The Canaries In The Gold Mine

WORDS BY CADY DRELL

PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEFAN DOTTER

A recent gold boom in Uganda has some of the country’s most vulnerable men, women, and even children scrambling to benefit—and at great personal risk. But Earthbeat, an unlikely nonprofit, is helping them create alternatives.

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Luxury and sustainability can seem mutually exclusive, almost by definition. Beneath every new smartphone are thousands of small parts brought together through shadowy supply routes, originating in places where such items are largely unattainable. More often than not, a so-called ‘ethical’ diamond means a lab-created one, which may be free of conflict and labor abuse but lacks the rarity that makes them the most covetable. And gold is practically a symbol of the kind of luxury that doesn’t concern itself with how its creation might affect those who created it. When it comes to supply chains, it can be hard to see the bottom from the top. 

 

For the past few years, for example, a boom has occurred in Uganda. Largely through foreign investment, mining operations have ticked up—2019 saw $1.25 billion worth of gold shipped out of the country, up from $515.8 million just a year earlier. And while that’s meant riches for some who cashed in on the rush, it has largely left artisanal and small-scale miners (called ASM in the industry) behind. ASM accounts for at least 15 percent of the yearly global production of gold, with millions of people involved both directly and indirectly in its supply chain. In Busia District, an area in eastern Uganda that has been involved in gold mining since the 1930s, many of these ASM workers are now unable to acquire the licenses necessary to plug into this boom, and even when they can, many lack the equipment that would help them both scale up their operations and mine safely. Even worse, many miners can’t afford to close up used mining pits, which create a moon-like landscape with poor soil and contaminated water in the surrounding areas. 

 

But a nonprofit with unlikely roots in the jewelry industry is helping to find alternatives. Earthbeat—founded by Guya Merkle, who also runs the jewelry company Vieri—aims to work with miners interested in leaving the industry to find local sources of income that are stable, sustainable, and healthy for them. Currently, the company is working with miners in Busia to start their own beekeeping and permaculture operations—two fields that the miners themselves selected for their future growth potential.

The Earthbeat foundation has set up a “Honey Hub” for the miners to partake in apiculture and contribute to environmental protection without harm to their health.

German-born Merkle grew up with little interest in the family jewelry business. But when her father passed away unexpectedly, she inherited Vieri at just 21 years old. The company struggled for the first few years under her leadership, so she decided to try to understand what it meant to create jewelry by studying at the Gemological Institute of America in London. “It was there where I first saw a picture of a gold mine,” she says. “And it just, kind of, did something to me.” It seemed at odds, she thought, with the idea of luxury that consumers associate with gold. She booked a flight to Peru to get a closer look at where the mineral she had grown up around really came from—and what she found disturbed her.

 

“I saw this very tough mine where thousands of people lived without water or something to eat—there were no schools, no healthcare, no infrastructure, but there was the smell of mercury all over the mine,” she says, noting that the operation even had children working in these dangerous conditions. “The first thought I had in my head was, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to work in an industry like this at all.’ And then my second thought, on the way back to Europe, was, ‘Okay, but if you decide not to work in this industry, [these problems] will still be there. It will not change.’” Upon returning, she founded Vieri GmbH, which makes jewelry entirely out of recycled gold so that her company’s pieces no longer require new mining. But it still didn’t feel like enough. “If you do that,” she recalls thinking, “You have no negative impact on mining communities, but you have no impact. Nothing will change just because I’m not using gold from small-scale mining.” Her next step was founding Earthbeat, to help change not just the consumer side of the business but the entire supply chain.

 

Stephen Turyahikayo is Earthbeat’s Ugandan project manager. He studied forestry at university in Uganda and worked in the mining sector for 13 years for the World Bank. Linking up with Earthbeat in 2012, he now helps facilitate its programs with the miners in Busia District. “For me, the biggest challenge now is the post-mining phase,” he says via phone from Kampala. “Preparing these miners to look past the current mining boom or whatever—there may be gold now but they won’t get gold forever.” While he acknowledges that the program, currently in its pilot phase, has not turned any miners away from gold full-time yet, he feels that once alternatives like apiary and gardening show returns, the shift will be quick. “I’m confident that if they make money through alternatives, they will not go back to mining,” he says.

 

Crucially, to both Merkle and Turyahikayo, Earthbeat doesn’t tell the miners what fields to go into or how best to manage their operations once they’re set up. Instead, it provides the tools—like physical beehives and training—while giving miners free reign to do what they think would work best in their communities. “We kind of meet people on the same level,” says Merkle. “We’re not this NGO going in with the solutions and the money. It’s more about working with [miners], asking them what they need and what they see and what they want.” Working on this “partnership level,” she believes, is critical to future success. Earthbeat spent years talking with miners in Busia, discussing what they actually wanted to use as an alternative income source.

 

Though some were hesitant to come onboard at first, it was local women who turned out to be the most enthusiastic about potentially leaving mining. They were the ones who suggested beekeeping as a potential new path. Meanwhile, permaculture gardening—which uses native plants to remediate contaminated soil and water—was proposed as a way to eventually return the open mining pits into usable, safe land again.

 

“I’ve been with Earthbeat for eight years and I’ve really seen that what they are doing is giving people tangible hope,” says Turyahikayo. It helps, he says, that Earthbeat contributes to the setup and training but stays out of operations. “We are not actually too much in their lives,” he says of the miners working with them. “We want them to go harvest, to go to the market, sell. ‘It’s your money. We see that you have a streamlined operation.’ That is our desire.”

SPECIAL THANKS to Lilian von Trapp

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The Canaries In The Gold Mine

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