From the airspace over the Indonesian gold mine Batu Hijau, it might seem as though the mythical King Midas has been resurrected in a modern, and twisted, form. Where King Midas of Greek lore was granted the touch of gold, the modern King Midas assumes the form of a global mining company that, in a myopic and endless search for gold, turns everything it touches into a dull, deserted, and toxic wasteland.
The National Geographic’s January issue investigates the modern gold rush, undertaken not by pioneers headed out to the North American west but by thousands of individuals in mostly developing countries, hoping to eke out a better existence. With the current financial market in shambles, investors are turning to gold as a safe investment, driving up prices and exacerbating the frenetic pursuit. In 2007, India purchased 20 per cent of the world gold market at 773.6 tons, distantly followed by China at 363.3 tons and the United States at 278.1 tons.
Obsession with gold has prompted some of the most far-reaching voyages in human history, from early Spanish exploration of the Americas to the ongoing search for gold. Most of the easily accessible and large quantities of gold have long since been mined, pushing modern companies to remote corners of five continents in search of the last remaining flecks. To date, the amount of gold mined in human history is only enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools, more than half of which has been mined in the past 50 years.
Gold mine operations range from small, informal operations to gigantic, open-pit mines that create gashes in the earth that are visible from space. All have one aspect in common: the environmental and human destruction left behind. In the Batu Hijau mine, where one ounce of gold requires the removal of 250 tons of earth, the National Geographic article notes:
It takes less than 16 hours to accumulate more tons of waste here than all of the tons of gold mined in human history. The waste comes in two forms: discarded rock, which is piled into flat-topped mountains spread across what used to be pristine rain forest, and tailings, the effluent from chemical processing that Newmont [Mining Corporation] pipes to the bottom of the sea. This method of "submarine tailings disposal" is effectively banned in most developed countries because of the damage the metal-heavy waste can do to the ocean environment, and Newmont practices it nowhere but in Indonesia.
Instead of flattening mountains, smaller mining operations often use mercury to isolate the gold. The United Nations’ Industrial Development Organization estimates that each gram of gold requires applying two to five grams of mercury, introducing the toxic metal into waterways and the human body where it is known to cause severe damage to the nervous system and all major organs. The La Rinconada mine in Peru has caused mercury contamination nearly 100 miles downstream in the rivers and coastline of Lake Titicaca.
As is often the case in developing countries, destruction of the environment causes severe human health problems. A study on the social impact of mining on Amerindians in Guyana revealed increased incidence of malaria as a result of disposal ponds, exposure to HIV from prostitution in mining camps, and increased trafficking in women and rape.
By the end of the myth, King Midas has turned his daughter into a glittering statue and can no longer eat or drink with his own hands. Realizing the foolishness of his pursuit and the gravity of his losses, the king repents deeply, and the god Dionysus restores his normal touch. How will this modern tale end? It seems doubtful that a modern Dionysus exists to reverse the damage and restore the landscape.