Friday, November 20, 2009

All that glitters is GOLD

My attention, in the last few months has been directed towards soaring prices of GOLD, primarily, due to my father’s occasional cribs that he missed out investing on them when it was 1150 Rs/gm. Sure, even I feel I have missed out on a golden opportunity for the metal is priced at 1700+ Rs/gm today.

A casual browse through some archives of National Geographic magazine brought me to this article – “The real price of Gold” from the Jan 2009 issue (refer and this blog post is inspired from it, a 13 page long article that kept me hooked to it despite its length.
The article opens with a narration of artisans and miners at the world’s highest town, La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes mountains. Possesed by gold, these artisans lead their life under a cachorreo system where they toil at the mines without pay for 30 days in a month and use a single shift on the 31st day to make their fortune, dig and gather as much ore for 4 hours; carry as much as their fatigued shoulders can. All this with some coca leaves to satisfy their hunger and with constant prayers to return home alive and LUCKY.
In a town, about 17000 feet above the sea level, tunneling through curves under glacial ice sheets, at elevations where even oxygen is denied, residing at homes which lack sanitation facilities, these people set out to work every day with the hope of making a big fortune. They wait for that 31st day when the ore they carry bares some microscopic, wondrous particles of GOLD. Most artisans use mercury to separate gold from the rocks casually, inhale mercury fumes in the process, blissfully ignorant of the damage they do to themselves neurologically and to future generations genetically; to the environment, releasing the poisonous metal in liquid and gas states. Such is the frenzy for GOLD that it shrouds and suppresses all humanly instincts, that of hunger, thirst, hygiene and most importantly kindness to fellow humans and to nature. We do not require exemplary instances of the 1848 gold rush in California, the Bulgarian Gold rush, from the multiple conquests in ancient times to the many civil wars in African nations to validate this statement.
However, worse than all this is the current trend of rising GOLD prices, skyrocketing to a pinnacle that will send the whole planet plummeting to an infernal state. The article in NatGeo shifts from Peruvian Andes to Indonesia, the Batu Hijau operations by Newmont Mining Corporation. The Denver based, world’s largest mining corporation is steadily driving ecological disturbances at a determined rate through its huge open pit mines and fleet of super size Caterpillar machines.
The article provides a stark fact – to produce gold required for a typical wedding ring – 250 tons of rock and ore are removed. The people on this island Sumbawa, in Indonesia grew up hearing bedtime stories of gold cached behind the green mountains. Currently, they are employed under a foreigner to dig open the Earth’s crust to reveal this tantalizing metal. The inhabitants of this island cleared large areas of rainforest to create the open pit mine, cleared more rain forests to accomadate heaps of waste rock and ore, they being citizens of a developing nation bore the brunt of the company’s wastes disposal down into their sea floor. They are paving way for their destruction, steadily and carelessly towards a catastrophe on this earth; all in exchange for good roads, some apartment complexes, an international school, pizza restaurants for the 4000 mine workers in the town ship of Batu Hijau.
The toll will be a hefty one but it is strategically masked by a handsome and regular monthly pay sanctioned to the miners, truly a paltry amount considering the profits, the mining company churns out of its mammoth scale activities. The irony is gold is elusive for these miners at Batu Hijau, they still have not seen a speck of it. The ore with the green rock (gold is usually associated with copper) is promptly transported to smelters abroad and only the chemical wastes return days later. In Ghana, a Canadian company, Bogoso Mining Limited was in headlines for releasing cyanide from open pit mining operations into the local water supply.
So despite all this, what is it that makes us run behind this metal with the chemical symbol – Au? When we were at school, we hardly came across chemical equations having Au, typically because it is chemically inert; gold is immortal and so is its shine, the properties of malleability and ductility. We learnt that only aqua regia dissolves it and yes, we were done with this metal Gold.

How did GOLD become so significant in an educated middle class Indian family? Frankly, gold transcends all barriers in India, that of religion, language, class, race, sect, and castes. All want to possess it; from birth to death, to more importantly during the marriage phase in between. The author of the Nat Geo article ridicules the omnipotent desire of Indians to amass this metal both for adornment and investment reasons.
Take a gold loan if you cannot afford it, join a chit fund even if the agency is not reliable, but buy GOLD; particularly accumulate GOLD from day one if you have a girl child. Even if you don’t have money, buy gold on Akshaya Trithi, it brings good luck. I remember one of the Tamil movie comedies by an artist, Vivek in this reference, where he wakes up an unconscious woman, placing a loud speaker in her ears and announcing an offer on gold in shops at Panagal Park, Chennai. Panagal Park in Chennai teems with gold shops and hoardings with beautiful actresses adorning gold jewellery.
Does soaring price of gold stop this mad rush? The answer is a blatant and a quick NO.
When you are about to amass this metal, just think for a brief moment, the extent of environmental damage that you advocate. Think of nations that suffer at the hands of exploitative companies and multinational giants, lives of millions of people without basic amenities, toiling their way blindly to meet your insatiable demand for the metal.

I pray for the day to dawn in India when the government will issue statutory directives against exchange of gold in any form between concerned parties in wedding and will advocate a system of non-ceremonious/register marriages. Sadly, this day will never dawn. The metal gold is very tightly interwoven into our spirit and culture, so tightly that a mother does not mind strangulating her baby girl to death in the fear of her inability to accumalate gold for her wedding years later.

There is no exaggeration in how strongly I feel against amassing such precious metals – be it gold, or even opulent craze for platinum and diamonds. I would prefer leaving something intact behind on this Earth for the generations to come rather than photos of me adorned in gold necklaces, bangles, earrings and saris woven with gold thread.

One thing is sure – for the demand that gold has, for the rate at which these mad miners are excavating the earth, its every nook and corner; nothing will be left of it. We will be left with a solitary question, "Do we possess GOLD or does GOLD possess us? " as asked by Peter L. Bernstein, the author of The Power of Gold.


CK said...

Hey.. that was a really nice post. Quite an eye opener for me considering I have never really bothered to check on gold prices or how we actually do get all these ornaments. Startling facts there about all the hardships people face in the mines and the brutalities of the profit minded corporations. This side of the gold mining I was totally unaware of.

The one side I do know from all our history books is the huge amount of gold that is tucked away in the US and Switzerland. All the WW 2 gold exploits were transported there and no wonder the US has always been calling all the shots. They got the metal that matters most.

Fine piece Divya. And yes, the last section in your post about how Indians crave for gold, is a fine assessment. Could'nt agree more. There is far too much importance attached to how many different types of ear rings or necklaces or rings that we possess. Its a disease I guess that has been passed on to us over many generations. I will go with "GOLD possesses us" - truly apt and calls for a lot of introspection.

V said...

Quite informative! But why the discrimination against gold? Gold is just another medium of accumlating wealth. The way at which we are constructing bridges,apartments etc, we will soon be out of sand. Look at Palm islands in Dubai. If today's parents are forbidden from giving gold to their girl children, they will have to provide other forms of wealth. Even if it is just cash, the effects are equally disastrous. What has to change is the mentality of people regarding how they treat the girl child right from birth to marriage.

Juhi said...

Very well said Divya, an eye opener for me. I had read similar stories about diamond mining, never knew it was true about gold too!

Sudha said...

i keep cming bac to your article ever since u left a comment on my and economic misery apart...nat geo has aptly talked about the ecological damage resulting for mindless mining of any metal