Conservation Gemstones: Beyond Fair Trade? – The Raw Stone
Blood ruby or conservation ruby? A Niassa ranger presents a small ruby still attacehed to its matrix, collected on the ground from the left overs at the illegal ruby mining site near M’swize village in the Niassa National Reserve, November 2009. Photo: V. Pardieu / GIA Laboratory Bangkok 
May 1, 2012 at 4:12 pm

In the course of running a business in an entirely new industry of ethical gemstones, we come across only a few articles every once in a while that accurately portray what is happening worldwide in the mining, cutting and distribution of gemstones. This article is one of them, so we are happy to repost.

National Geographic, January 12, 2012

Guest post by Laurent E. Cartier and Vincent Pardieu

In September 2009 Vincent Pardieu was on his way to visit and study a new ruby deposit in the Niassa bush of Mozambique. He and his team were detained for three long and tough days by park rangers who were controlling access to the illegal ruby mining site threatening the Niassa National Reserve, one of the largest and most remote parts of Africa dedicated to conservation. In May 2008, Laurent Cartier visited sapphire mines within Ankarana National Park in northern Madagascar. Although illegal, miners are still operating within the boundaries of the Ankarana Park over a decade since the discovery of this deposit. These encounters led the authors to explore how conservation and the gemstone trade could find opportunities to benefit from each other. Does gemstone mining have to be in competition with environmental conservation? We think not. But achieving this requires that the realities of gemstone mining and the trade be fully taken into account.

Although colored gemstones –such as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires- have been mined since ancient times, they are non-renewable resources and their supply from geological deposits is finite. However, unlike many other resources, they are extremely durable. For example, the Black Prince Ruby, currently part of the British Crown jewels, appeared during the 14th century and remains an incredible example of nature’s beauty. Old gemstones (i.e. decades and century-old), such as the Black Prince Ruby, are a central part of the colored gemstone trade. Only a tiny portion of colored gemstones found in the trade and in jewellery was extracted in the past few years.

At the same time, serious ecological and socio-economic issues associated with the extraction and trade of gemstones have been raised in the past decade. One approach to resolving these problems has been to begin developing frameworks (e.g. ethical-, responsible-, ‘fair trade’ gemstones) that strive to promote sound environmental management and greater economic benefits for mining communities. While these frameworks cover current and future production, they fail to integrate many of the realities specific to the world of colored gemstones.

If the industry is serious about more sustainable practices it must also examine and address impacts linked to past mining of (old) gemstones. The environmentally damaging effects of pastgemstone mining can be mitigated and could contribute to ecological restoration and biodiversity conservation today and in future. There is a great potential for using gemstones mined a century ago to fund conservation and environmental rehabilitation today.

Coloured gemstones, here rough and faceted natural sapphires from Ilakaka (Madagascar) showing a wide range of colours. Photo: Vincent Pardieu / Gubelin Gem Lab

Unlike gold and diamonds, most polished colored gemstones can be linked back to their geographic country of origin by gemological laboratories using advanced analytical techniques. This means that gemstones mined 100 years ago in places as diverse as, Burma, Colombia or Tajikistan could be used to promote and finance environmental rehabilitation or conservation efforts in the region they were mined from.

What about the other 98% of gemstones?

The gemstone world is unique and perhaps old-fashioned in more than one sense. Unlike many other resources which are consumed within weeks or months of harvest or extraction, gemstones are still found in the trade centuries after they are mined due to their resistant properties and long-lasting value. Today, sapphires from Kashmir and Golconda diamonds are highly revered and valuable even though mining activity has been largely suspended for over a century in Kashmir and even longer in the case of the so-called “Golconda mines”. The durability of colored gemstones means that they will be traded many times in the next centuries so that environmental projects could be repeatedly funded with one and the same gemstone. For example, the famous Rockefeller sapphire was bought and sold six times between 1934 and 2001 when it was sold at auction for $3,031,000.

