Kanye Warned Us About Blood Diamonds, But What About Gold? (Video)

From 2005-2006, the issue of blood diamonds was popular in American culture, more so than it had been in recent memory. In ’05, Kanye West dropped “Diamonds (from Sierra Leone),” a Grammy-winning number that was inspired by the conflicts faced in many African nations – particularly in the West – where men, women, and young children are often left with few prospects for steady work, leading many of them to begin the dangerous venture of working in diamond mines. The following year, Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou starred in Blood Diamond, set during Sierra Leone’s Civil War and based on the diamond industry’s role in perpetuating human-rights abuses, and the political and economic benefits reaped by those who control the lucrative diamond marketplace. For many people around the world, purchasing a diamond comes with serious philosophical questions, and many refuse to buy stones that have been mined in war zones, as profits from such sales often benefit war lords, corrupt governments, and human-rights abusers. And, while the fight to end the global appetite for diamonds is far from over, the conversation about humanely acquired luxuries has spilled over into another world – that of gold mining and export.

In a recent article published by Al Jazeera America, journalists James Bargent and Michael Norby examine the Colombian gold mines where the valuable metal is acquired in conflict-ridden areas of the country, often without any oversight whatsoever. “Blood gold: From conflict zones in Colombia to jewelry stores in the US” takes a stark look at the source-to-market process that brings much gold jewelry stateside, speaking directly with local miners whose very lives are jeopardized at work on a daily basis. According to the article, traditional miners who have been working in southern Colombia for centuries are having their livelihoods taken away from them “at gunpoint to make way for criminal mining operations loosely connected to paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas,” making the “criminal mining invasion” a very real threat in the region. These violent invaders are after a lucrative means of funding their political and economic ambitions, namely the ongoing conflict between “Marxist guerrillas and the Colombian military.” The former recognize the value in the nation’s gold mines; “Illegal mining brings in approximately $2.5 billion a year and has now eclipsed cocaine trafficking as the main driver of violence and a source of dirty money in Colombia,” write Bargent and Norby.

But now, the Colombian government is preparing its first large-scale case against illegal mining, something it had virtually ignored in the past. “Colombian authorities had barely investigated the commercial alchemy used to turn illegal gold into legal pesos,” the writers claim. This is where the United States comes into play. “Goldex, once [Colombia’s] second largest gold exporter, stands accused of laundering hundreds of millions in criminal profits and exporting illegal gold from conflict zones in Colombia to the United States, most of it to two American companies: Republic Metals Corp. and Metalor Technologies USA.” The details of these dealings read like a political thriller, complete with dirty politicians, high-powered government agents, international war crimes, laundered money, and many, many deaths along the way. And, while the heads of both Republic Metals Corp. and Metalor have argued they are concerned with ensuring responsible gold sourcing, it is nearly impossible for a consumer to really know where their gold came from, making the words of the executives far from reassuring. According to an agent within Colombia’s prosecutor’s office, the country ” would like to see U.S. authorities and companies importing gold take much more responsibility for their role in the illegal gold supply chain,” but “there is silence [from the U.S.]; there is a responsibility there to go further, and [Colombian prosecutors] haven’t seen that.” In the video below, published by Al Jazeera a year ago, some of the shoddy Colombian mines and the indigenous people affected by the illegal mining industry are documented, providing some really stunning visuals to a problem that for many, falls victim to the “outta sight, outta mind” thinking.

So why should Americans care? Well, according to Bargent and Norby, “Much of the gold imported by RMC and Metalor is used in everyday consumer goods in the United States and around the world, from cell phones and computers to medical equipment and jewelry.” For most Americans, there is a huge disconnect between the individual and the good which she purchases. Most of us have no idea where our smartphones were made, let alone whether there are any conflicts happening that could mean that our gadgets come to us at the cost of others’ well-being. We’re happy to flash the Rolex we worked so hard for, or the gold bracelet our significant other gifted us, but should we feel such pride in doing so? Where does our responsibility as a consumer begin, and the responsibility of the seller end? Will you think twice before purchasing your next piece of gold?

Read: “Blood gold: From conflict zones in Colombia to jewelry stores in the US” at Al Jazeera America