Until 2018, gold from a disputed mine in Ethiopia made its way to a refinery in Ticino for processing. They didn’t know about the problems.
Lega Dembi is the largest gold mine in Ethiopia. It is operated by the Midroc Investment Group, an economic heavyweight in the country. But there were always problems with environmental protection at the mine. Heavy metals cause damage to the environment and human health, explains Human Rights Watch’s Juliane Kippenberg.
A study by the university in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa came to the conclusion that there is an increased content of arsenic, cyanide and chromium in the vicinity of the mine. “An Ethiopian health authority has also found that communities living near the mine face massive health risks.”
Investigations under wraps
As a result of these investigations and protests by the population, the Ethiopian government at the time closed the mine in 2018. The investigation itself, however, remained under wraps. “The results that there is this environmental damage and serious health risks for which the mining company is responsible have not been made public,” says Kippenberg.
The Swiss refinery Argor-Heraeus sourced gold from this mine until 2018. The company confirmed this in a written statement at the request of Radio SRF. At the time, she was unaware of the problems.
The opinion of Argor-Heraeus
“We immediately stopped working with Midroc in May 2018 when we found out about the situation,” the company said. It was only through the NGOs that one got an insight into the investigations of that time. Argor Heraeus adhered to all the rules of the OECD or the London Bullion Market Association, the international regulatory body for the industry, that were applicable at the time. Evaluations of media reports and an exchange with NGOs at the time also gave no indication of the conditions on site. “We therefore took this case as an opportunity to re-examine our internal processes, upgrade our systems and introduce further test centers.”
Juliane Kippenberg from Human Rights Watch criticizes that this case shows that the rules in force are not sufficient even for flagship refineries such as Argor-Heraeus.
On the one hand, there is often a lack of in-depth analysis of the companies directly at the mines. “In addition, the audits carried out by industry associations are often very short and superficial,” criticizes Kippenberg. “More needs to be done to ensure that companies and auditors can get this information.”
Supply Chain Disclosure
Accordingly, NGOs in Switzerland are repeatedly demanding that refineries disclose their supply chains in order to be able to identify gold from problematic sources more quickly. The industry defends itself against this: It is not legally feasible. Alternatively, the industry wants to equip customs as a control and ombudsman with more powers.
Sustainable gold has a hard time
With the “Swiss Better Gold Initiative”, Switzerland has been trying to promote sustainable gold since 2013. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and industry representatives are involved. In fact, demand from bank customers for traceable gold is constantly increasing, says Christian Hofer. He is a board member of the “Swiss Better Gold Initiative” and is responsible for sustainability and corporate responsibility at Raiffeisen-Bank.
His bank is also making efforts to make traceable and sustainably mined gold more popular with customers, for example with a corresponding ETF, a sustainable gold fund. “We are very transparent and pay attention to environmental, social and governance criteria in the supply chain,” says Hofer. Nevertheless, the proportion of sustainably produced gold in the overall gold market in Switzerland, which totals around 4,000 tons, has so far been negligibly small.
After all, as Hofer emphasizes, four tons of gold from small mines in South Africa reached the Swiss market as part of the initiative in 2022 – 80 percent more than five years ago. A certain amount of this gold is integrated into the standard gold products at Raiffeisen, which means that these are only slightly more expensive. Because: “If we were to offer a product made of pure gold, it would be so expensive that very few people would ask for it.” According to Hofer, there needs to be a general rethink – from all stakeholders – so that the gold trade becomes more sustainable and fairer. “It’s a challenge and can’t happen that quickly,” admits the Raiffeisen banker.
The ball is in parliament, said Christoph Wild, then head of Argor-Heraeus and now president of the industry association of precious metal processors. “We are in the process of sensitizing Parliament to what is important to us and how significant improvements could be achieved with small, quick steps.”
Controversial mine is back in operation
That would be an interesting solution for Kippenberg. If companies were to be subject to corresponding obligations by law, including an authority that monitors the whole thing, that would make sense. “This authority would then also have to look at reports from non-governmental organizations and accept them.”
However: Parliament will not address the customs law until autumn at the earliest. And until the new laws are implemented, the control of the origin of gold remains a matter for the refineries themselves. The Lega Dembi mine in Ethiopia is now back in operation – according to NGOs without solving the environmental problems. The gold mined in this way is now being exported to countries outside of Europe.