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Before the Gold Rush: A Call for Responsible Mining in Afghanistan




A man melts gold to be re-formed as jewelry in a shop in Herat, Afghanistan, on Feb. 27, 2010. Undeveloped gold and other mineral deposits in Afghanistan have the potential to transform its economy. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

A man melts gold to be re-formed as jewelry in a shop in Herat, Afghanistan, on Feb. 27, 2010. Undeveloped gold and other mineral deposits in Afghanistan have the potential to transform its economy. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Paul Brinkley, Deputy Undersecretary for Defense and the head of the Pentagon's Taskforce for Business and Stability Operations, was recently featured on National Public Radio discussing the massive deposits of iron, copper, gold, lithium and rare earth minerals — roughly $1 trillion in mineral assets — in Afghanistan. Brinkley and others assert this indigenous wealth could strengthen the economy and radically transform the economy of one of the poorest countries in the world.

It could — if done carefully. The development of a mining industry requires capital investments and public infrastructure, and, in the case of this war-torn nation, strategic plans to improve governance and mitigate corruption, and careful negotiations with warring factions. But what it also requires is a commitment to responsible mining practices — ones that don't irreparably damage the nation's natural resources. Sustainability protocols, though largely voluntary, are one way to ensure that the society and environment are considered along with development.   

This is important for a number of reasons. Take gold, for example. The precious metal is found in everything from jewelry to electronics. It is used as financial backing for currency (the "gold standard") and an investment hedge against inflation (gold tends to hold its value better than other kinds of investments). Gold is trading at historic highs (roughly $1,500 an ounce), which explains the rush to access these mineral rights in Afghanistan. But the real cost of gold is even higher.

According to Worldwatch Institute, the production of one golden ring creates 20 tons of mine waste, making gold the most environmentally destructive metal in existence. Two-thirds of gold jewelry purchased is newly mined and usually sourced through underground or open-pit mining, where gold is excavated from hard rock.

The most popular processing technique is cyanide heap leaching, in which sodium cyanide percolates through piles of crushed ore, picking up small bits of gold as it passes through. That cyanide-laced waste — known as "tailings" — pollutes water, kills fish and contaminates soil. Tailings include byproducts such as mercury and other heavy metals, which end up in groundwater and cycle back into our food chain. The damage does not end there. After the gold is separated, it's smelted under intense heat, emitting sulfur dioxide that contributes to smog and acid rain.

There are social costs in addition to environmental ones. Gold is usually excavated in poor countries, and communities with the fewest resources and least political clout are left to contend with the legacy of mining long after the gold is extracted. Afghanistan is no exception. Any attempt to grow the nation's wealth must be done in ways that are just, equitable and sustainable.