Fool’s Gold

31.03.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 003  


Imre Sos, 55, who used to supplement his meagre Hungarian pension by eating fish from the Tisza, said he had had to stop after one of the dogs in Kiskore was killed by poisoned fish. ”If you eat the fish, you'll die,” Sos said, making a motion of slitting his throat.

Reuters news, Feb 21st 2000 [accessed at]

Christians believe that God graciously allows humanity to care for his world, and to use its resources. That makes some environmental issues quite difficult. For example a logging operation, and its benefits, might seem defensible to one Christian, but rapacious to another.

Imre Sos has lived through an environmental disaster that could easily be repeated. Just over four years ago, 100 tonnes of muddy water laced with cyanide spilled from breaches in a dam wall, poisoning the Tisza river, and then further downstream, the Danube. Cyanide acts at a cellular level, destroying the body's ability to utilise oxygen. Hungarian authorities removed 85 tonnes of dead fish from the water.

What could possibly have put enough cyanide in the dam to cause this catastrophe? We might imagine some freak chain of events at work: the breakdown of a highly secure storage facility, perhaps, and an odd set of coincidences. But no. We find instead that the Australian-Romanian company owning the damn (with its 1.5mm thick plastic lining) built it in order to contain this massive quantity of cyanide slurry. The slurry is produced by a major new industrial process, used all around the world. The process is called cyanide leaching, and the company uses it to mine gold.

Mining company chemists have discovered that microscopic flecks of gold can be collected by spraying cyanide solution onto massive heaps of rock and dirt—low grade ore, and the tailings of previous mining operations. Several tonnes of dirt might yield a few grams of gold, but that few grams is worth it in the gold-hungry jewellery market.

Some environmental issues are quite difficult, but this one is not. What madness could possibly impel people to think it a good idea, to use such large quantities of toxins for such a non-essential benefit? It is hard not to be reminded of the words of James, the biblical author:

Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. [James 3:16]

James was referring to jealous ambition producing quarrelling and unrest; but in relation to cyanide leaching, a high gold price drives jealous and selfish ambition, and 85 tonnes of dead fish certainly qualifies as a kind of ‘disorder’. On this view, cyanide leaching itself is just another ‘evil practice’. Such brutal biblical honesty about humanity is needed in this environmental debate. “The company regrets this accident has happened,” a spokesperson said after the Tisza spill, but the ‘regret’ did not extend to ceasing the practise that caused the accident. It is also hard not to be reminded of the words of Paul:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. [2 Cor. 7:10].

The Mineral Council of Australia say that such spills can be prevented by adherence to their voluntary ‘Code of Environmental Management’. But a Christian knowledge of the human heart would suggest that self-regulation is no regulation. Indeed, many companies have not signed the code, and operate largely unregulated in developing nations. As cyanide leaching is banned in various developed states, companies increasingly look to operate in less regulated areas. Accidents are legion. A Sydney-based company accidentally lost one thousand kilograms of cyanide from a helicopter on its way to the Tolukuma mine in Papua New Guinea.

What can Christians do? Although this matter is not currently in the news, we bring it to your attention as a first step in increasing ongoing awareness about it. We will keep you informed of any developments in New South Wales law in relation to cyanide leaching (and if you live in another jurisdiction, it might be worth finding out what is happening there). But perhaps more importantly, Christians might ponder how to call Australian companies to account for poisoning the land in other countries. That might seem much too big for most of us—a job for governments and officers of the law. To a certain extent that is so, and citizens might simply alert Members of Parliament to this practice and ask if the government is discouraging it.

But an indication of the leverage that Christians do have comes from an unexpected source. As one writer in The Humanist puts it:

[R]eligious institutions and leaders can bring at least five strong assets to the effort to build a sustainable world: the capacity to shape cosmologies (worldviews), moral authority, a large base of adherents, significant material resources, and community-building capability. Many political movements would welcome any of these five assets. To be endowed with most or all of them, as many religions are, is to hold considerable political power.

Humanism, a philosophy promoting human self-sufficiency, is not normally noted for its enthusiasm toward Christianity. Yet here we (and others) are being reminded that when Christians cry ‘foul!’, people do listen. Of course, they almost always mock and argue first. But sometimes, evil is more fragile than we think. Most certainly, mining companies are littered with officers who know that cyanide leaching is mad, bad and dangerous, but who go along with it because everyone else does (and to keep the share price up). But they know gold isn't worth this risk.


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