'National Geographic' Mines 'The Real Price Of Gold' The price of gold has risen 235 percent in the past eight years, but as journalist Brook Larmer and photographer Randy Olson report in this month's National Geographic, the environmental and human costs related to the mineral have never been higher.
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'National Geographic' Mines 'The Real Price Of Gold'

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'National Geographic' Mines 'The Real Price Of Gold'

'National Geographic' Mines 'The Real Price Of Gold'

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TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. I would guess that most of us are wearing something gold - a wedding band, earrings, gold chain, your Christmas gift. Speaking for myself, I have no idea where the gold in my jewelry came from and under what conditions the gold was mined.

The cover story of this month's National Geographic is troubling. It's about the true cost of gold today, and it concludes that the price in dollars and suffering has never been higher. According to the article, the world's richest deposits are fast being depleted and new discoveries are rare. Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. The techniques for extracting gold often degrade the health of the miners and the environment.

To research the National Geographic story on gold, reporter Brook Larmer and photographer Randy Olson went to some of the corners of the world where gold is mined. Larmer is joining us from Bangkok, where he is based, Olson from Pittsburgh.

Randy, you have a photo of a mine in Congo. It's in a shaft that was dug decades ago by a Belgian company. Would you describe the photo and what mining conditions are like there?

RANDY OLSON: Well, I think describing just getting to this place because everyone that mines in that place has to do this as well. The story that I was actually on was on pygmies and how the last forests in Africa are disappearing, and what's destroying the pygmies' forests are these kind of cancerous growth of gold mines all around the Atouri(ph).

And just to get to these gold mines you have to choose whether you're going to go by car, which is about four days, or by motor bike, which is about a day and a half. And to get there, we had to strap extra bags onto the motor bike and fill them primarily with Jack Daniels because as you go every few miles, you've got to stop at a warlord's hut and put a bottle of Jack on his card table while some child soldier eyes you with that look that - that it'd be just as easy to talk to you as kill you. You know, that kind of glazed-over look that they get.

So after about four or five of these warlords, you actually get to some of these gold mines where people are crawling over these hillsides like ants trying to get the last little bits of gold out of what was huge Belgian mines that were used at the end of World War II to support the war effort.

GROSS: So they're - they're just kind of feeding on the remains of an abandoned mine.

OLSON: You go back in a huge shaft, and you'll find an African back there banging a couple of rocks together. It's very low-tech compared to what the Belgians were doing.

GROSS: So - so what do these miners who were ekeing out an existence looking for remnants of gold in the abandoned gold mine, what do they do if they actually find something? How do they sell it?

OLSON: Well, they sell it to intermediaries, and in any of these places, third-world gold mines, there are people on site. Like, there's a photograph in Guyana of a woman trying to weigh gold in an outpost in Guyana. And these intermediaries pay them much less money but then they are responsible for getting them to the main distribution points.

GROSS: And this way the people who are mining the gold don't have to travel through all the checkpoints run by the warlords and the child soldiers.

OLSON: Right.

GROSS: And you just described what conditions are like in this mine. Your photograph has basically like layers of people with shovels.

OLSON: Well, this mine is just a crack in the earth left by the Belgian colonialists, and they are trying to just pound out bits of rock to get the last little bits. I mean, they got the main gold when they went in initially, but they don't really - they don't have any kind of science. They're just hoping that since the Belgians dug there that it's a good place.

GROSS: And so do the people find anything in this mine?

OLSON: Yeah. People come up and show little bits of gold and - but artisanal miners, you know, they don't make that much money, and the process is really pretty harmful. I mean, one-third of the mercury that we all breathe comes directly from artisanal mining. So the people that are involved in any of this kind of mining are brushing their teeth in the same amalgam ponds that the mercury is being washed in. Water becomes a resource in most of these places, and so it's all polluted, it's all dredged out, and there's very little water for these folks to use. And UNIDO goes in and tests these folks for mercury levels, and I think 200 or 300 is normal, and they're all, you know, 1,000, 2,000 parts per million. It's a pretty insidious deal to get a little - a little bit of money.

