7 Negative Environmental Impacts Of The Gem Mining Industry
The multi-billion-dollar industry of gemstone mining leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. From human rights issues to deforestation and native habitat destruction, the impacts of mining can be felt far beyond the immediate mining site. Despite efforts to regulate the industry such as the formation of the Responsible Jewellery Council to promote responsible practices in gemstone sourcing, or the Alliance for Responsible Mining established to promote sustainable mining practices, the mining of precious stones continues to take a toll on our planet.
It’s not all bad. Local employment and income from exporting gems are existing positive impacts of the gem mining industry. However, these benefits serve mine labourers, mine operators, and gem dealers while the socio-economic and environmental toll of mining has far-reaching impacts on the wider community.
How are gemstones mined?
Gem mining involves the extraction of the roughs of precious minerals from the Earth’s depths through digging deep holes and separating gems from its surrounding rock. It differs from the mining of precious ores like coal and copper or fossil fuels, as these involve the heavy use of toxic chemicals. In general, gem mining is ‘cleaner’ in the aspect of chemical use.
There are multiple techniques utilized to mine gemstones; the main gem mining methods are:
- Open pit mining: This technique, also called ‘open cast’ mines, is used to extract gemstones, as well as metal ores, from relatively shallow ground by digging holes that can become as large as multiple kilometres across and over 150 metres deep.
- Alluvial mining: River mining involves extracting gems from alluvial deposits in sections in rivers or lake beds where streamflow slows or bends. Pits are also sometimes dug down into gem-bearing layers in former riverbeds. In fact, this is a long-used mining method in Sri Lanka, where workers stand in rivers with baskets and then pan the collected gravel for precious materials.
- Underground mining: This involves digging tunnels to reach gem bearing gravel lower than 10 metres below the surface of the Earth. There are various types of underground mining, these being chambering, tunnelling, and block caving.
- Deep sea mining: This mining method is used to extract offshore gem deposits. Gems can be extracted from the ocean floor using nets, by divers collecting gems like pearl-producing molluscs by hand, or through a costly technique called continuous line bucket system wherein diamonds are transported from underneath the seabed to the sea’s surface through an extensive system of buckets.
The negative environmental effects of mining gems
When soil and waste rocks get excavated from an open pit, mining companies can often intend to backfill the pit, restoring it to its original state. However, sometimes rain or wind can move the topsoil to a different location so that it becomes difficult to rehabilitate the land.
This can lead to increased sedimentation blocking nearby waterways, reduced agricultural potential, and in serious cases, landslides. According to the World Bank, land degradation costs the global economy an estimated US$65 billion annually.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Unfortunately, gemstones are a high carbon product. The action of deforesting an area to prepare a bare ground to access precious stones and ores, emissions from mining machinery fuelled by fossil fuels, transportation of raw gem materials from mines to factories, as well as greenhouse gases produced during chemical reactions in the production process all contribute to high GHGs. In a figure from the International Gem Society, for every carat of a mined diamond, 160 kg of CO2 is released.
Danger to animal species
Another environmental effect of mining related to open cast mines is endangerment to animal species. Related to the point about deforestation, one square kilometre of forest can be home to over 1,000 species. When these creatures’ native habitats are wiped away to dig for gems, they are forced to either relocate or perish in the process.
This causes a massive loss of biodiversity to the local environment and can affect species even outside the stripped area, who were part of the ecosystem as predators or prey. In Madagascar, for instance, ‘desertification’ from logging, farming, and mining has destroyed up to 90% of remaining lemur habitats.
Loss of biodiversity
Another major environmental impact of mining is biodiversity decline. There are certain areas which are important for their biodiversity, with a rich variety of flora and fauna including all the animals, plants, and microorganisms that dwell in a certain ecosystem. Without the knowledge or understanding of why these areas are important, gem mining can decimate these ecosystems.
This matters because healthy ecosystems are essential for the bio cycles we rely on to live, such as the recycling of clean air and the growth of nutrient-rich foods.
The next environmental effect of gem mining is water contamination, where nearby water sources can be accidentally polluted by mining operation by-products such as cyanide and mercury, as well as heavy metals leaching from waste rock and tailings (leftover materials such as ground rock, metals considered not valuable, effluent, etc.). In cases where it’s not possible to filter out all the toxic chemicals, nearby communities can bathe in and drink this contaminated water.
Impacts of gem mining on humans
Decline of human health
Gemstone mines are deadly places, in more ways than one. From mercury poisoning in small-scale mines to unregulated mines where workers suffer injuries and even death from mine collapses or malfunctioning equipment, the effects of underground gem mines on human health are multiple. The communities surrounding mining sites can also be adversely affected by toxic levels of chemicals polluting the air or food chain.
Even further along the supply chain of precious stones, exposure to and improper disposal of the chemicals used in gem processing touches workers in cutting factories as well as jewellery manufacturers.
The gem mining industry is a major source of income in certain countries including Brazil, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, where large proportion of communities in gem towns are primarily employed as miners. Here, populations can be especially vulnerable to the industry’s socio-economic side effects.
A survey conducted at the gem mining village of Hunuwala in Sri Lanka highlights another negative effect of the gem mining industry: an imbalance in the distribution of gem income between labourers and mine operators. Landowners, shareholders, and the owners of water pumps used at mines see a disproportionate amount of this income, with labourers and mine managers seeing the least.
Furthermore, in illegal mining operations, mine workers can see more of these gem profits, inadvertently encouraging the operations of unregulated mines where workers are at greater health and safety risks.
It’s up to consumers to set the tone for the direction of the gemstone industry. As more end users demand ethical options like low carbon diamonds and coloured gemstones, more alternatives to mined gemstones are becoming available.
Our Company, Inter-Pacific Holdings Limited, under the brand BIRON® provides seven types of sustainable lab-grown gemstones in sought-after types and colours, such as our signature created emerald which is indistinguishable from Colombian emeralds. Committed to producing and sourcing the highest quality synthetic gems on the market, we partner with conflict-free gem businesses worldwide. Get in touch to learn more.