Digging Deep for Fairtrade

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Miner Amos Tangaca (striped top) and colleagues at the Ilana Gold Mine, in Geita in north Tanzania. Photo by Matt Crossick

Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive of Fairtrade International, recently she travelled to Uganda and Tanzania to visit small scale gold miners working to become Fairtrade certified. On the trip she also visited coffee farmers at KCU in Tanzania, one of the oldest producer organizations in the Fairtrade system. Harriet recounts her experience with gold producers in Uganda and Tanzania who are building up to compliance with the Fairtrade Standards. This post is part 1 of 2. Read part 2 here.

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I must confess a weakness for ear-rings, getting pleasure from my somewhat random collection. But my most precious pair is made of Fairtrade gold by Harriet Kelsall, a small London designer, who was there from Day One when Fairtrade gold was launched in the UK market. I treasure them for their beauty; but also because they remind me of our toughest challenge yet – bringing Fairtrade to the notorious artisanal and small scale gold sector. A livelihood for some 100 million people, it’s a sector plagued by dangerous conditions, and terrible exploitation. This August, I saw for myself how artisanal and small scale miners are working in East Africa.

And I got a shock.

Stephen Padde, the articulate leader of a group of miners in Uganda, is keen to explain why he initially got in touch with Fairtrade. In 1994, a multinational company was given licences to mine gold over 1500 acres in his region. In 2005, the company forcefully evicted 700 families from their land with no compensation.

Stephen explains: “We decided to resist and say, No – we cannot allow companies to come here. This land belongs to the people. You would lose the grave of your father if they took your land. So we formed groups to resist and we held a lot of demonstrations. Then in 2010 we got a licence to mine – and we still have that. The company did then give some compensation – not enough, it was unfair – but now it has become difficult for the company to work here.”

That battle behind them, Stephen and his fellow miners now want to improve conditions.

He explains how in the region, “We were mining haphazardly, digging shafts without proper support. We had pits that kept collapsing all the time, as the walls collapse in the rain.”

Simon Wandera, a gentle, quiet man, started mining at age 14 year and has continued for the next 30 years having to go deeper and deeper to extract gold. For their dangerous work finding this precious metal, they get less than $1 a day. It’s not enough to live on – let alone make the vitally needed investments in safer equipment and practices.

One of the biggest challenges is the way people use mercury to separate the gold from the rock. First workers with bare hands mix mercury (which is highly toxic) with water and pounded rock dust so the gold clings to the mercury. Worse to come: once the gold has clung to the mercury, people burn it off in open pans to separate the gold. This process leaves mercury vapours rising into air all around.

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Now the group is part of a Fairtrade project, funded by Comic Relief, to explore how Fairtrade could work with gold miners in Africa. Currently, local experts are working with the miners to see how they can improve conditions.

“Fairtrade has created all our awareness about mercury poisoning,” explained Naomi Onega, the leader of a women’s group in the Ugandan pilot (at right). “People used to burn off the mercury in the open, in their kitchens, when children were around. As it evaporates, the mercury gets in your eyes and some people complain about their eyes. The mercury was going into the river where our animals go to drink and where we get the fish we eat. This has left many people suffering from the mercury.”

Read part 2 here or read more about the Fairtrade Gold project in the Guardian.