GROSS: Brook, do you want to explain why there's so much mercury released into the environment and absorbed by these miners in the process?

BROOK LARMER: Well, if you're looking at the small-scale mines, this is where the mercury is really released, and it's released at two separate points. I mean, I think it's the same in most parts of the world. There's the first part. After the rock has already been removed from the hole and people are milling the rock, they are grinding it down to tiny particles, and then the mercury - liquid mercury, what used to be known as quick silver - is added to the mix. And the gold, it basically gloms onto the gold as the heaviest particle there.

And so what comes out of that - and you squeeze it through a sack cloth - is a little nugget called a mercury amalgam. And some of the liquid mercury that was with it gets washed out right into the streams outside - outside of these little mills. And I saw this in particular up in La Rinconada, the mine in Peru, up around 18,000 feet, where all the streams are - are basically infected by this mercury that's coming out of hundreds of little teeny mills that are releasing liquid mercury. Now that's just one part of it.

The second part, though, is what do you do with that mercury amalgam when you have it? It's - people you'll see going from there to the buyers. And in the village where I was in Peru, in La Rinconada, the buyers were in the same village. And they basically burn off - with a very hot blue flame - burn off the mercury so that it is actually released as a gas into the atmosphere. And this combination of both the liquid and the gaseous forms of mercury are really the double whammy of small-scale mining.

And in the place where I was visiting, which was so high in the Andes, it was 18,000 feet and the air was very thin, mercury gas was heavy so that it almost immediately recondensed on the roofs of these little shacks that were around the village. So people are really being coated with mercury, literally, as you walk through the village, and much of this mercury is being burned off the nuggets as people try to get to the little gold that they've gotten out of the earth.

GROSS: The mine that you're talking about is high up in the Peruvian Andes, and you describe it as being literally on top of the world. You also describe it as a Shangri-La in reverse. You say electricity just got there a few years ago. Is there still no plumbing?

LARMER: There is still no plumbing, and I don't know when or if plumbing will ever arrive. They do have, because of the wealth that has been generated over the last few years, they have fancy TVs for sale on these mud- and excrement-strewn streets, but they don't have any plumbing.

So this is - I call it a Shangri-La in reverse because people seem to age about twice as quickly there. The actual age expectancy is about 50 years, and you meet people who are in their young 30s and actually look like they're already at a very advanced age. And that comes from just the exposure to very harsh conditions that high up.

You know, this is the highest inhabited - permanently inhabited town on Earth. And it's not just a little outpost. I mean, I was attracted to it partly because it was - it did show an extreme, but it's not really extreme. This is the largest small-scale artisanal mine in South America, so this has brought people who have been out of work in the countryside, who are not necessarily used to being up at 18,000 feet on a permanent basis, and so they are exposed to the elements in many different ways, as well as all of the hazards that mining itself brings.

GROSS: So - so this mine attracts a lot of people who are basically destitute, and this is like their last hope of getting something. In order to get it - in order to try to get some gold, you expose yourself to mercury poisoning and probably all kinds of other health problems because of the lack of plumbing. Yes?

LARMER: That's right, that's right. I think you'll see all across the world that these gold mines are really kind of the last lottery for a lot of people. And in - in Peru, it really is a lottery. There is a system of work there that's called the cachorreo, which is basically a system in which the miners, who as you say have come from the countryside where they received a pittance for a monthly salary, and they come, and in the mines they don't earn any money for 30 days. Every month, 30 days they work for the owner of the hole in the ground. On the 31st day - in some cases it's 45 days, in some cases it's a little less than 30 days - but basically, one day a month, one shift a month for four hours, they and their little group of men go in and are allowed to pull out the rock that will be their monthly salary.

So this is really a lottery. If they get a nugget of gold, which is very rare, they will feel like this is - what other place on Earth could they have this chance? For the most part, though, they get much, much less than that, barely enough to subsist, and in some cases, to go broke.

GROSS: Wow. So you work for thirty days or so with no pay, and then you get a lot of rocks and hopefully there's a fleck of gold in it that you can sell.