The results of numerous inquiries put to gemstone merchants showed that the vast majority of gemstones in circulation and in merchants’ stocks were not extracted within the last two years: they are decades old. Considering the number of gems in museums or private hands, and by comparing past production figures of mining areas to their current activity, the authors reach the (probably conservative) estimate that fewer than 2% of gemstones in circulation were mined in the last two years.Frameworks that might be considered for colored gemstone production (e.g Fair Trade which is already applied to some artisanal gold production) only address current mining practices- not historical ones. The current schemes that seek to regulate “sustainability” fail to take into account the 98% of traded gemstones (probably more in financial terms) that are too old to be regulated or considered ‘fair trade’. While it is vital to look at current production, as it is highly visible particularly to the public, the rest of the industry and its potential should not be disregarded. Many gemstone traders are reluctant to adopt fair trade-like concepts because they do not integrate into the reality of the colored gemstone business: most of the gemstones found in their collections are typically from ‘old stocks’ or were bought recently but could be more than 100 years old.

The environmental impacts of colored gemstone mining

Gemstones are mined in a wide range of geological contexts. Finding and extracting them is a challenging feat and often unprofitable due to geological and engineering difficulties that are encountered in the exploration and extraction stages. A ruby of 5 grams (25 carats) can be worth several hundred thousand dollars, or practically nothing. This sets colored gemstones apart from many other resources. Unlike gold or coffee, there are no commodity or listed prices for colored gemstones.

The commonly conveyed image of gemstone mining is of low earnings, hard working conditions and environmental degradation. Environmental impacts are typically higher with ‘gem rushes’, when hundreds of outsiders move to new gem mining deposits, but much less so when only local communities are engaged in mining activity. Nevertheless, environmental destruction –even in the case of many gem rushes- has to be put into perspective as colored gemstone mining impacts only a tiny percentage of the land dedicated to commercial plantations like coffee, banana, cocoa, sisal or palm oil. Recent field research in Vietnam showed that fair trade coffee plantations are a graver source of ecological concern than sapphires mined locally.

The number of unfilled and un-reclaimed pits as a result of past gemstone mining worldwide, even if difficult to quantify, is significant. Digging pits is the common method used in artisanal mining of alluvial deposits. More than 80% of colored gemstones worldwide are extracted by artisanal miners who operate largely outside legal frameworks, using the most basic tools (i.e. shovel and sieve) to work geologically complex deposits. A 2004 study in central Sri Lanka counted 9123 gem pits in an area of 1253ha in the region of Elahera. Extrapolated to a global scale this means that there must easily be over a million unfilled pits on the globe. Refilling pits costs money that many artisanal miners often do not have (what’s been dug out needs to be shoveled back in with similar effort, time and money). The short lifetime of many alluvial deposits often reinforces this dynamic. It’s clear that in many countries environmental laws are not enforced and pits have been left standing. Pits need to be refilled because otherwise the land remains bare and cannot be used for farming. Water-filled pits are habitats that foster malarial mosquitoes creating greater problems for human health. Deforestation, poaching, and siltation of rivers are also often associated with artisanal mining in certain gemstone producing regions. Unrestored mining areas are a serious source of environmental problems linked to past gemstone mining activity but that directly affect the post-mining livelihoods of communities and ecology around (past) mining sites. Many of these could be efficiently remediated so that communities can profit from the lands. The trade both in new and old gemstones could be a source of funding for this initiative. This would be one way for the industry to offset past activity that was ecologically destructive and better integrate gemstone merchants and other members of the trade into efforts to increase benefits for people in gemstone producing areas.

Aerial view of Ilakaka (Madagascar) village and its “Banque Mondiale“ sapphire mining area. Besides some large excavations each small black dot represent a small, but often deep, gemstone mining pit. In many areas old unfilled mining pits are a serious source of environmental problems that directly affect the post-mining livelihoods of communities and ecology around former mining sites. Photo courtesy: Philippe Colombie / Relais de la Reine, 2000.

The challenges of reform in current gemstone mining

Secondary alluvial (gemstone gravel) deposits, unlike large primary deposits, are often small, scattered and depleted within a few years. These deposits are interesting for the rudimentary work methods of artisanal miners, but rarely viable for large-scale mining companies. With gemstones, resource management and economic benefits become critical issues because the duration of mining can be quite short. The appearance of new gemstone deposits in the past decade in Madagascar, Tanzania, and Mozambique has shown that engaging with artisanal gemstone miners remains a challenging undertaking. Colored gemstone miners, particularly in East Africa, move frequently between deposits in search of gemstones to sustain their livelihoods. Many of the deposits found in the past decade are also located in ecologically sensitive areas. The reality shows that formalization and long-term organization of miners can be unfeasible due to the nature of the mineral and its geology. As the great gemstone rush of Winza (2008, Tanzania) shows: the majority of mining activity took place within a two-year period and has become negligible at present.

