supply chain. 

Gold, diamonds and gemstones are industries which have some of the worst human rights and environmental records around. Now, the gold industry is slowly beginning to move towards a more accountable and sustainable model. 

The first project of note was SOTRAMI in the Peruvian Andes and, until December 2016, this was the only fully certified Fairtrade gold mine in the world. 

Now, a small artisanal mine in Uganda, which has been part of a pilot project for three years along with mines in Tanzania and Kenya, just received its full Fairtrade certification. 

Image: Uganda Gold


There is a clear need for change in Ugandan and African gold mining: child labour; bonded labour; mercury poisoning; and poor working conditions abound in this dollar-a-day industry. 

At present, it’s step by step with the tiny SAMA mine in eastern Uganda being the first in Africa to get the certification. 

In February, they also produced Africa’s first mercury-free gold from a small-scale mine. This is a particularly difficult process because, for hundreds of years, mercury has been used to extract gold from the ore. It is a quick and efficient process, but one that is highly poisonous to both the people using it and the local ecosystem – causing birth defects in children and shortened life spans in local communities. 

A British organisation, the CRED foundation, represented by Greg Valerio, along with local Ugandan organisation Environmental Women in Action for Development (EWAD) are behind these first steps of change in the gold trade. The aim of their projects is to give consumers a chance to make an ethical choice when buying a piece of gold jewellery. It’s not easy to find, but at least it is out there.


Image: Gold


The need for the current ‘sluicing’ process (pictured above) is eliminated by new ‘gold catcha’ machinery, bought as part of the Fairtrade project, reducing the processing time down from several hours to just a few minutes, and without the need to stand knee deep in muddy water.


Image: Gold


Gold being extracted from the rock using mercury. The mercury attracts microscopic particles of gold and forms it into a nugget. But mercury is known to be linked to many adverse effects such as nerve damage, skin damage, neurological disorders and birth defects.

In addition it contaminates the local ecosystem, remaining present for very long periods of time, and additionally the poisoning can be transferred through the consumption of infected animals.


Image: Gold


Processing the gold without mercury is a two stage process. The first involves a machine called a ‘gold konka’, a simple tool consisting of a series of rubber mats that catch the specks of gold with the help of running water. The second stage is smelting (see above).


Image: Gold


This ring was made by Russell Lownsbrough and Greg Valerio from 100% Fairtrade Ugandan gold.


Some facts about gold:

  • 1 kg gold from artisanal mining creates 45 jobs, but only creates 0.2 jobs from large scale mining. 
  • There are 30 million artisanal and small-scale miners worldwide, who make up 90% of the workforce in the gold sector, the majority of whom live on less than $1 a day.



Phil Clarke Hill is an independent travel journalist, photographer, documentary and film maker. He specialises in underground culture and unusual adventures.









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