LARMER: That's right. And that day, you can imagine, is fraught with a lot of tension. It differs for each - each mine. Basically, these are hard to call mines because each one is a narrow hole in the ice. They're digging about 50 meters to 100 meters through a glacier to get to the rock below, which is where the - where the gold is. But on that day, there's - there's a lot of spirits that are invoked in order to help their luck, and you'll see these guys gathered outside of their holes drinking a little pisco, making their offering of cacao leaves to the Earth, their offerings to the Earth. And also, of course, chewing cacao leaves in order to enhance their own stamina and endurance to make it through.

GROSS: My guests are reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson. We're talking about their National Geographic cover story on the true cost of gold. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

P: The True Cost of a Global Obsession." And they visited and reported on mines large and small around the world for this story.

You both went to a mine on an island of Indonesia run by a very large mining company that now runs open-pit gold mines on five continents. And this particular mine employs 8,000 people, so it's different from what you've been describing already. You've been describing these artisanal mines in which basically individuals go in and try to eke out an existence finding flecks of gold. But this is a big corporate mine. Randy, do you want to visually describe what the mine looks like? You have an incredible photo of it in the National Geographic.

OLSON: Well, it's a mile wide, and as you fly in, it's a gash in the earth that you can see from space. And the PR person on the flight said one man's gash in the earth is another man's investment. But it has these trucks crawling around it that are operated by Islamic women that have a diesel engine in each tire and are about 40 feet high, and just the sense of scale is kind of overwhelming when you realize that these little ant-like trucks in this crater are actually that large.

GROSS: Rick, you have an incredible statistic about comparing the number of hours it takes in this mine to accumulate ore and waste compared to previously in the history of gold mining. You want to give that to us?

LARMER: Yes. I think this is really one of the points that is so incredible about gold mining right now is that they're chasing these small flecks of gold, and it requires just an enormous amount of movement of earth. In this mine in particular - and it's not a reflection of the mine's inefficiency, this is just the way it works. They actually, in just 16 hours, will accumulate more ore and waste than all of the gold itself that has been mined in human history.

OLSON: There - there are two other ways to put this, if you're interested. One is that just a typical wedding band at this mine involves moving 250 tons of material. The other is that there is only 160,000 tons of gold in the world, which is the typical output of steel in - you know, a few days.

GROSS: Right, you said that the amount of gold that's been mined in the history of the world would fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools? Do I have that right?

OLSON: Yes.

LARMER: That's right.

GROSS: That's kind of incredible. That's not a lot of area.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHER)

OLSON: No.

GROSS: So - OK. So for - you said, Randy, that just to get enough gold for a wedding band, you'd have to move how many - how many pounds?

OLSON: Two hundred and fifty tons of material in this particular mine. It varies from mine to mine. This is a mine that has copper as well as gold, so...

GROSS: So what do they do with all those tons of material, all those tons of rocks? Where do they go?

LARMER: Well, this is the really big question about open-pit mining, and this is the quandary that faces any mining company that has to do work in the - in the developing or the developed world. There are two basic ways in which the waste is deposited. One is the waste that comes right out of the mine, and this is rock that they've determined is not of high enough grade to even process. And at the Batu Hijau mine in Indonesia, which is a very efficiently and well-run mine, they have about a strip ratio of 1.4, which means that a greater percentage of waste will go directly to the piles of waste that are piled around the mine that they will have to then try to seed and reclaim as forest.

Now, the other large portion of waste is in the tailings, and there's always a question of where do you - where does a mine put the tailings...

GROSS: Tailings is what? The effluent from the...

LARMER: Tailings are the effluent from the chemical process by which they separate the copper and gold from the rest of the rock. And it's heavier in metal than most of the soil around, and then certainly it poses some danger to living organisms. The question in most minds is where do you deposit this and how do you control its influence on the rest of the environment around you?