In such contexts where miners operate without legal permits, environmental regulations are difficult to enforce. And because of the lack of permits it is impossible to link past environmental destruction from mining back to specific individuals or companies. It is rare that somebody, years later, can be held accountable for environmental impacts linked to past mining activity. Gemstone mining countries, such as Afghanistan or Tanzania, have mining permit regulations that cannot be correctly implemented because they are often ill-suited to the artisanal (gemstone) mining sector.

The tragic murder of Campbell Bridges in Kenya in 2009 further exemplifies difficulties faced with promoting wider economic benefits in mining communities and environmental conservation at a local level. The late Mr. Bridges was a tsavorite small-scale gemstone miner who had promoted the name tsavorite in honor of nearby Tsavo National Park and was a strong supporter of environmental conservation in the region. However, although the Tsavorite gem could have been marketed as a ‘conservation gem’, it never was. In many gem-mining areas many artisanal and small-scale miners feel that to have a model mine may be dangerous as it can result in jealousy from neighbors or greed from local officials. Similarly, the potential for gemstones and jewellery to be sold locally to wildlife tourists is large, but miners in the Tsavo region refrain from doing this for comparable reasons.

As detailed here, many of the obstacles facing colored gemstone mining reform lie not in the ‘chaotic’ character of colored gemstone mining but in the nature of the minerals, their geology and local governance issues. These may well be some of the strongest constraining factors facing implementation of Fair Trade-like frameworks for colored gemstones.

Whilst there is still great potential to improve practices in present gemstone mining and trading, the other 98% of gemstones cannot be separated from these efforts. If industry is integrated at a much larger scale (i.e. by addressing the old gemstone issue), this could also serve as a catalyst to mobilizing funds and efforts to also improve the sustainability of future gemstone production.

Conservation gemstones

At times when the gemstone and jewellery industry is becoming increasingly aware and pro-active about the sustainability of its products, the sector might be interested to explore new ways to improve the footprint of colored gemstones and the impact it has both on communities and environments. Colored gemstone mining could contribute to preserving vulnerable ecosystems in the countries in which they are or were extracted. The environment surrounding a gemstone mining area can be restored and in this case – around Luc Yen, in northern Vietnam - rice farming has now taken over from mining.

Examples that the industry can raise funds for social and environmental causes exist. Recent ‘Emeralds for Elephants’ auctions organized by Gemfields and the World Land Trust raised £80,000 and $150,000 for elephant conservation projects in Asia. Christie’s 2011 Green Auction raised more than $2.4 million for four environmental non-profit groups and will take place again in April 2012. These two examples should serve as sufficient evidence that funds can be raised from within the gemstone and jewellery industry for environmental causes. However, these efforts are not linked to the mining regions in which gemstones were extracted. Surely, for example, if tsavorite gems were auctioned and a part of the proceeds would directly fund conservation efforts in and around Tsavo national park (Kenya) it would endow these gems with additional value. This could be extended to many other parks and reserves in need of funding for their conservation projects located in gemstone mining regions, such as the Niassa national reserve in Mozambique or the Cardamon mountains in Cambodia. Not only could this funding go towards funding the preservation of sensitive fauna and flora, it would also contribute to livelihoods in these regions by supporting ecotourism projects or rehabilitating past mining sites.
A number of companies are now selling and promoting ‘recycled gemstones’ (e.g. Circa Jewels) as sustainable alternatives, because consuming these reduces the need for mining and associated environmental impacts. These gemstones are considered ‘recycled’ because they are sourced from pre-owned jewellery from the public and retail and put back into circulation on the market. Even if recycled gemstones are promoted as sustainable, there are two potential shortfalls in the argument of these companies. Firstly, gemstone mining communities –such as in East Africa- miss out on economic development opportunities if current mining is reduced. Secondly, even if these gemstones are ‘recycled’, this says little about their ecological footprints: we know nothing about the environmental impacts linked to their extraction in the past. Clearly, these companies could strengthen their sustainability argument by contributing to offsetting past environmental impacts of the old gemstones they buy and sell.

