February 24, 2009 08:05 pm
Sir Isaac Newton's advice, made it the bedrock of the global economy. Nearly every society through the ages has invested gold with an almost mythological power.
For thousands of years the desire to possess gold has driven people to extremes, fueling wars and conquests, girding empires and currencies, leveling mountains and forests.
Gold is not vital to human existence; it has, in fact, relatively few practical uses. Yet its chief virtues—its unusual density and malleability along with its imperishable shine—have made it one of the world's most coveted commodities, a transcendent symbol of beauty, wealth, and immortality Extracting a single ounce of gold there [Newmont Mining Corporation's Batu Hijau operation in eastern Indonesia] requires the removal of more than 250 tons of rock and ore.
111-vehicle fleet hauls close to a hundred million tons of rock out of the ground every year. The 1,800-foot volcano that stood here for millions of years? No hint of it remains. The space it once occupied has been turned into a mile-wide pit that reaches 345 feet below sea level. By the time the seam at Batu Hijau is exhausted in 20 years or so, the pit will bottom out at 1,500 feet below sea level.
No technology can make the massive waste generated by mining magically disappear. It takes less than 16 hours to accumulate more tons of waste here than all of the tons of gold mined in human history.
The waste comes in two forms: discarded rock, which is piled into flat-topped mountains spread across what used to be pristine rain forest, and tailings, the effluent from chemical processing that Newmont pipes to the bottom of the sea.This method of "submarine tailings disposal" is effectively banned in most developed countries because of the damage the metal-heavy waste can do to the ocean environment, and Newmont practices it nowhere but in Indonesia.
Four years ago an Indonesian court brought criminal charges against a Newmont subsidiary—even jailing five of its employees for a month—for pumping pollutants into the sea near its now defunct Buyat Bay mine on the island of Sulawesi.
Nowhere is the gold obsession more culturally entrenched than it is in India. Per capita income in this country of a billion people is $2,700, but it has been the world's runaway leader in gold demand for several decades. In 2007, India consumed 773.6 tons of gold, about 20 percent of the world gold market
and more than double that purchased by either of its closest followers, China (363.3 tons) and the U.S. (278.1 tons). India produces very little gold of its own, but its citizens have hoarded up to 18,000 tons of the yellow metal—more than 40 times the amount held in the country's central bank.
The springtime festival of Akshaya Tritiya, considered the most auspicious day to buy gold on the Hindu calendar. The quantity of gold jewelry Indians purchase on this day—49 tons in 2008 —so exceeds the amount bought on any other day of the year throughout the world that it often nudges gold prices higher.
As the price of the metal goes up, however, poor Indian families are having a harder time raising the gold they need for dowries.
Though the dowry retains a social function—balancing the wealth between the families of bride and groom—the rising price of gold has only fueled its abusive side. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, the struggle to acquire gold has led to dowry-related domestic violence (usually when grooms' families beat the brides for bringing too little gold.