In Indonesia, which has a unique situation of being an island mine, Newmont decided and got the approval of the Indonesian government to actually release the effluent in the sea through what's called submarine tailings disposal. So there's a huge pipe that goes out 2.1 miles in the sea and about 400 feet deep, deposits this incredible flow of relatively chemically heavy tailings into the sea where it then falls down to a shelf that goes several thousand feet down in the sea.

Now, this is a relatively controversial practice, so though Newmont argues that on an island there really is no alternative, and the Indonesian government would agree because if they released all of these tailings in the forest, that would create much more damage to a higher level of biodiversity than it does on the sea bottom. Nevertheless, this is the only place on Earth where this particular disposal is practiced.

GROSS: So let me get this straight. The rocks that are the waste product of this gold and copper mining, they get deposited on the rain forest, and that's not good for the rain forest. And then...

LARMER: That's right.

GROSS: The chemical effluent gets funneled into the sea, and that's not great for the sea.

LARMER: That's correct. They have to clear area in the rain forest in order to have place to put their waste, and that is one area where they're actually running into some limitations. The Indonesian government, which has changed since the days of Suharto when the mine was originally approved, no longer wants to...

GROSS: Suharto was the dictator of Indonesia.

LARMER: That's correct. And now the new government is not as willing to lend the rain forest to the mining companies to use to deposit their waste. Newmont has had an application for an extra about 80 acres - 79 acres of rain forest because they're running out of space to put their rock waste. And yet the government has not yet approved this.

Now, Newmont has gone to great lengths to try to use a reclamation process by which they try to restore this rock waste to its original jungle state. And of course, this is early days in a primary force that's existed for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands or millions of years. It's hard to replace that overnight, but that is certainly one of the things that they trumpet in terms of their environmental concern.

The effluent that goes into the sea is chemically treated already, and if you go there, they will actually have you sift your hands through it to show that it actually is not damaging. But it does have a heavier metal content than the surrounding soils, and it does hurt animals that are on the seabed floor. Of course, those are not quite as abundant or colorful as the ones that exist in the rain forest.

GROSS: What about the conditions for miners in this big corporate mine on an island in Indonesia? Is life for the miners better than in those artisanal mines where people are desperately trying to eke out an existence?

LARMER: Oh, it's much better. The people who get jobs at the mines - at the mine in Indonesia are actually considered the lucky ones, and they usually turn into the pillars of their family, the main provider of income for their extensive families. Now, there are about five villages that are really in close proximity to the mine itself, and Newmont has gone out of its way to try and do programs in these five communities, and that's where many of the local workers come from.

About 4,000 out of the 7,000-plus employees at this mine are actually Indonesians, and a percentage of those are from the local district, and those are really the lucky ones. And you'll go to their houses and they'll have built within the last few years or changed their house from a thatched hut to a two-storey brick house or a brick house. And this is, you know, the local - very local impact has been very positive.

Now, people look beyond these small villages will complain that in the process, the cost of living has gone way up and they don't have jobs, and so life for them is much more difficult, and they haven't seen a speck of the gold or copper that has come out of this mine, so what really is the benefit for them? And so you'll hear different opinions if you travel around the island.

GROSS: Reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson collaborated on the National Geographic's cover story about the true cost of gold. They'll be back in the second half of the show. You can see some of Olson's photos on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson. We're talking about their National Geographic cover story on the true cost of gold in human suffering and environmental damage. Their research took them to mines around the world.

You write in this story that all the gold that's ever been mined in the history of gold mining would fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that doesn't seem like very much, and what's hard for me to figure about that is that gold has been an obsession basically through the history of mankind, I think. So how can it be that in all of those years, with all the gold that's been, you know, worn and sculpted and this and that, how can there be so little of it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OLSON: Well, I think the surprise in this story is that everyone can get their mind around the fact that gold is inert, it's dense, it's rare. Maybe it's a little more difficult to understand that it's basically worthless, and that's why it's a good source for money. I mean, you can't smoke it. You can't eat it. Most of it's used for adornment - jewelry or hording. Only a small percent of it is industrial. But getting ready for this story, I kept reading that it never disappears, that all of the gold that's ever been mined is pretty much still with us. I mean, sure, some of it could be at the bottom of the ocean in ships or whatever, but basically, it never disappears.

