Apr 292011
Film poster for The Treasure of the Sierra Mad...

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Commodity prices go up; Amazonian forests come down.

The American culture is filled with iconic figures who tell the story of our country’s push westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific: the Pilgrims, the homesteaders, the immigrants who built the railroads, and even the bandits who supposedly robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Golden Years in America’s West

Gold prospectors certainly have a place in that list too, the (mostly) men who flooded California in the mid-19th century Gold Rush carrying all their worldly possessions in a wagon and dreaming of striking it rich by finding that remote, special river bed or mine.

The Gold Rushers’ legacy ranges from the story of the heartbroken miner in  “Oh My Darling Clementine” to one of the great movies of all time: John Huston’s Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) based on the novel by B.Traven and starring Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs, an average-guy-turned-monster by his gold lust, who scours the Mexican desert for gold with two other desperate men. And we mustn’t forget the name of San Francisco’s football team: the 49ers, a name taken from those California Gold Rushers of 1849.

Today’s High Prices for Gold Carry High Environmental Costs

But as iconic as a character like Fred Dobbs may be, one doesn’t come across many of these self-employed, so-called artisanal miners in America today. Mining in modern America is a regulatedindustrial affair.

But artisanal mining is alive and well in the developing world where rising commodity prices for gold are leading modern-day gold rushers to strike out on their own or in small informal groups in search of their fortunes. (Learn more on artisanal mining in this Youtube video.)

While the image of the artisanal miner may give rise to romantic, nostalgic notions of a simpler time in the United States, there is much about artisanal mining that is far from romantic. For instance, it can lead to widespread destruction of forests and pollution from mine tailings (the detritus left over after the valuable minerals have been separated out) and disposal of mercury used to extract the gold (see here,here [pdf] and here).

Read more . . .


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