Friday, January 1, 2010


Some fascinating facts on gold from NGS:

... Descending into an icy tunnel 17,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes, the 44-year-old miner stuffs a wad of coca leaves into his mouth to brace himself for the inevitable hunger and fatigue. For 30 days each month Apaza toils, without pay, deep inside this mine dug down under a glacier above the world's highest town, La Rinconada. For 30 days he faces the dangers that have killed many of his fellow miners—explosives, toxic gases, tunnel collapses—to extract the gold that the world demands. Apaza does all this, without pay, so that he can make it to today, the 31st day, when he and his fellow miners are given a single shift, four hours or maybe a little more, to haul out and keep as much rock as their weary shoulders can bear. Under the ancient lottery system that still prevails in the high Andes, known as the cachorreo, this is what passes for a paycheck: a sack of rocks that may contain a small fortune in gold or, far more often, very little at all. ...

... In all of history, only 161,000 tons of gold have been mined, barely enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. More than half of that has been extracted in the past 50 years. ...

... As a girl growing up on the remote Indonesian island of Sumbawa, Nur Piah heard tales about vast quantities of gold buried beneath the moun­tain rain forests. They were legends—until geol­ogists from an American company, Newmont Mining Corporation, discovered a curious green rock near a dormant volcano eight miles from her home. ...

Nur Piah, then 24, replied to a Newmont ad seeking "operators," figuring her friendly manner would get her a job answering phones. When the daughter of a Muslim cleric arrived for training, though, her boss showed her a different operating booth—the cab of a Caterpillar 793 haul truck, one of the world's largest trucks. Standing 21 feet tall and 43 feet long, the truck was bigger than her family home. Its wheels alone were double her height. "The truck terrified me," Nur Piah recalls. Another shock soon followed when she saw the first cut of the mine itself. "They had peeled the skin off the Earth!" she says. "I thought, Whatever force can do that must be very powerful."

Ten years later, Nur Piah is part of that force herself. Pulling a pink head scarf close around her face, the mother of two smiles demurely as she revs the Caterpillar's 2,337-horsepower engine and rumbles into the pit at Batu Hijau. Her truck is part of a 111-vehicle fleet that hauls close to a hundred million tons of rock out of the ground every year. The 1,800-foot volcano that stood here for millions of years? No hint of it remains. The space it once occupied has been turned into a mile-wide pit that reaches 345 feet below sea level. By the time the seam at Batu Hijau is exhausted in 20 years or so, the pit will bottom out at 1,500 feet below sea level. The environmental wreckage doesn't concern Nur Piah anymore. "I only think about getting my salary," she says.

... Nowhere is the gold obsession more culturally entrenched than it is in India. Per capita income in this country of a billion people is $2,700, but it has been the world's runaway leader in gold demand for several decades. In 2007, India consumed 773.6 tons of gold, about 20 percent of the world gold market and more than double that purchased by either of its closest followers, China (363.3 tons) and the U.S. (278.1 tons). India produces very little gold of its own, but its citizens have hoarded up to 18,000 tons of the yellow metal—more than 40 times the amount held in the country's central bank.

... As the price of the metal goes up, however, poor Indian families are having a harder time raising the gold they need for dowries. Though the dowry retains a social function—balancing the wealth between the families of bride and groom—the rising price of gold has only fueled its abusive side. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, the struggle to acquire gold has led to dowry-related domestic violence (usually when grooms' families beat the brides for bringing too little gold) and selective abortions (committed by families desperate to avoid the financial burden of a daughter).

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