And I really didn't understand that until going to India, and where the artisanal goldsmiths work, just outside their shops, I photographed women panning for gold in streets of garbage because the way artisanal goldsmiths work, they get 103 grams of gold, and they're expected to turn back in 100 grams of jewelry, so they lose about a gram in that process of filing and washing and polishing.

So even though small little bits of gold are so valuable, there's a whole little industry of folks that get in those streets very early in the morning before the streetsweepers come through to get those last little bits. And the most surprising situation was...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. So they're basically looking for gold left over from the jewelry making process? Do I have that right?

OLSON: Yes. That one gram that disappears in the process of making jewelry, the women in the streets that are panning for gold recover it. There's an industry based on recovering just that little bit of gold.

GROSS: Wow.

OLSON: But the most surprising one I found was the biggest jewelry factory in the world, which was actually more complicated to get in through their security than the New York Fed was. I photographed them mopping all the floors. And you know, this is standard in these jewelry factories to mop the floors and then run the mop water through a recovery system. But they encouraged all of their employees to live on site. And the sewers actually went through a recovery system, so if you ingest their gold in the workplace and you then excrete it, they get it back.

GROSS: I'd be interested in hearing how doing this National Geographic cover story on gold affected your thoughts on wearing gold jewelry or on investing in gold or on the symbolic meaning of gold. Brook, can we start with you?

LARMER: Well, I think anybody who goes out to these mines, whether they're the small - especially the small-scale artisanal mines in remote parts of the world realizes just the amount of sweat and toil that goes into producing a single ounce of gold. And that is a sobering reality that anybody going to the retail shops you keep in mind, and certainly I do. At the same time, though, you also see that how much value is put into them.

While it's used as a decorative item in most - more than two-thirds of gold sales are for jewelry or ornamentation - its value has maintained itself, and certainly since 2001, it has gone up by 350 percent. As people feel uncertainty in other parts of their lives, gold has been a haven for investors. So I can't necessarily denigrate that, but I certainly do have a new appreciation for just the difficulty and the destruction that actually goes along with its mining.

GROSS: And Randy, what about you?

OLSON: Well, there are certainly things that are bad that need to be corrected. But you know, the most difficult thing about doing this kind of work is not been ethnocentric, and you can never get away from it. But I come from a very wealthy culture in the United States, and when I see folks in an amalgam pond brushing their teeth, women washing the clothes, swimming, bathing, and also ingesting mercury because that's where they're - have mercury, they're working with their hands and everything else, I mean, I'm repulsed by that.

But those people were relocated from East Java to Borneo, where they were getting pennies a day hoeing fields, you know, doing hard labor, and now they're getting $5 a day. And it's just very difficult to come from such a privileged place and realize that 90 percent of the world is struggling in such dire circumstances, and sometimes it's a little bit better and enough better that they're actually very happy.

I mean, there's a photograph in this story of artisanal goldsmiths, and they're in this very crowded sweatshop, and that space they're sitting is the space they have for their life. You know, that's where they work at this little workstand, the clothes hanging above their heads, that's their closet. They push the workstand away and that's where they sleep. And from a very ethnocentric position, you say, you know, how horrible this sweatshop is.

But you know, these guys are all from the same village. They are making $300 to $400 a month, which is a lot of money. They help each other. They need each other. They go for tea, for food. They take care of each other. When someone goes back to that village, they take all the money from all of them, and eventually they'll be able to buy a small farm in their village, and it's just something that they're doing. So there are certainly awful things with small-scale artisanal mining. The mercury is a huge issue for me. But there are also situations where people are making a much better life for themselves because we have this group think that this material is so valuable.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. And Brook, thanks for finding a way to talk to us from Bangkok.

LARMER: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: And Randy from Pittsburg, thank you very much.

OLSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Reporter Brook Larmer and photojournalist Randy Olson collaborated on the National Geographic cover story about the true cost of gold. You can see some of Olson's photos on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, NBC's new White House correspondent, Chuck Todd. This is Fresh Air.

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