Responsible gemstones mining

Carmen García-Carballido is a geologist, gemmologist and ethical gemstone supplier. In this article she introduces us to responsible mining of coloured gemstones, presenting three cases of ethical and traceable production from Sri Lanka, Australia and Tanzania.

Australian Opals, Capricorn Gems

About 80% of coloured stones are mined annually by artisanal miners.

Scope of the mining operation

Most of the deposits where coloured gemstones are found were formed from ancient river deposits, which once carried sediments eroded from the bedrock (where the gemstones are created) forming accumulations of gravel, sand and clay. Depending on the depth of the deposit and its extent, different methods of extraction are required and the scale of mining varies from small excavations at ground level, to large quarries and even deep underground mines.

Both gem and metal mining takes place on various scales: small, medium and large, depending on the scale of the mining operation.

Mining corporations focus on medium and large-scale activities, building large quarries and deep mines and they even dredge under the sea. Their activity is often highly mechanised and requires specialised personnel. These corporations are responsible for the production of about 80% of the world’s diamonds and 80% of the world’s gold, but only extract about 20% of the world’s production of coloured gems.

Artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) is an activity that employs more than 100 million people worldwide. About 80% of coloured stones, 20% of diamonds and approximately 20% of gold production are mined annually by artisanal miners. This mining activity is carried out in many countries of the world and consists of small-scale, underground and/or open-pit mining, typically in remote locations. Mining tools and methods are often rudimentary. ASM is carried out in small groups, sometimes members of the same family, who move from place to place in search of gems.

Due to the nature of this activity, it is often carried out clandestinely, sometimes involving child labour, unfortunately it also involves human rights abuses and the land is often left unrestored. This is not an example of responsible mining, it is not good for workers, it is not good for the environment, and it does not give the jewellery industry a good reputation.

The first step in making a mining project responsible is to recognise the mining activity itself and to legalise it. Mining permits entail legal obligations depending on the country, but include, for example, payment of taxes, regularisation of employment, inspections by the authority, obligation to restore the land and the customs declaration of the gems to be exported.

When we act honestly, through a transparent supply chain, respecting human rights, promoting the social development of mining families, paying a living wage to miners and lapidaries and respecting the environment, we are applying ethical practices, and we are contributing to making the world a better place. Poverty is reduced, gender inequality is mitigated, workers’ health and hygiene is improved and environmental destruction is prevented. This is the philosophy that characterises suppliers of ethical and traceable gemstones, such as Ethical Gemstones of the World.

Below are three examples of responsible mining that produce ethical and traceable gems, all of which are available through ‘Ethical Gemstones of the World’.

Sapphire mining in Sri Lanka

They are usually underground workings that start with a shaft (vertical) which can be up to 20m deep, to enable access to the gem-bearing layer. Galleries (usually horizontal) are dug inside the earth from the base of the shaft and are extended in the search for gems. This is the case of sapphire mining in Sri Lanka (PHOTO-1), where shafts are constructed with pick and shovel and have a robust structure created from logs (gumtree & bamboo) and local vegetation without the use of any nails. Access to the gallery is made by climbing down the shaft using ropes and the log structure. The excavated material is brought to the surface in baskets using a pulley and with the help of water the sediment is washed to reveal the gems. A pump is required to remove the water that constantly floods the mine and, sometimes, assisted ventilation is required. There is also a rudimentary system with tubes to communicate from the inside.

PHOTO-1: Shaft construction in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka (Nineteen48)

When the mine runs out, the mined space is filled in with the same sediment that has been extracted and the land is restored. It is a danger to the miners themselves and their families to leave shafts open when the mine is no longer in operation, as even a child or an animal can fall in and cause a fatality.

Opal mining in Australia

Boulder opal mining in Australia is mostly open cast mining, especially in central Queensland. They use small excavators to remove some of the topsoil to access the level where the concretions (large boulders) where the precious opal is sometimes found.

Once mining is finished, the surface material and soil is returned. Over time, native vegetation colonises the land, largely erasing the effects of mining. Australian legislation obliges miners to restore the land, otherwise they are not refunded the deposit paid when applying for a mining permit.

In other areas such as Lightning Ridge (New South Wales), opals are found at greater depths and it is necessary to drill access shafts and construct galleries. Australian legislation makes it compulsory to reduce the size of the machinery used, which is why the access shaft cannot exceed one metre in diameter. In addition, all the machinery to be used in the interior must fit through this shaft.

Mining of rubies, garnets and other gemstones in Tanzania

Sometimes the gems are discovered by the farmers directly in the soil while ploughing the land or harvesting the plantations. In this case, the exploitation does not require any major transformation of the land other than turning the soil. This is how several women in the Umba valley (Tanga, Tanzania) started to find tourmalines, sapphires, garnets and rubies. At first, they did not even know what kind of gems they were, whether they would be of any value and whether it would be worth walking for several hours (round trip) over the weekend in search of a buyer, and whether they would end up being ripped off. It is quite common to find that artisanal miners do not know their own product, and so it is easy for an unscrupulous buyer to cheat them.

These women farmers started talking amongst each other and created TAWOMA – Tanzanian Women Miners Association. In 2016, with the support of PACT (NGO working on social projects) and GIA (Gemmological Institute of America), a pilot programme was set up to make a written guide (in the local language, Kiswahili) on rough gems, suitable for miners. It was a resounding success. The women of TAWOMA (PHOTO-2) learned basic methods of gemmological identification, stone grading and a scale of value according to the quality of each gemstone. Their knowledge and bargaining skills improved immediately. In 2017, the Moyo Gems project was created, thanks to the support of ethical suppliers such as Nineteen48 and Anza Gems who have since helped the women of TAWOMA to market their ethical and traceable gems internationally.

PHOTO-2: Tanzanian female miners: Amina (left) & Zuhura (right) – (Nineteen48)

Ethical trade

The gem trade has been characterised since ancient times by the fact that stones change hands many times, both rough stones and cut and polished ones. This means that from the time the miner finds the gemstone until it is displayed in a piece of jewellery, it could easily have changed hands twenty times, and in several countries. Each middleman who ‘moves’ the stone takes his commission. It is easy to imagine that, following this business model, those who work the hardest to extract these gems are the ones who get paid the least.

Ethical Gemstones of the World uses the ‘Mine to Market’ model. This means that the number of middlemen is considerably reduced, and that is why we can pay a fair wage to the miners and lapidaries, without the necessity for the end consumer to pay more for the gemstone. Another advantage of the Mine to Market model is that it allows us to document the traceability of a gemstone in its entirety, as we know where it was mined, where it was cut and how it got into our hands. In addition, we can influence the mining activity, making sure that human rights are not violated, that there are no minors working in the mines, that the lapidaries work in good conditions, and that the export process is transparent.

Today’s consumers are increasingly demanding and the concept of sustainability is now part of our daily lives and activities. When we support artisanal mining communities by paying them a fair wage for their stones, their children will be able to go to school (instead of going to work). When we promote social projects for mining families (e.g. setting up a cutting and polishing workshop in the country of origin of the gems), we are supporting them so that when mining activity decreases, they will have better living conditions. When we promote care for the environment (e.g. land restoration after the mining activity ends) we are making the world a better place.

MSc., L. Geology, EurGeol, FGA, DGA, GIA AJP
Geologist, Gemmologist & Jewellery Appraiser

Ethical Gemstones of the World – from MINE to MARKET
WhatsApp: +44 755 484 6353
Email: ethicalgemstonesoftheworld@gmail.com
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