Documentary aims to peel back the veil of secrecy on gold mining industry

Scene from the film The Shadow of Gold showing a jewellery fashion show in China.

The documentary film The Shadow of Gold takes a comprehensive look at the secretive global gold mining industry and the people who work in it and seek to change it. The film captures the massive growth in the gold industry which has exploded along with the price of the precious metal. The film is a Canada-France co-production by filmmakers Robert Lang (Kensington Communications, Canada) and Sally Blake (Films à Cinq and CAPA, France). The Shadow of Gold will screen at the Mayfair Theatre on Feb. 27 and it can be seen on TVO on March 13. Before the Ottawa screening, Robert Lang answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. When did you begin work on this project?

A. We began research in mid-2015. Gold is ubiquitous and has long held fascination, but it’s a highly secretive industry. By travelling to locales around the world where gold plays an important role, we aim to pull back the veil and connect to the personal stories of those who bring us the gold humans covet.

Q. What did you want to do in this film?

A. Other recent films have examined the history of gold. We wanted to tell a contemporary story. In the past 50 years the price has shot up to unprecedented heights triggering a worldwide gold rush. It has led to more and bigger mines. In the developing world, millions have become artisanal miners. We wanted to reveal the consequences of the gold rush. We expected to discover that gold production comes with high environmental and social costs, but we didn’t expect to find such difficult issues at every step of the supply chain. Nor did we guess that so many are trying to fix the problems. Part of our plan was to try to enter the lives of those who mine for gold. We hoped, that their stories would be interesting. We didn’t realize that their stories would be so surprising, and in some cases, so heartbreaking.

The film is part of a trilogy of documentaries, more than a decade in the making, that investigate global commodities: Diamond Road, Raw Opium and now The Shadow of Gold.

This aerial shot shows the impact of artisanal mining in the Amazon Basin in South America.

Q. Where did you film?

A. We went to London, the world-hub of the gold trade. We went to the free-trade zone of Dubai where a big percentage of the world’s gold is refined.  We tried to visit a representative sample of gold mines, big and small including: a legendary industrial gold mine in Nevada; a now devastated gold mining region in Peru; a remote gold-rich mountain in China; a war ravaged village in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the site of the Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia.

Q. How did you get access to people like the gold refiner in Dubai or the geologist in Montana?

A. This is a big question, as each person required a different approach. Overall, I can say it was a team effort. In China and the Congo we engaged local people to do research and persist until they gained the trust of the local small-scale gold miners.  In the U.S., we contacted a geologist named Shawn Dykes and I had several conversations with him until he agreed to be on camera to show us his exploration process. In Dubai, the owner of the Kaloti refinery wanted to convince us that his company is a good corporate citizen. Each person had their own reasons. Sometimes they come to believe that the filmmaker will fairly represent their truth. Sometimes they believe sharing their stories may help stimulate change. Sometimes they just are intrigued by the filming process. Always however, they have something they want to convey about their own reality – some valuable perspective.

Q. The gold business is built on the work of miners. Can you tell me a bit about the lives of some of the people you met?

A. Xu Detian is an older miner who spent many years as a driller in an old gold mine in northern China. As you’ll see in the film, shots of the mountains look like an old Chinese painting. The old underground mine where Detian works looks like the mines we had in North America in the 1940s. It’s filled with rock dust. The miners have inadequate masks. Many, including Xu Detian, are sick with silicosis. Neither the company nor the state provide health care. Miners like Detian keep working for their children. Thanks to his job – which Detian tells us is the best paying job in his depressed region – he now has a nice house and his two kids go to school. He has a pretty good life except that he has trouble breathing and will soon die from a disease that could easily have been prevented. He has helped produce a lot of gold for the Chinese state. His reward will be a slow, painful death.

Kahambu Vaherenie is a charismatic woman who lives with her children in eastern Congo – a region of green forests and rolling hills. During the civil war she fled but has now returned to become an artisanal gold miner. She leads a small group of women miners who explore for surface gold. They dig out ore with picks and shovels and refine it using basic small-scale equipment. She told us local miners – especially women miners – have a hard time selling their gold for a fair price. Recently, she connected with a Canadian NGO called Impact that provided a path for her to sell gold for a fair, stable price through an organization called Fair Congo. She now has a nice house. Her kids go to school and she also has the time and resources to pursue her traditional avocation as a farmer. She describes her current life as “blessed.” When some well-meaning people tell us they think no one should buy gold, I think of Kahambu. There are few jobs in her country. Her government doesn’t have any safety net. Going out every day and finding surface gold in a beautiful forest seems like a decent job to me, especially since now she can provide for her family..

