Can gold mining be slowed by a boycott?

  • David, Jan and Frieda Zimmerman in Pony, Montana

    Duncan Adams

In their eighth year of marriage, Jan and David Zimmerman quietly removed their gold wedding rings. There had been no angry words; the problem was gold.

The year was 1990, and the Chicago Mining Corp. was building a cyanide gold mill above the Zimmermans' home in the tiny town of Pony, Mont. Concerned about possible pollution of creeks and groundwater in the surrounding Tobacco Root Mountains, the Zimmermans began asking questions.

What they learned startled them. Modern gold mining involves massive open pit mines, vast amounts of cyanide, and leftover tailings piles. They also learned they could do little to stop the mill.

"It really was a time of despair. I just took off the ring and never really felt like putting it back on," says Jan Zimmerman. "My feelings are even stronger now."

In April 1992 the Zimmermans, with assistance from the Montana Environmental Information Center, launched a campaign to boycott gold. They started a grass-roots campaign in Montana, and mailed information to more than 300 environmental groups nationwide.

After almost two years of steady work, they are just starting to gain national, and even international attention. The boycott campaign was written up in a newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, a country also wrestling with large-scale gold mining. The campaign was also described in Boycott News, a publication of Co-op America.

One reason for the slow start, says David Zimmerman, is that most large U.S. environmental groups seem leery of the idea. "It's a little too off-the-wall for them," Zimmerman says.

Many environmental organizations, such as the Mineral Policy Center or the Sierra Club, officially advocate "responsible mining." A boycott connotes a more confrontational stance, closer to what those in the mining industry often describe as the hidden agenda of all environmental groups: Stop mining. Period.

But momentum is increasing. Evan Conroy, national merchandise manager for Greenpeace, says his organization is considering dropping gold jewelry from its gifts catalog.

Will Patric, a Bozeman-based circuit rider for the Mineral Policy Center, says although the center hasn't officially responded to the boycott, he thinks it makes sense.

"Frankly, I could not buy gold now," said Patric. "When you see the landscape being torn apart for a few ounces of gold, it's tragic."

Other activists are starting to weigh in. Last fall, Bruce Farling, then conservation director for the Clark Fork-Pend d'Oreille Coalition, said, "We haven't officially joined the boycott, but I encourage people not to buy gold. If you want gold, let's mine people's jewelry boxes before we mine the headwaters of the Blackfoot River." Farling's coalition works to restore mining-ravaged watersheds in Montana and northern Idaho.

The Zimmermans add that with increased mining, grass-roots support for a gold boycott is spreading.

"I think everyone I've talked to in the environmental community, particularly in the West, has really lost their taste for gold," says Jan Zimmerman. "The extraction methods used in modern mining are so ugly and the potential for disaster is so great."

Richard Thieltges and his family have farmed for generations near Chester, not far from the Sweetgrass Hills in north-central Montana. They printed 2,500 "Boycott Gold" stickers after hearing that mining companies were planning to mine the hills.

"I just went out on my own and had some printed," says Thieltges. "I thought it was a way to educate people."

Coincidentally, while the Zimmermans were organizing a gold boycott in Montana, Kay McDonald and Susan Smith were initiating a comparable, but separate effort in Tonasket, Wash., "Boycott Gold Jewelry."

Like the Zimmermans, McDonald decided to launch her boycott after a fruitless fight to stop a proposed gold mine and mill near her home in Chesaw, Wash. (HCN, 11/29/93). During that effort, she heard Battle Mountain Gold executives threaten to move operations to Third-World countries lacking environmental regulations.

"If we chase them off to a Third-World country, then all we've done is move the trouble," McDonald says. The long-term answer is to reduce consumption of gold, she adds.

"I'm not asking anybody to give up their wedding rings or Grandmother's brooch. I'm just saying, "Don't buy any more." People should focus on recycled gold, old gold. I think there's a lot of gold in the world that's already been mined, and I think there are other ways to decorate ourselves."

Meanwhile, the Zimmermans and Montana Environmental Information Center are saving money to buy a full page ad in The New York Times to inform Eastern consumers of the devastation caused by Western gold mining.

For more information contact Jan and David Zimmerman, Boycott Project Box 253, Pony, MT 59747 (406/685-3481). Or contact Boycott Gold Jewelry, Kay McDonald, Box 1514, Tonasket, WA 98855 (509/485-3816).

Duncan Adams is a free-lance writer in Anaconda, Montana.

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