Willie Hamilton: on the trail of Fairtrade gold

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The CMJ CEO recounts a visit to Africa meeting artisanal miners.

The Fairtrade Foundation is working to transform artisanal African mines into Fairtrade gold-producing businesses that better support local communities. In this special diary, The Company of Master Jewellers’ chief executive Willie Hamilton recounts a week in Africa.

In May this year, The Company of Master Jewellers’ chief executive Willie Hamilton flew out to Tanzania and Kenya to visit artisanal gold mines as part of a Fairtrade gold commercial integration trip.

The week-long trip was hosted by Fairtrade International under the guidance of Fairtrade gold and precious metals programme coordinater Greg Valerio, with Hamilton joined by Cred Jewellery managing director Alan Frampton, Fairtrade gold commercial account manager Reena Agarwal, and American jeweller Marc Choyt.

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Hamilton penned a special diary recounting his experience of visiting the mines, revealing just how rudimentary many of the processes are and where the work of the Fairtrade Foundation and Comic Relief have paved the way for safer, more productive mining operations.

DAY 1 – NAIROBI AND MWANZA, MAY 1 2014
Landed in Nairobi and met with my travelling companions, Alan Frampton from Cred and Greg Valerio and Reena Agarwal from the Fairtrade Foundation, before our internal flight to Mwanza in Tanzania, which was likened to a flight on the Memphis Belle. Landing at Mwanza airport, we met Marc Choyt, an independent jeweller from New Mexico and a lone voice for Fairtrade in America, accompanied by Tina Mwasha and Gonzaga Mungai from Fairtrade Africa, who would be our guide and translator during our stay.

The trip into town was a fast and bumpy journey into the reality of life in southern Africa. It was good to feel the sunshine on my face and the bright colours of Tanzania burst out against the dusty roads.

DAY 2 – NYARUGUSU, MAY 2 2014
Early on day two, eight of us bundled ourselves into a mini bus. We were certainly going to get to know each other well over the next few days, as the first journey was a three-hour ferry and bus drive to the first of the mines.

The first mine was guarded and, after a few minutes of identifying us, we were allowed through the roped-off area and ushered into an open-sided hut in a field with rough timber benches and tables. We were welcomed by Golden, one of the mine owners and his right-hand men. We discussed in broken English (while a family of chickens ran around our feet) how we could help and support the mine workers to achieve Fairtrade status. Golden made it very clear to us that what he didn’t want was cash charity, but the charity of our own business experience and the possibility of sourcing some basic plant machinery.

Heading for the mine, I discovered a canopy-covered hole in the ground that was 30 metres deep and about two metres wide. The pit walls were timber framed with a wooden winch made from branches of trees fixed above the deadly drop, with a rope descending into the darkness below.

Three men wound the rope up and down to retrieve the sacks of ore from the pit. I was terrified to witness the depths that these workers go to retrieve the ore that might contain fragments of gold, and amazed to learn that the majority of miners preferred the option of being paid in bags of raw ore rather than taking the few shillings they were entitled to for their work. The workers chose the option of gambling on processing the ore themselves with the expectation they would recover more gold value from the ore that they would then trade back to the owners than the cash wage they received.

The next mine had been functioning for many years and was closer to be approved for Fairtrade status. We were greeted at the security gate by the guard dressed in last season’s Chelsea football shirt and made our way to the first pit.

Next to the pit we could see a woman breaking ore and shovelling it onto vast polythene sheets to dry in the baking hot sun. Next, the ore was heaved into sacks for collection and delivery to the next area of the mine. We walked about 50 metres to an open area of woodland to see the ore being packed into giant drums rotated by hand until the ore was broken down into a finer sand-like product. The dust from the drums was like a thick fog and caked the clothing and skin of the workers. I dread to think how much they inhaled.

With the ore now ground down into a rough powder, the next process was to sieve through a sluice of towels (I could see one that was emblazoned with an English Cricket Club badge, probably making its way from a UK charity shop). This process made a mud of the ore, which was then processed through the age-old panning method by workers who could swish and pour the contents from the gold pan until the mud-like substance became a diluted mixture of ore and gold. The next process involved adding mercury to the pool of watery liquid. A veteran worker removed a plastic water bottle from his pocket and poured pure mercury into the pan, swishing and swirling the mixture by hand until he was satisfied that the residue had separated the gold fragments from the ore, and attached itself to the mercury.

With great aplomb the veteran presented us with his work that was only the size of a small pea in his mercury-dotted hand. The pea-shaped blob was not pure gold but a mixture of gold and mercury, which needed to be burned off and separated from the gold through a heat process that fills the air and lungs with deadly mercury fumes. The poisonous mercury covering the grooves of his leather-like hands would remain.

This mine was not yet accredited by Fairtrade but was close to approval. We were invited to view an area that was being prepared for gold processing to match the basic Fairtrade requirements.

My wanderlust got the better of me and I found myself in the workers’ rest area, separated from the rest of the group. This was best described as a canteen with an open-sided shelter, small stone walled campfires and four young women cooking for a group of hungry miners. I traded a handful of Jelly Babies for a share of their meal and tried to have a conversation through drawing in the sand and various facial smiles and grimaces. It was great fun and cumulated in some banter about them trading one of their female cooks for more Jelly Babies – I declined. Before I left this mine I enquired about how the miners from this pit were paid. They could be paid in cash but may have to wait 14 to 21 days between each pay day, so some chose to take the rough ore and process it themselves in the hope that they will get a better and quicker return.