Q. Tell me about the Mount Polley disaster.

A. On Aug. 4, 2014, at the Imperial Metals-owned Mount Polley copper and gold mine there was a tailings pond breach that released tens of millions of tons of mining waste into an adjacent lake that is part of the Fraser River watershed. There was immediate devastation, especially to the salmon fishery. In the film we visit the area a few years later to document the consequences. It’s a cautionary tale of how the gold industry can have a disastrous environmental impact even in a wealthy and supposedly well-regulated nation. This is at least partly the result of the cozy relationship between the mining industry and various levels of government. As indigenous spokesperson Jacinda Mack says in the film, the problem will stay with us until we put a higher value on water than we do on gold.

Q. Is the work to protect the Yellowstone area from gold mining a microcosm of what is possible?

A. While some local citizens hoped a gold mine would bring employment, many were concerned a mine would destroy the wilderness and the local tourist industry – wiping out more jobs than it could ever create. Local people organized and banged on the doors of elected representatives at all levels of government. They secured a moratorium on gold mining and exploration in the Yellowstone area. It’s worth noting that it was only possible because Yellowstone is in a relatively democratic nation. Second, the opposition was broadly based – made up of entrepreneurial conservatives as well as eco-minded liberals.

Q. The film presents heroes and solutions. Can you talk about some heroes?

A. In Nevada, Corrado  DeGasperis, a gold mining company CEO, is investing in sustainable technology that he hopes will replace the industry-standard method for concentrating gold, the one that creates the conditions for disasters like the one at Mount Polley. Risking millions on new technology is pretty heroic in a capitalist way.

In London, Amjad Rihan, a former partner in the accounting firm Ernst & Young, turned whistleblower when he discovered that the Dubai-based gold refinery he was auditing was allowing conflict gold into the supply chain. He had to flee Dubai with his family and he lost his career. I don’t think he would like the “hero” label but he seems like one to me.

Q. Are there solutions to the toxic impacts of gold mining.

A. In industrial mines, problems arise when toxic chemicals used to concentrate gold ore are released into the environment. The releases can be tiny chronic leaks – “acid mine drainage” – or they can be releases of millions of tons of mine waste contaminated by cyanide and other toxic chemicals – releases that happen when dams at massive tailings ponds collapse. To deal with this issue will require the mining industry to abandon a tried and true process in favour of one that is non-toxic and does not require tailings ponds. Lots of scientists and engineers are working on this problem. In the film we meet a Nobel Prize winning chemist, Sir Fraser Stoddart, who has come up with a process based on corn starch. It works on a small scale. Will it work and remain sustainable on an industrial scale? There are current pilot projects which look promising. Here’s hoping.

Artisanal miners use mercury to concentrate gold creating the world’s largest source of mercury pollution. Many artisanal miners don’t see an alternative, but alternatives definitely exist. The challenge is finding processes that miners will actually use. In the film we meet Kevin Telmer, a Canadian mining engineer who started an organization called the Artisanal Gold Council. He is helping artisanal gold miners and uses his technical skill to provide alternatives that produce more gold than mercury.

Q. Are we addicted to gold? Can we break the addiction?

A. Many humans are addicted to gold in a way, but gold itself doesn’t harm us. The harm is mostly to the people who mine gold and to the environment. If you care about keeping your conscience clean, don’t buy gold or cars or skinny jeans or any of the trappings of consumer society. If you want to help some hard-working people in the developing world buy ethically sourced gold produced by responsible artisanal gold miners.

Q. Are you hopeful that the industry will change?

A. I don’t believe gold mining will go away – there’s too much money at stake. But I believe that, sooner or later, it will be forced to change by choices that consumers make and by legislation that governments will impose on their practices. How effective those initiatives will be is dependent on the pressure that the public exerts on the retail sector, mining industry and government.

Everybody knows about Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade chocolate. Many know about conflict-free diamonds. But hardly anybody seems to know that you can buy gold from ethical sources.  I wish more people did.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.