Counting the cost of bling

I remember the first time I saw the bumper sticker: “If it isn’t grown, it’s mined.” I was 25. My family moved to Ely in an orange Volkswagen Vanagon, driving a couple thousand miles from Madison, Wis.

And my education began. People gambled in the grocery stores. I did my wash at a laundromat alongside sex workers from a nearby brothel. Neighbors at our rent-subsidized housing complex caught a 4 a.m. bus to the mines.

“If it isn’t grown, it’s mined.”

Without exception. Plastic? A petroleum product. Water? Mined from the aquifer. Glass? Made from silica, limestone, etc.

In 15 years, I’ve learned a bit about mining. In 2003, I visited Newmont’s Twin Creeks gold mine, a stunning mini-Grand Canyon excavated in the desert. When Newmont’s done there and stops pumping water from the pit, it will fill and become an 800-foot-deep, 210-acre lake.

In the mill, I watched rock-chewing machinery, powered by a 4,000-horsepower engine, grind ore. Vats of crushed rock were mixed with toxic chemicals. In another building, molten gold was being poured into 50-pound loaves. The beauty of this end product mesmerized me until I considered the thousands of tons of rock pulled from the pit, the chemicals, the waste. Even responsible mining leaves permanent scars.

I promised to stop buying gold jewelry. That’s the market for around 80 percent of gold produced. One 18-carat gold ring weighing a third of an ounce equates to about 20 tons of waste rock.

It was a token gesture, a way to show I cared about the Great Basin, our water, our air and the Nevada land I’d begun to love. I didn’t talk about it, didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, didn’t want to be called a hypocrite for wearing my gold wedding ring.

My education wasn’t over. Though I’d read about mining companies (some based in Nevada) investing in developing countries, I knew little about damage done to people who live, work and depend on the land there.

Two weeks ago, a group of indigenous leaders from Bolivia and Guatemala stopped by UNR’s campus to talk about how mining impacts their communities.

Carlos Cuasace, president of Chiquitano Indigenous Organization, spoke for 465 communities in Bolivia’s Chiquitano Forest region.

“We are suffering from the contamination of our water, contamination from the chemicals used in mining,” Cuasace said, through a translator. “It is affecting our lands, and our lands are becoming deserts. We can no longer grow anything, our rice or our corn.”

Cuasace and others explained that they have no voice in decisions made by their governments to allow multi-national mining corporations to start digging. In some countries, environmental restrictions don’t exist, aren’t enforced or are much less strict than those in the United States. Indigenous people often receive no benefits from the destruction of their land. Most of what is taken from their land ends up right here, in our consumption-crazed nation.

“We are human beings, rich or poor, the same as the owners of the mining companies,” Cuasace said. “Our government and the companies tell us that we are against progress. What is progress when we become poorer than we were before?”

After hearing these leaders speak, I felt a deeper urgency about mining education. Don’t worry. I won’t point out the gold baubles dangling from your ears if you won’t condemn me for the computers (electronics use gold) in my house. But just because we’re not living in tents in the wilderness doesn’t mean we can’t be aware—and take small steps to curb our consumption. These days, I’m poking around the “No Dirty Gold” Web site, at No Dirty Gold’s slogan: “The more you know, the less gold glows.”