Ever since we became registered as Fairtrade licensees, I’ve been intrigued not only by the whole process of gold mining but the accreditation process too. This is what miners have to go through in order to be able to have a Fairtrade license. So, when we heard that Fairtrade had invited Dan Omondi Odida, the General Secretary of MICODEPRO, to visit the UK we jumped at the chance to meet him. MICODEPRO is a Kenyan gold mining co-operative in Migori County and is one of Fairtrade's nine East African pilot projects, of which there are three in Uganda, two in Kenya and four in Tanzania. But, it went one better than that, we were to host Dan at our Hackney studio where we would have the chance to talk at length about his experiences, plans and answer any questions he might have about how we use Fairtrade gold. It was on a hot September day last week when we welcomed Dan, along with some of the team from Fairtrade and a cameraman who’s been documenting Dan’s Story whilst he’s been in the UK.
Sitting next to Dan with a head full of questions, the first thing I wanted to do was to show him how we receive our Fairtrade Gold and I was intrigued to hear that sometimes it comes out of the ground looking exactly the same as the grain we buy! Although, I had to inform Dan that the Fairtrade Gold we receive is an 18ct gold alloy made up of 75% gold with silver and copper making up the rest – a concept that was new to him. As were the other forms we buy it in: sheet, wire and chain. I then talked him through the ways we use Fairtrade Gold as well as our GoldRush Collection, which is fully Fairtrade. He loved that you could see, albeit with my magnifying headset, the Fairtrade logo on our hallmark. Once we’d finished the tour of our workshop it was Dan’s turn to educate us in his world.
MICODEPRO was founded as a gold mining co-operative in 1999 and they entered a four-year programme in 2012 with the Fairtrade Foundation. Then, earlier this year, with an additional grant from Comic Relief, Fairtrade was able to extend their African Gold Programme. Working with Fairtrade Africa enabled MICODEPRO, along with a couple of other groups, to have audits carried out to assess whether their mining practices were in line with Fairtrade’s Standard for Gold and Precious Metals.
Having visited small-scale and artisanal gemstone mines myself; I know how rudimentary the equipment can be. Often just as alluvial deposits, you only need to dig down through the topsoil in order to access the gem-bearing material. However, gold bearing ore as encountered by Dan, is harder to access, with mines often going to a depth of 100m. This adds other complicated factors such as underground water, especially during periods of intense rain, pit stability, as well as working in confined areas not to mention the hazardous mercury used during extraction.
I often find that in order to appreciate how far we have come forward it is good to go back and acknowledge the past. Knowing that, when working towards Fairtrade certification, one of the key areas that are addressed is health and safety I was keen to know what dangers the miners had faced in the past. “If it is not well managed, it is very risky”, Dan explained. Having lost friends in the past, he ran through a sobering list of the hazards unregulated miners face everyday both in and out of the mines. Petrol-engine generators and pumps taken down into the stifling pits cause lethal levels of carbon-monoxide; walls which haven’t been properly timbered collapsing inwards, trapping miners; boulders dislodged from blasting or drilling coming loose and crashing down into the pits; slipping in underground waters and drowning. Then once you’ve brought the sacks of gold-bearing earth to the surface, the toxic nature of the mercury that is used to extract the gold particles.
Of all the dangers, whilst most are immediate, it is the mercury that is the most wide reaching. Before the miners of MICODEPRO undertook their training they wouldn’t think twice of handling mercury without any precautions, using their bare hands to mix it with the powdered earth, washing their gold-pan in the river, using merely a hanky to squeeze out excess mercury and when it came to burning the mercury off the amalgam they would often do this inside their home. Dan elaborated that, “mercury can never be diluted or destroyed”. If you’re burning it in your home the mercury will be in the fumes and it will then settle on your cooking utensils or perhaps food you have ready to prepare. If you touch it with bare hands it sticks in your pores then enters your body where it gradually builds up. If you wash your pan in the river it enters the river system where you wash your clothes or your children play. Further down the river systems, it enters the food chain through fish. This danger, in fact one faced by most artisanal and small-scale gold miners around the world, is lethal not only for those individuals but their community.
This is the stark reality for unregulated gold miners. Since on the Fairtrade Programme, MICODEPRO have undertaken training so they not only are aware of the perils they face daily and have the equipment to protect themselves but they now mine safely with all their pits fully timbered, electric pumps and protective clothing. Further more they have banned any child labour in the mines and are addressing gender equality by paying men and women the same price for processing. Since being empowered they refuse to go back to their old ways. Even when faced with a lack of vital capital needed to buy new electric motors the mine sits unused rather than taking the step backwards. This is the situation they sadly face at present. Whilst there are unscrupulous middleman eager to lend to miners at an extortionate rate, therefore locking them into a cycle of debt, banks deem mining, especially artisanal and small-scale mining, to be too risky to invest in. The Fairtrade Foundation is working towards helping MICODEPRO to create a credit facility. This means that, all being well, they will have Fairtrade certification in early 2017. Not long after that fully traceable Fairtrade East African Gold will arrive in the UK and to our workshop.
It was a privilege to be able to share knowledge with Dan that we can take back to our respective ends of the pipeline. I hope to use our knowledge in an empathic way by educating not only our customers but sharing the reality that these miners face everyday, therefore, encouraging consumers and other jewellers to make the proactive choice to use Fairtrade Gold. Our lives and livelihoods, whilst worlds apart are inextricably linked through gold – and I for one want that link only to be a positive one.