The Human Cost of Gold | National Geographic Magazine

Throughout civilization, gold has commanded more respect than any other substance. King Ferdinand of Spain said, “Get gold humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold.”

Because of its rarity, a glittering piece of gold jewelry is an expensive purchase. That’s nothing, however, compared to the price paid by those living in impoverished mining communities.

We are currently in the biggest gold rush in history. Because of the growing economies in India and China—especially India—the demand for gold is the highest it’s ever been.

Indians have more gold in jewelry alone than the US Treasury has in its vaults. Since the time of the spice route trade, India has consumed close to 50 percent of the annual output of gold—and the gold …

The Human Cost of Gold | National Geographic Magazine

Throughout civilization, gold has commanded more respect than any other substance. King Ferdinand of Spain said, “Get gold humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold.”

Because of its rarity, a glittering piece of gold jewelry is an expensive purchase. That’s nothing, however, compared to the price paid by those living in impoverished mining communities.

We are currently in the biggest gold rush in history. Because of the growing economies in India and China—especially India—the demand for gold is the highest it’s ever been.

Indians have more gold in jewelry alone than the US Treasury has in its vaults. Since the time of the spice route trade, India has consumed close to 50 percent of the annual output of gold—and the gold that goes into India stays there.

The easy gold has already been mined. Finding new gold usually involves ravaging pristine ecosystems and exploiting indigenous communities.

Gold is very rare. All of the gold in existence weighs 161,000 tons—the US Steel industry produces that much steel in just a few hours—and people have always horded it, even before Egyptians minted gold bars in 4,000 BC.  In all of history, the 161,000 tons of gold that have been mined, is barely enough to fill two Olympic pools. More than half has been extracted in the past 50 years.

Gold is unusually dense. A cubic foot weighs half a ton. Five percent of the world’s gold is stored at the New York Federal Reserve. This gold is too dense to ship easily so it is stored there for other countries.  The move of just a few feet between storage closets can shape the balance of financial power between nations.

Gold is extremely malleable. One ounce can be spread out over 100 square feet.

Gold is too soft and too scarce for most uses.  Almost ninety percent of it is used for adornment or money, and the remainder is used for industrial purposes. Gold also never disappears, and never oxidizes.

My best story about how gold never disappears is that I went to the worlds largest jewelry manufacturing facility in India – Rajesh Exports Limited – which is also the biggest exporter of gold in the world.  They are the only private company allowed to import gold into India.  They move 70-75 metric tons of products out of their factory every year.  A standard number for waste in their industry is 3 to 3.5 percent.  Their waste is only .3 percent.  There are over a thousand people working in a huge building that resembles a prison – 95 percent of them also live in company housing. They go to EXTREME efforts to not lose any gold. All gold facilities mop the floors and run the mop water through a recovery process. But Rajesh Exports takes this one step further. They require employees to live in company housing. The company housing sewage plant runs the workers waste through a recovery process – so if any of the workers ingest gold in any way, when they go to their company bathroom, it is recovered. This makes sense to me – tons of earth must be moved and washed— backbreaking labor that turns the land into a moonscape—to have a few glimmers of gold in your pockets. The ring on my finger means someone, with or without machinery, had to move and process 20 tons of material. The glittering luxury of gold, like the sparkle of a diamond, does not reflect the inhumane manner in which it was likely acquired.

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