Where is a gemstone from?

Unlike with diamonds and gold, the geographic origin of many colored gemstones can be determined scientifically using advanced analytical techniques that focus on the chemistry and internal features of a gemstone. Valuable rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other types of gemstones are nearly always traded with reports from independent gemological laboratories that give an opinion on the geographic source of a specific gem. The main reason for this is that origin and provenance are two important factors in determining the value of a gemstone. Again, both the influence of origin on value and the requirement for origin determination sets colored gemstones apart from many other resources, such as gold. Knowing that a ruby is of Tanzanian, Burmese, Malagasy or Tajik origin, is a way of specifically targeting ecological remediation efforts in the gemstone mining regions of these countries. This would ensure that funds could be specifically targeted to the country in which the gem may have been extracted many decades ago. Because the determination of origin is already required and established within the trade, obtaining this information to target funding for environmental projects would not come at an extra cost.

A model for the future

Emerging models and frameworks in the jewellery industry do not take past mining activity into account, even though it is vital. Indeed, rather than place all emphasis on presently extracted gemstones, it would be valuable to examine how the other 98% that were already extracted in the past could be used to raise funds that would go towards environmental restoration and conservation projects linked to past mining activity.

There is an evident need for funding of environmental remediation linked to past gemstone mining and projects addressing better management of current gemstone extraction. Rather than seek money from donors and governments for such projects, the trade could play a much larger role in funding these. In funding terms, it will clearly be easier to raise $1 million from the ‘old’ 98% of gems traded today than to raise that same amount from the less than 2% of recent gemstone production. Obviously, the two are not mutually exclusive, but further ways of improving the environmental and socio-economic performance of colored gemstones should be explored. This is because the environment is a vital source of income and will sustain livelihoods long after the cessation of mining activity.

With estimates suggesting that the gemstone industry is worth US$10-15 billion at a retail level, an optional levy of 0.1% at a retail level could still raise an annual US$ 10-15 million to promote conservation and remediation projects. Another option would be to hold regular gemstone auctions to raise funds for conservation and restoration projects in specific regions. For example, an auction of tsavorites could be used to fund conservation in Tsavo national parks; Cambodian sapphires could be sold for environmental projects in the Cardamon Mountains. The fact that many valuable gemstones are already accompanied with reports stating the geographic origin of the gemstone also makes the proposed model technically feasible in the current gemstone industry.

If the origin of a gemstone truly is a selling point, its appellation could be extended to include socio-economic, environmental and ethical dimensions. To the public a “conservation ruby” might sound more appealing than a possible “blood gem”. Colored gemstones have always been intimately linked to nature. National parks are often seen as the gems of the living world, maybe one day the gems of the mineral world could be used to support them.

The colored gemstone industry is fragmented and covers over 50 producing countries. There is no silver bullet to improving sustainability in gemstone mining and the trade. However, it is clear that if the industry is serious in its efforts to offer gemstones that are mined and traded responsibly, it must take on a broader scope. The old 98% of colored gemstones need to be taken into account. Unlike many other industries, colored gemstones can and are frequently traced back to their countries of origin. This is an opportunity not only to address sustainability issues, but also to integrate a larger part of the trade, retail and consumers into these efforts. Promoting both the natural beauty and the positive contribution that the extraction and trade of a precious gemstone has to a local community and environment- even long after it has been mined- endows a gem with additional value. Funding conservation projects, ecotourism activities, remediating lands that are impacted by unfilled pits, improving practices of current mines would benefit local populations and ecosystems. This would bring the term ‘origin’ of a gemstone to a new level.

About the authors

Laurent E. Cartier is a geologist and gemmologist based in Switzerland. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Environmental Sciences on the sustainability of  marine pearl farming at the University of Basel, but also continues to work on gemstones. His current projects on pearl farming can be found at

Vincent Pardieu is supervisor for Field Gemology at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) gemological laboratory based in Bangkok, Thailand. During the past 10 years he has travelled extensively to colored gemstone mining areas around the world particularly in Asia and Africa.

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