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United Nations Cine: River of Gold

In collaboration with the Geneva Graduate Institute, and on the occasion of World Environment Day, the United Nations Cine screened the film “River of Gold,” followed by a panel discussion with some experts:

  • Charles Chaussepied, Former Director CSR and Corporate Affairs, Piaget, and Board Member of the Responsible Jewelry Council
  • Sarah DuPont, Film producer, President, and Founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation
  • Casper Edmonds, Head of the Extractives, Energy and Manufacturing Unit, ILO
  • Marc Hufty, Professor in Development Studies, The Graduate Institute, Geneva (moderator)
  • Sheila Logan, Programme Officer, Minamata Convention on Mercury

River of Gold is the reality of what happens in many developing countries. The movie was shot in the Peruvian Amazon. Unfortunately, the Peruvian reality portrays the reality of any other underdeveloped and developing countries where minority groups have no other means of subsistence, so they end up deforesting and destroying the ecosystems they live in, such as tropical forests, in Peruvian case, the Amazon – the world’s lungs. The international community must take the reins of this situation, bringing awareness and solutions to these routine problems in such countries. In 2006, the movie Blood Diamond became a watershed in the illegal extraction of diamonds. Although the illegal mining extracting has been happening for centuries, Blood Diamond addressed the problem for the first time to the general public. In 2009, the United Nations adopted a consensus resolution reaffirming its strong support for the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which imposes strict requirements on rough diamond shipments to certify them as “conflict-free.” The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was created back in the year 2000 in South Africa. KPCS guides national authorities to address enforcement issues, such as fraudulent certificates, shipments of suspicious origin and exchange of information in cases of infringement. I agree that the KPCS has flaws, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. Gold, unlike diamond, is melted and becomes unstable, making it difficult to identify smuggling and illegality within the chain. River of Gold was set in Madre de Dios, where an area bigger than 60,000 hectares has been destroyed, and the health of communities living in the region is endangered due to the unregulated use of mercury. Three out four people are contaminated by mercury. River of Gold advocates raising awareness about the impacts of illegal gold mining in the Amazon.

Sarah DuPont who had no experience in the movie industry pioneered in gathering a great team of experts to make this great documentary. DuPont represents the voices of those who were left behind such as the Amazon indigenous tribes as well as the voices of the voiceless such as the Amazon rainforest, which is crying for help. DuPont considers herself a vocal advocate of ecological preservation. As the president and founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation, she works with neotropical scientists to study Amazonian biodiversity with an eye towards educating the public and introducing cutting-edge conservation practices and on the ground solutions to the region. The idea of making a movie about gold and the illegal extracting came after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, when the prices of gold spiked and followed an upward trend until the end of 2011. Dupont was grateful for screening the movie to the Geneva community, full of experts and activists who can help her connect with more people and create a positive change on a larger scale. For producing the movie, Dupont got together an amazing team, starting with two war journalists Ron Haviv and Donovan Webster who traveled along Peru’s Madre de Dios River to reveal the savage unraveling of pristine rainforest. Likewise, Peruvian environmental activist and biologist, Enrique Ortiz, guided the team, pointing out the heedless exploitation of the land. Miners rushed to the Amazon to scrape together enough money to start a business or to feed their family while disregarding the catastrophic consequences to their health and homeland. Who is to blame? The poor indigenous people who had nothing to eat? The governments who have not assisted their citizens? Or the world order?

For Sheila Logan, the movie was very powerful because it shows the extent of the damage and the destruction. Most importantly, the movie unfolds the needs of indigenous groups in developing countries such as Peru. Although deforestation of the Amazon is a life-threatening problem, one of the key factors would be to improve the life of the indigenous populations sustainably. Mercury is used in the small-scale gold process. Unfortunately, the subsistence artisanal small-scale gold mining is a way to survive for an estimated 10-15 million miners in 70 countries, including approximately 3 million women and children. Surprisingly and on top of being the world’s largest employer in gold mining and representing 90% of the gold mining workforce worldwide, small-scale gold mining produces 15% of the annual gold production. The use of mercury associated with mining can cause damage to the nervous system. In addition, the inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. Along with it, mercury can heavily damage the ecosystem. Fish are the main source of food for many birds and other animals, and mercury can seriously damage the health of these species too. Illegal gold mining in Peru dumps roughly 30 tons of mercury into the ecosystem every year.

Casper Edmonds started his talk thanking Sarah Dupont and the UN for producing and screening such a powerful and overreaching film. Then, he pointed out some of the many violations of labor conventions portrayed in the movie; child labor, workers exposed to physical, chemical or biological hazards, and poor working conditions. Countries like Brazil, Peru, and Colombia signed convention such conventions, therefore they should not allow these violations to occur in the first place. Additionally, the ILO estimates that about one million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in small-scale mining and quarrying activities worldwide. These children toil under dangerous conditions and go without access to schools, health clinics, and other basic necessities. Other than that, the labor convention C169 adopted in 1989, is an unprecedented and visionary instrument seeking to ensure that indigenous peoples enjoy human rights without discrimination, exercise control over their own development and participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives. Madre de Dios is an indigenous area, characterized by having an ethnic and cultural diversity personified in men who inhabit these lands for about 3 thousand years. If the words on the labor conventions were kept, the world would not see the atrocities presented in the movie. Consequently, the international community, as well as the international organizations such as ILO and the UN, have an obligation to assure the well-being of the people, to guarantee that the conventions and human rights are respected. Huge violations like those revealed in the River of Gold make us wonder what the governments and leaders are doing to halt this. Edmonds concluded by asking the audience about the sustainability of the gold industry. Is it sustainable? If not, how can it become sustainable? If so, what are we all doing to make it a fair trade? When will the gold industry not be tainted with corruption, cheap labor, and greed?

Charles Chaussepied has been working in the gold and jewelry industry for over 25 years. He reminded the audience that Geneva is the world’s capital of watches and jewelry where various initiatives have already been put in motion. To this end, Geneva and the international community should develop a mercury-free gold production and a sustainable development of the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector. The question can no longer be left behind, it needs to be addressed – when will the gold industry start to be seriously regulated? After seeing the movie, he asked himself how he could get involved to raise awareness and bring solutions to this alarming problem. Chaussepied believes that a strong rule of law, severe mercury regulations, the strengthening of the role of the police, a fine tooth comb supply chain inspection are all ways of addressing the big elephant in the room. He explained that the 1,000 plus members of the Responsible Jewelry Council, including jewelry and watches manufacturers and retailers, refiners, and mining only buy gold and gems from certified, responsible and assured supply chains and mines. This hidden cost behind jewelry and watches is sometimes forgotten by consumers, yet there has been an increasing demand for responsible sourcing. Finally, Chaussepied asked Ms. Dupont to produce another movie in which she would show the initiatives the organizations such as the Responsible Jewelry Council have been taking throughout these years to prevent this from happening.

River of Gold showed the social and environmental impact of illegal gold mining in the Amazon forest, which not only results in deforestation but also in the precarious employment of people who were left behind and find in illegal gold mining their only source of income. I highly recommend watching it to spread awareness about this global problem. For more information, check the website River of Gold.

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca. Patricia is a first-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia graduated in Business Administration and she holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, the Executive Director at the Journal of Diplomacy, and the director of International Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management.

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