Mining Reality TV Gold—Forest Peoples Be Damned

It seems that the major gold rushes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, dark periods in history not just for the environment but for the multitude of indigenous peoples displaced from their lands as a result, are far from being relegated to the history books. Instead, they have been revived and elevated in the latest reality TV phenomenon, Bamazon. Set in Guyana, this History Channel series follows in the spirit of the Discovery Channel’s Jungle Gold and Gold Rush as it documents the journey of a team of intrepid construction-workers from Alabama looking for adventure and wealth in the planet’s remaining rainforest sanctuaries.

Unfortunately, the entertainment factor of these kinds of shows obscures the ominous capacity of gold-mining. In fact, it glorifies the search for gold at any cost—instead of condemning this kind of ‘ecocide’, shows like these openly capitalize on the abject disregard for the intrinsic value of the natural world held by the show’s opportunistic explorers.

gold dust

Natural resource mining in general has a deplorable environmental record, but gold-mining is particularly problematic because of the small amount of gold obtained per unit of ore. According to Earthworks, the gold in one ring produces 20 tons of mining waste. And with gold prices hitting an all-time high of $1,921.15 an ounce in September 2011—as demand for the relatively safe investment rises in the context of a failing global economy—gold mining has gone up too. That includes artisanal mining, the kind of extraction replicated and dramatized by these TV series. In fact, it now comprises of up to a quarter of global gold production.

The term ‘artisanal’ tends to assuage consumers, recalling socially and environmentally conscious individuals of simplicity, tradition, and harmony. In their minds, it is in stark contrast with the large, mechanized corporate operations that these consumers instinctively reject. Unfortunately, when it comes to environmentally destructive practices like gold mining, ‘artisanal’ describes an unacceptably exploitative method of production.

With very few large reserves of gold left in the world, illegal mines have sprung up in remote areas of developing countries. Artisanal mining focuses on tropical rivers, for example, where gold has eroded into river sediments and requires a very labour-intensive process to extract. As it becomes a more popular activity, heavy machinery like that portrayed in the shows is brought in to streamline the process—at the high cost of more rapid, more severe environmental deterioration.

Women and their children mining for gold in Mali (Courtesy of Global Environment Facility via Flickr)

These mines are subject to minimal if any formal regulation, so even though they are frequently located in formerly pristine natural settings and employ anywhere between 10 and 15 million workers, they are not liable to any kind of environmental, labor, or health and safety standards. Artisanal gold mining is responsible for up to 1,000 tons of mercury released into the environment per year. According to the UN Environment Program, this activity represents the largest source of global mercury pollution. This is because as much as 95% of all mercury used in artisanal mining to separate gold from ore is released into the environment instead of being recaptured for reuse or proper disposal. Exposure to mercury takes a dramatic toll on workers, neurologically impairing adults that come into contact with it as well as the local peoples who feed on the fish contaminated by the toxic metal.

The promotion of artisanal mining by supposedly ‘educational’ channels is reprehensible. Many of us grew up with these channels, whose shows featured the beauty of nature as well as the many curiosities of planet Earth and its creatures. Shows such as Bamazon and Gold Rush demonstrate how these channels are substituting a commitment to education with a blind endorsement of sensationalist media trends, disregarding the toll on the environment or on society of activities like mining.

Especially shocking are the attitudes of the participants recruited for the show. The below clip, from Bamazon, features expedition leader Tim Evans, who first came to the Amazon with a medical missionary team that was working to bring healthcare to indigenous peoples in the Amazon jungle. The degree of cognitive dissonance between his initially noble intentions and Evans’ eventual engagement in the destruction of the home of these Amerindians through gold-mining is almost unfathomable.

Without offering a critique of artisanal mining operations or the global forces that pull impoverished people to this lucrative but extremely toxic business, the profit-minded producers of these shows take advantage of modernity’s addiction to exaggerated-reality TV. The series producer of the Discovery Channel’s Jungle Gold shamelessly sums up the show’s priorities: “The guys have a claim, they’re all ready to mine; we’ve got a TV show. Happy days.”

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