The Gold Rush Goes Global

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 7/15/2008 01:38:00 AM
"There's gold in them hills" is the siren song that lures folks from all walks of life in the pursuit of the once-again very precious metal. As the price (prize?) of an ounce of gold approaches $1,000/oz., there is no shortage of prospectors, from large mining firms to fly-by-night operators. Reuters has an interesting extended feature on the new gold rush unfolding the world over. Sometime ago, I featured an article about Californians getting their metal detectors out and searching for the precious metal in the Golden State. Unsurprisingly, this enthusiasm for finding buried treasure does not escape the attention of others. Given limited finds, though, there have been skirmishes and conflicts which sometimes turn deadly. Here is the introduction to the rather lengthy article; the rest is worth reading:
Poor men and women in Ghana, ex-militia fighters in steamy eastern Congo and farmers in Peru are among those joining the ranks of illegal miners and risking their lives as they seek to profit from soaring gold prices. As a new gold rush spreads to the world's remotest corners, the face-off between illegal, small-scale miners and multinational firms has cost millions of dollars and claimed lives.

Not all small-scale miners work illegally, but as international firms move into ever more remote and politically risky countries, they sometimes tread on the toes of artisanal miners who have worked that land for years. Alternatively, the mining conglomerate's trucks and cranes can act as magnets that draw small-scale miners to a previously unexplored area.

Whatever the dynamic, the result can be explosive. "The higher prices of gold have made illegal mining become an issue in areas where there wasn't any problem before," said Olle Ostensson, chief of the natural resources section at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Gold prices have trebled over the past five years. After coming off recent highs, spot gold rose to above $950 an ounce last week as tensions in the Middle East continued to encourage investors to seek safe haven in bullion.

There are between 13 and 20 million small-scale miners around the world, according to Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM), a group focusing on social and environmental problems facing artisanal mining communities. They account for about 10 percent of the global production of metals and diamonds, and 75 percent of all gemstones. Around 100 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on small-scale mining.

"High commodity prices and declining resources around them (artisanal miners) in other areas are going to mean this is a growing phenomenon in many countries," said Jon Hobbs of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID).

Hobbs also chairs CASM, which is sponsored by DFID and the World Bank and is working with multinationals to draw up guidelines on how to tackle illegal mining. As security costs and the threat of plant closures mount, international firms are trying to find a solution.

"Companies have realized this is their biggest social problem ... and it is growing all the time ... there are mines that are getting 6,000 people (illegal miners) on their sites a week," said Kevin D'Souza, mining engineer and technical director at the consultancy Wardell Armstrong.