Much media attention has been drawn to the problem of blood diamonds, but what about blood gold? The gold mining industry is often highly exploitative and unregulated, plagued by issues like child labour and hellish working conditions and causing enormous environmental damage because of the mercury and cyanide used in the extraction process, not to mention an almost complete lack of traceability along the supply chain.

A small but significant step towards more ethical gold has been the creation of the world’s first independent ethical certification system for gold, Fairtrade and Fairmined, in 2011. Fairtrade International and the Alliance for Responsible Mining have combined their expertise to enable artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) to improve their livelihoods. Bolivia’s Cotapata cooperative was the first mining organization in the world to receive the Fairtrade and Fairmined certification in December 2010.

Mining has taken place in the mountainous, rainforested area now covered by the Cotapata National Park for hundreds of years, but it was only in 1991 that a group of miners decided to formalize their activities and establish the Cotapata mining cooperative, which currently has 88 members. The Cotapata mining cooperative operates in accordance with strict principles and guidelines: for example, all workers, regardless of gender, receive a salary and are insured in the event of accident or death. The monthly salary paid to contracted workers is around $300, a good wage given that the national minimum is around $80. The level of payment depends on the profits of the mine when they sell their gold, and all the money earned is split equally between all members.

There is great superstition around women entering mines as miners believe the gold vein to be female and scared away by other women. However, Juana Peña was the first of now three female members of the cooperative who work as technicians. “It’’s really important that people know and understand women work here too and we work responsibly,” she says. Juana is a single mother with four children who came to work in the mine in order to pay for her children’s education. She is excited about selling their gold under Fairtrade and Fairmined terms: “I will be happy to receive a just price for the gold because we have made a real effort to fulfil the requirements necessary in improving our mining activity.”

Once extracted, Cotapata’s gold is transported to La Paz, where it is sold to a trading house for refinement and export. The cooperative produces around 3 kilos of gold a month. Under Fairtrade and Fairmined terms, the miners can now sell their gold directly to importers in Europe without the need for intermediaries who do not guarantee them a fair deal or pay the necessary taxes to the Bolivian government. Without the cooperative organization, exporting to European markets would be more difficult as the volumes of gold sold by individual members are very small.

The Fairtrade and Fairmined premium will also make it easier to invest in the mine and improve operations, as well as contributing the local development of the nearest community, Chairo. Cotapata has been working with a local university to improve the mine’s environmental impact by constructing a safe dam where tailings (mining waste) are stored before being sold to a Peruvian trader who processes the gold from them. The cooperative has already implemented safer methods for recovering gold using mercury, which were essential to receiving the Fairtrade and Fairmined certification.

Launched in the United Kingdom on 14 February, 2011, Fairtrade and Fairmined gold will hopefully draw attention to the ugly underside of the gold industry, and inspire consumers to think about the ethics of jewellery.
With thanks to the Fairtrade Foundation and the Alliance for Reponsible Mining for help with the story.