Lust for Gold

The Hindu Sunday July 13th 2008.

Gold is costlier than you think. -- KAMALA BALACHANDRAN

We keep a constant tab on the price of gold. We fret when the price goes up and moan that even a small buy makes a big hole in our pockets. Yet we turn a blind eye to the bigger, ecological price that our planet is paying to sustain the lust.

The popular images of gold miners from the Gold Rush, panning for gold nuggets in a mountain stream or digging into thick veins of gold with pick-axes, bear almost no resemblance to the way gold is mined today. Most rich veins of gold, where gold could be separated in solid chunks from the surrounding ore, have been exhausted.

Today gold is primarily found in very low concentrations at less than 10 grams per ton. Hence the only way to extract gold found in such small quantities is to create large open-pit mines through blasting, and excavating large amounts of ore. To get enough gold needed to make a simple gold wedding band, at least 2.8 tons of earth is excavated!

More waste generated

Thus the gold-mining industry generates an enormous amount of waste compared to its product. The mining pits are huge ‘holes’ on the face of the land and though regulation demands that the pits should be filled back, there is never a 100% compliance. Excavated ore is pulverized into a fine powder in order to free the gold. The powder is combined with water to form a muddy mix called slurry. It is at this point that the ore is treated with a liquid solvent to dissolve the gold.

Though gold is one of the most chemically stable elements on earth, it can be dissolved by cyanide. The solvent most commonly used is hydrogen cyanide, which is also one of the deadliest poisons. The cyanide-treated ore wastes, from which gold has been removed are called tailings and these are stored in huge ‘tailings dams’. In the year 2000, heavy rain, ice, and snow caused a breach in a tailings dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulting in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed.Drinking water supplies were cut off for 2.5 million people and nearly all of the fish in the surrounding waters were killed.

Environment hazards

Only the bigger mines use cyanide. Millions of small-scale miners from the Amazon valley to the Philippines use the more harmful chemical mercury, to separate gold from ore. Of the 500,000 gold miners tested in Brazil, more than 30% showed mercury levels above the World Health Organization’s tolerable limits.Damage to water and water resources is the worst environmental consequence of gold mining. The water table has fallen as much as 1,000 feet around some of the largest open-pit gold mines in the region.

Every major gold rush has meant death and devastation for local people at the hands of fortune-seekers. The hordes of gold miners coming in to mine gold bring in diseases for which the locals have little immunity. The foreigners bring in guns and alcohol and destroy nature wherever they go. Their machines spill oil into the rivers and kill the life existing in them.

Over 85% of gold mined today ends up as jewellery tomorrow. Gold mining is not an essential industry like the harvesting of food. It is certainly not sustainable, nor is it just. The cumulative impacts of gold mining worldwide, on local economies and ecosystems, are at least as bad as those of industrial forestry.

Is the yellow metal worth the price?

So the next time you head to buy the glittering metal, ask yourself, is it worth it ?


A real life "Dor" story

A real life incident that comes straight out of the Nagesh Kuknoor movie "Dor" read on...
29th Apr '08 (source The Hindu)

Keralite in Kuwait gets death sentence reduced to jail termAlappuzha (PTI):
Simil, a Keralite on death row in Kuwait escaped the gallows after his capital punishment was reduced to seven year's imprisonment as he was pardoned by the kin of his roommate Suresh from Andhra Pradesh, whom he was accused of murdering.
"Our prayers have been heard. We thank all those who worked to save our son's life. Our only grievance is that we have to wait another seven years to see our son", Simil's mother Telma said after receiving the news from a relative in Kuwait.
Simil had gone to Kuwait for work about two years back. He was charged with the murder of Suresh following an altercation. After the trial he was sentenced to death by a court in Kuwiat.
Simil's parents later approached the Indian High Commission in Kuwait which advised them to take it up with the relatives of Suresh as his punishment could be relaxed if they could obtain the pardon from the parents of the victim.
They later approached Kerala Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy, and Union Minister Vayalar Ravi, who in turn approached Suresh's parents through Congress leaders from Andhra Pradesh.
Though reluctant earlier, Suresh's parents later gave their consent based on which Simil's death sentence was commuted to seven year's imprisonment.
The victim's family has been given a good will amount, mobilised through donations locally as well as from the Gulf.


Ode to the Book

Stumbled upon this piece of poetry, unadultrated, something totally raw, like fresh orange juice, like the fresh kill of a tiger.

This poet seems worth exploring.

I'm on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I'm going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself.

- Pablo Neruda


We will be back again (day 7)

Day 7: (Dhakuri to Loharkhet to Saung )
We start early to be able to get a good glimpse of the snow capped peaks from Dhakuri pass on the way to Loharkhet. Sadly the mountains are under cloud by the time we reach there. The road to Loharkhet has many butterflies species, it‘s a great opportunity to take some lovely photographs, but I am too tired to take the DSLR out and put on the macro lens, so I manage to shoot whatever I can with the camcorder. Route to Loharkhet was mostly downhill but we take some 3.5 hours to cover. At Loharkhet we load all the stuff that we had left behind. With a few more kg. added to the rucksack, we bid farewell to the hills, with a promise that we will be back someday.
We climb down 3km to Saung and spent the rest of the day traveling back to Almora. While Rajeev has to rush back to Delhi, I decide to spend a couple of days at Almora and take it easy. Just digest the whole lot of things that happened in the past couple of days.

