Over Our Dead Salmon: Bristol Bay, DeBeers and Ethical Jewelry

Marc Choyt - July 22, 2013

'For those considering purchasing jewelry, support only those jewelers who can honestly answer the question: Can you trace your gold, silver platinum and gems from mine to market?'

With the value of precious metals historically high, hard rock mining will continue to threaten sensitive environmental areas.

We cannot expect much help from Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is strongly supported by the mining lobby and so long as he is in power, the 1872 mining act will remain the law of the land. In our state particularly, we have an administration that is extremely favorable to the extractive industries, even at the expense of environmental, archaeological or cultural concerns.

One way forward with domestic mining reform may be through public pressure generated by a concerted alliance between environmental organizations and a new coalition of ethical jewelers. In the past, jewelers and environmentalist stood at odds, for jeweler rely upon mined gold. But these days, there is a strong and growing group of small pioneer jewelers around the world who are deeply committed to environmental justice and human rights.

These companies utilize ethically-mined material to provide fair trade gold wedding rings, or they make jewelry with the easy supply of jewelry from recycled metals. Among this community, which I have helped to organize through my work at Fair Jewelry Action, there is recognition that large scale gold mining is not needed for more jewelry. Plus, there is more than enough gold existing to take care of the industrial needs.

Gold mining is one of the most destructive industrial activities on earth. It makes little sense to allow companies to destroy an environment, and suck aquifers dry, just to export wealth to international shareholders. Activists and indigenous people all over the world are attempting to block mining. Today, however, the most prominent environmental mining battle at least in North America is at Bristol Bay, also known as the Pebble Bay Mine--a pristine ecological national treasure located in Southwestern Alaska.   

The Troll Brothers, 2006

Environmentalists Organize Against Pebble Bay Mine

The Pebble Bay Mine is being proposed by the London based mining giant, Anglo American, in partnership with Northern Dynasty, a Canadian Company that owns the mineral rights. The mine expects to employ about 400 people, and in terms of overall area, would be the second largest in the world. 

To extract 55 billion pounds of copper, 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum and 67 million ounces of gold, massive dams would be built in environmentally sensitive areas, threatening the bay, which is home to the largest run of salmon, along with herring and other fisheries, accounting for 75 percent of local jobs. The mining is strongly opposed by environmental groups nationwide and Native people of the area.

Earthworks Action, an environmental NGO focusing on hard rock mining and drilling issues, has been strongly vocal in their opposition to the proposed mine. Through their No Dirty Gold campaign and Bristol Bay Pledge, they have highlighted the connection between jewelry and mining to both the consumer and the trade.

Perhaps the most high profile campaign to protect Bistol Bay has been waged by the National Resource Defense Counsel (NRDC), supported by Robert Redford, who has been featured prominently in NRDC’s full-page, anti-Bristol Bay ads in the New York Times. Their campaign has been focused on gathering signatures and putting public pressure on mining companies.  

Getting Mining Companies To Be More Responsive

These days, larger mining companies have “sustainable development” initiatives, but mining companies do not have consumer-facing brands, making it easier to ignore signatures and bad publicity. However, the linkage between Bristol Bay and other dirty gold issues is risky for jewelers, because jewelry is an emotional product with symbolic significance.

As the owner of a Santa Fe jewelry company and the founder of Fair Jewelry Action, an environmental justice and human rights network that campaigns for regenerative, fair trade practices in the precious metal, gem and diamond supply chain, I wrote to Redford and Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the NRDC. I suggested discussing opportunities for collaboration in linking jewelry with mining.  

NRDC and Redford at the time were targeting Rio Tinto — perhaps because Rio Tinto cares more about their CSR than other mining companies. In my letters, which were never responded to, I suggested that the NRDC could strengthen their message by connecting mining issues with jewelry. 

Ultimately, we need to get consumers to understand how to remedy the terrible disconnect in purchasing a wedding ring that caused twenty tons of toxic sludge. I also pointed out that Anglo American recently purchased 85 percent of DeBeers.

A consumer message such as: Buy A DeBeers Diamond And Support The Destruction of America’s Greatest Salmon Fishery over this upcoming holiday would probably garner some attention. 

Whether it is fair to link DeBeers and Anglo American is a tactical decision. Three million Africans died in wars that were funded by the diamond trade in the 1990s and not one person in the jewelry sector has ever been held accountable.  DeBeers, despite their history, is one of the most responsible mining companies in the jewelry sector. Their third-party reviewed environmental practices and downstream beneficiation in Botswana and other countries is a model for large-scale ethical mining practices. 

DeBeers, unlike Anglo American, is also hypersensitive in regard to their branding. Linking them to Bristol Bay mine is not without risk. But perhaps Anglo American is not going to understand anything other than a campaign that affects the bottom line in one of their most valuable assets. 

Crafting The Ethical Jewelry Message

Regardless, NRDC and other environmental organizations have not yet taken advantage of a new opportunity with jewelers.  People who should know better do not consider jewelry an environmental issue. In my letter to Redford, I raised the point that his prominent Sundance Catalog makes no issue of where and how they source their jewelry — a very odd disconnect.   

Perhaps this is because ethical jewelry is so new. With the introduction of fair trade gold into the world market and the prevalence of jewelry made from recycled metals, there is a strong coalition of small jewelers working on the grassroots who have proved the concept and business viability of ethically-sourced jewelry.   

We now have the opportunity to actually create an aspirational message with jewelry that will create a virtuous cycle. If fair trade gold jewelry had a strong market in the U.S., the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people living in the developing world would be lifted out of poverty. The amount of mercury in the environment would be reduced. We have a vision of jewelry that creates a better world. But as a group of small, artisanal jewelers, we need help from other organizations with a larger reach and the public who are concerned about our future.

For those considering purchasing jewelry, support only those jewelers who can honestly answer the question: Can you trace your gold, silver platinum and gems from mine to market?

Marc Choyt is Director of Fair Jewelry Action, USA. He is also President of Reflective Images, an ethical jewelry company that selling unusual wedding rings online and conflict free diamond and unique artisan wedding and engagement rings. His also sells Celtic wedding rings on his Celtic jewelry website.