Emeralds have glitz, glamour, and aesthetic appeal. In fact “emerald cut” has been used to label a specific style of gemstone cut. The desirability and beauty of these natural gemstones, however, hide an ugly reality. Mining of emeralds has serious effects on the environment as well as the lives of the people who mine them.
Emerald mines impact infrastructure -- facilities and systems, such as transportation, communication, health care, education, and others -- in place to take care of a population. In his study “Emerald Mining and Local Development: Three Case Studies”, Jose Antonio Puppim de Oliveira asserts that “mining creates a mismatch between growth and a lack of public services to provide for growth.” Hopeful miners flood areas when emeralds are discovered. So mining places an increased burden on an infrastructure that cannot keep up with demand. As de Oliveira explains, the real money in mining is made outside the area by the people who cut, polish, and sell the gems. Local government receives little tax money to improve infrastructure. This weakens an already weakened system.
Miners work in unhealthy, unsafe, and poorly constructed mines. Working environments include hot and humid temperatures, little water and food, and long hours. In his study, de Oliveira documents the illness and suffering of miners when public resources cannot provide treatment for health issues that result from mining. Mining also creates public health hazards through the improper treatment and disposal of raw sewage. While writing his article “A scoop of explosives, a short fuse, and a gamble with death for Afghan miners in the Hindu Kush,” Jon Boone acknowledges that both accidents and the flooding or collapsing of mines result in death and injury. Emerald miners and their families make little when compared to the risks the mines place on their health and safety. In fact, the GreenKarat organization states “the return is meager.”
Deforestation, erosion, and water/soil contamination are also effects of emerald mining, according to de Oliveira. Deforestation, widespread removal of trees and other plant life, occurs when forests are cut down or burned to reach emeralds. Erosion, the most common problem, results when earth is worn away by wind, water, and other elements. Uncontrolled erosion wears away abandoned mine pits. As indicated by de Oliveira, soil and water contamination are the most noticeable effects of emerald mining. Mine debris and schist, the result of mine waste sifted through water in search of overlooked emeralds, end up polluting soil and stream water. Effects continue downstream for miles, and “Vegetation and wildlife are destroyed.” In fact, GreenKarat suggests that some environmental effects might be irreversible. Explosives and other mining tools have consequences as well. The explosives leave a large number of emeralds filled with cracks and worthless. Boone suggests that these techniques also destabilize the mountains. Mines and mountains are then susceptible to collapse.
- emerald image by Barcabloo from Fotolia.com