Our first day at the mines was inspiring and thought-provoking but most of all it was humbling; I had witnessed people quite literally scratching a living from the rock beneath their feet. The world of jewellery is far from glamorous, luxurious or desirable at this stage.

DAY 3 – GEITA AND MWANZA, MAY 3 2014
Day three started with early-morning meetings with the owners of mines who had travelled three hours to meet us. Greg Valerio ensured that one of the purposes of our trip was to help and support artisan miners wishing to escape the corrupt, manipulative and unregulated trading of gold in the region. But the big message he wanted to emphasise was that the support of Comic Relief and Fairtrade was not to bring charity through cash hand-outs but to support miners with the investment of business knowledge, direction and acumen.

The approach that we took as a collective was to explain the gold supply chain to the miners. The miners had no understanding of what happened to their gold when it left their hands and were surprised (and pleased) to discover the variety of jewellery that was produced. I certainly believe that the plight of the workers could be eased if we can find a few individuals further up the supply chain that would guarantee the purchase of their hard-earned gold.

DAY 4 – MWANZA, NAIROBI, KILIMANJARO AND KISUMU, MAY 4 2014
Our next day started with a farewell to Tina Mwasha, who had been our main guide in Tanzania, as we flew back to Kenya. Tina is a remarkable woman. She grew up on a Fairtrade coffee farm and was schooled from the school infrastructure that Fairtrade coffee had helped to develop. Tina secured a scholarship to Cardiff University and then in London she acquired a Master’s degree in mining. She has since come full circle with her education by working with Fairtrade mining communities throughout Africa. Tina is living proof that Fairtrade and Comic Relief investment in Africa is not wasted through charitable handouts, but through investment in the infrastructure of Africa and ensuring that workers receive fair payment for their work.

DAY 5 – MIGORI COUNTRY, MAY 5 2014
Our new travelling partners from Fairtrade, Margaret Tuhumwire and Dr Nyagoy Nyong’o, joined us and Gonzaga Mungai for the next stage of the trip. We set off in convoy and as we hit pothole after pothole our driver said to me: “Welcome to Kenya , I hope you are enjoying the African seat massage. I think you would pay a lot of money for treatment like this back in England.”

The lush countryside bore witness to the impact of mining on an enormous scale. One view across the horizon showcased the large-scale mining of Anglo Gold Ashanti. The area was rich in gold and minerals and the company had agreed with the local government to buy the mining rights to the area. Once the artisan miners had been removed from the land, large-scale mining equipment was moved in. One could easily see the impact on the environment. Three hills sat in the distance and one was all but gone, as the mining activity had gorged a massive ravine through its centre.

Eventually we arrived at a mine that was close to being Fairtrade approved. A few miners had collaborated to follow the Fairtrade requirements and were working with timber-framed supports in their pits and blasting the mines rather than digging their seams. The rest of the extraction process was laborious, with bags of ore being winched by hand and then transported by wheelbarrow to the processing area.

The soon-to-be Fairtrade miners had built a fenced enclosure for their own processing and while this was better organised than the previous mines, the same process of breaking down the ore and using mercury and water to extract the tiniest grams of gold was still being used. Positively, the pit miners were using safety gear, torches and hard hats (perhaps on show just for our visit). More significantly, the women washing the water and mercury mixture were wearing thick waterproof gloves to protect their hands. The miners looked more content than the previous workers in Tanzania, and during my discussions with them they appreciated the support and advice given by Fairtrade and were determined to achieve Fairtrade status.

Our next stop was to a local church filled with people who represented the local community. It became clear to me that the bond between the churches and the local farmers was deeply ingrained. The meeting allowed us to talk through why we had visited the mine and we offered help and support through business advice, providing insight into what happened to the gold they had mined once it left their village.

When we arrived back at the hotel we were met by miners from Kenya and Uganda who had travelled to meet us courtesy of Fairtrade. I met and ate with Joshua Ngwala, the chief executive of the local government for Environment, Natural Resources and Disaster Management, who was enthusiastic and supportive of the work that Fairtrade is embarking upon. At last, I started to believe that the support structure for Fairtrade mining in this region could also be supported locally and not just through Fairtrade and Comic Relief activities.

DAY 6 – MIGORI COUNTRY, MAY 6 2014
In the morning we met with mine leaders from Kenya and Uganda. Once again, we tried to help and support them with some basic business acumen and an understanding of the issues they had to overcome. We were humbled by their explanations of the day-to-day exploitative activities of the local traders who pay rock-bottom prices for their gold, and I was shocked when one mine worker explained to us that because his community lived so remotely, he had to travel hundreds of miles to trade the gold in a more major settlement. His biggest fear was kidnap and robbery and he explained that on at least two occasions in the past year he had been kidnapped and robbed, returning to his community empty handed.

There’s no doubt that millions of lives across the world can be transformed from abject poverty to a standard of living that can provide basic working, education, health and living conditions through a transparent, safe and supported supply chain of gold from field to finger. The opportunity to change those lives is within the power of a few people in the UK jewellery industry. These people have the choice. They can stick their heads in the sand and ignore the plight of millions of people across the world who rely on the artisanal mining industry to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families, or they can make a commitment to supporting Fairtrade gold in their supply chains from manufacture to retailer.

This article first appeared in The CMJ’s Facets magazine and in the September issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To find out more about Fairtrade gold and artisanal mining, visit www.fairgold.org

 

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