TORONTO, May 28 (Reuters) - What if gold were no longer an object of desire but an object of disgust? What if environmentalists were able to do to the image of the glittering metal what animal rights activists did to the fur coat -- paint it as a symbol of cruel and thoughtless vanity, not of brilliant success?
Many environmentalists want just that, but it's not yet an idea whose time has come. At a high-profile mining conference on sustainable development in Toronto this month, which is home to some of the world's biggest gold miners, several proposals were advanced to put an end to gold extraction.
But the anti-mining calls probably won't come to much. The gold-mining industry is healthier than it's been for years, with prices rising and the precious metal in strong demand. Gold prices are way up and probably going higher, analysts say. Spot gold prices were above $320 an ounce in Europe on Friday after starting the year at $279. The stock prices of gold miners are rising apace.
Also, there are hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs tied up in the gold industry. The metal, once described by renowned economist John Maynard Keynes as a "barbarous relic," is in fact back, showing new life as an investment favorite.
But, some adamantly argue, there is no need to mine more gold.
"Gold mining and cyanide use in gold mining has had an unjustifiable and irrevocable impact on the U.S. West," Stephen D'Esposito of the U.S. Mineral Policy Center, said at the Toronto conference. "How much new gold do we really need?"
None, detractors say, noting that more than 90 percent of all the gold that was ever mined is still around -- a lot of it sitting in central-bank vaults, and a lot clinging to the necks, wrists and fingers of the rich, famous and beautiful.
Also, environmentalists insist, gold mining is dangerous to people's health and ruinous to the en
The mining industry, in general, acknowledges the environmental sins of the past and promises to do better.
"We could take the view, much like the anti-fur people, that we don't need furs and why should women wear fur coats," said Jay Hair, a U.S. conservation movement leader and Vietnam War veteran who was wooed by the mining industry to become secretary general of the International Council for Mining and Metals, a London-based body set up to help miners get greener.
"But my problem with that is that on the other side of the coin there are thousands of poor people, for better or worse, who are employed by the gold industry," Hair told Reuters in an interview. "If they do not have employment opportunities, they are back in that vicious cycle of abject poverty, and I for one am not willing to trade them off for this notion that we don't need gold."
Hair conceded that "mining gold can be a pretty messy issue." But he added that, "The gold industry, at least the ones I've talked to, are sensitive about cleaning up their acts."
There is a lot of cleaning up to do, critics say. Project Underground, a Berkeley, California-based advocacy group, has put out "Fool's Gold", a Top 10 list of problems with gold mining that was published in "Dollars and Sense" magazine last year.
"From California's Sierra Nevada in the 1850s to the lands of the Pemon in Venezuela today, people have ruined rivers by using high-pressure hoses to spray down the banks and sifting through the sediment for gold," says Project Underground.
"Runoff flows downstream, destroying plant and fish life. But modern mining is even more destructive of water resources: the gold industry in Nevada -- where most gold in the United States is mined -- consumes more water than all the people in the state."
The Project says that cyanide is the chemical of choice for miners to extract gold from crushed ore but that cyanide always leaks into the ecosystem. It points to the case of a cyanide spill at a mine part-owned by Canada's Cameco Corp. in Kyrgyzstan in 1998 that resulted in four deaths and the evacuation of thousands of people living downstream.
"At one southern Colorado mine, Summitville, taxpayers have already paid out $100 million for the Environmental Protection Agency to simply contain -- not clean up -- contamination in local rivers," the Project says.
It also describes the hundreds of thousands of tons of mercury pumped into the environment over centuries to separate gold from ore.
"Over 85 percent of gold mined today will end up as jewelry tomorrow," Project Underground says. 'Gold mining is not an essential industry like the harvesting of food or even paper production. It is certainly not sustainable, nor is it just."
At the recent Toronto conference of the world's top miners, companies pledged commitment to more sustainable, environment-friendly mining in a document they called the Toronto Declaration.
"This is the first important step in this new era and is the commitment from the industry to improve its performance," said Hair. "The goal now is for all parties to establish a meaningful framework around which constructive engagement and real progress can occur in the future."
And Doug Hock, spokesman for Newmont Mining Corp., the world's No. 1 gold producer, noted that gold mining is done because the world wants it.
"We believe in the free market and that the market should decide what it wants. There is a demand for gold. Part of it is aspirational and part of it is as a form of investment," he said. "So it is for the free market to decide, and our role is too mine in a responsible way.
"We use best practices and very high standards to ensure that no cyanide escapes from our operations."
Reuters, May 28, 2002