Now that I am back to the drudgery of city life, when I recall the whole trek, I have a mixed feeling. It was a great way to challenge ones physical and more importantly mental abilities beyond the usual. It was a great escape into the hills, a kind of meditation in itself. All I dream now, is to be able to go back, after all when the Himalayas beckon, no one can resist.

If you plan a trek to Pindhari I would recommend
- you to keep aside at least 8 days at hand. This would give enough time to relish the scenic views that the mountains have to offer.
- To complete the trek in a relaxed pace, it is advisable to cover not more than 8Km in a day. One can truly enjoy the entire journey and not just the destination. There is a lot to discover if you walk slowly.
- In terms of preparation, all you would need is a good pair of shoes, an ice-axe and some will power.
- If you go along with family/kids you will find a lot of porters cum guide who carry your luggage, making it a comfortable trip.
- If you can’t get the equipment viz. sleeping bag, tents etc., you can always rent it from the Bageshwar KRC. back to first page

Along river Pindhari (day 6)

Day 6: (Dwali to Khati to Dhakuri )
We start early from Dwali coz we plan to cover distance from Dwali to Khati and then to Dhakuri. It’s going to be a tough day, since Dwali to Khati was mostly uphill and again Khati to Dhakuri an even steeper climb. On the way to Khati we stop alongside a river and cook up Maggie noodles. Rajeev had a slip and he instinctively landed on his right hand where his wrist got hurt. It doesn’t look anything to be concerned about. Reaching Khati, we have some cucumber and it is such a welcome break from the routine diet of potatoes and eggs. The forest is as lonely as it was when we walked this road a couple of days ago, but this time appears more tranquil than lonely. If you walk this way through the woods, within few days, there’s a kind of friendliness that you develope with the forest.

Reaching Dhakuri is a pleasant feeling. To top it all, there is a phone that runs on battery where we can call up home. It is really dark by the time I have my bath, but the skies turn really dramatic and I couldn’t miss this moment. I grab my camera and shoot some 20 frames. I have to shoot handheld at high ISO and very low shutter speeds, I miss my tripod. next page >>

A View to die for (day 5)

Day 5: (Phurkiya – Zero point – Dwali 19Km) Zero point – 12007 ft.
It’s a beautiful morning, after having porridge and some eggs for breakfast, we head towards zero point, its 5km to baba’s ashram and another 2km before we reach zero point.
We are in the company of Simon and Aksu (from Finland), Dean and Sophia (from U.S.) and James (Frenchman) and two guides Eshwar Singh and Pratap Singh.
James has a gift for languages and speaks fluent Hindi, I introduce him to some Urdu words viz. behtereen (marvelous). For the first time in my life, I got to see a Hasselblad medium format film camera; James carries just enough film to shoot just 5 shots per day, on an average, signs of a mature photographer. The two guides borrow our ice-axe and move ahead to cut the ice and make a trail for us. We cross some 35 odd glaciers on the way that day, ranging from 20 ft to about 200-300 mts. wide. Crossing the first few seems really difficult, but James gives us some tips and then it’s like a “walk in the park”.

Just about 1km before Baba’s ashram we see fresh remains of the skull of an Ibex (antelope) in ice, most likely a snow leopard’s prey. We reach Baba’s ashram where he serves us hot tea. Baba Dharmanand is an interesting person, he has built a house for himself just near the slope to zero point. His ashram is made of stone with a wooden floor, has a solar powered lamp, and an LPG stove with supplies that will last him for the next two years. Baba serves food to everyone and all are welcome, trekkers are supposed to donate money when they leave.

The view of snow capped peaks, from Baba’s ashram is simply breathtaking. Another walk for 2 km takes you to Zero point that offers a magnificent and clear view of the Himalayan peaks of Changuchh, Trails pass, Pindhari glacier, Nanda Khat etc. The sight is truly overwhelming. Reaching zero point at a time when the weather is clear is very important. For this to happen, the earlier you start from Phurkiya the better. If the weather is clear, you can witness these magnificent Himalayan peaks against a backdrop of clear deep blue skies. It’s an out of the world experience to be at zero point, time and space take on an altogether different meaning. It’s a view to die for and I go on a shooting spree, shot some 40 frames and that isn’t enough. We celebrate a date with zero point with dry dates, the dates melted in the mouth and left the foreigners asking for more. Its time to leave, but this experience is worth every effort that we have put into.

We climbed down 2km back to Baba’s ashram. James sits in meditation at the temple of Nanda Devi that Baba has built in his ashram. I am not a very religious person, but I offer prayers in gratitude for being fortunate enough to have experienced such a journey.
Baba serves us khichari (spicy preparation of rice and lentils) and it tastes heavenly, one the best I have ever had. Babaji tells us that we are the first Indians to make it to Pindhari this season, by no means a big deal, but still makes us feel proud. We now move back towards Phurkiya. Since morning until midday the weather was clear and temperature was warm, but it suddenly starts to get cloudy. The skies turned dark in a matter of moments and it’s about to rain. As we hurry back there are many scenic views to be enjoyed, as we are crossing a particularly long glacier we see a huge cloud of fog approaching us and it covers an entire mountain and everything in its way. It is such a mystery that how weather changes drastically in a matter of minutes. After reaching phurkiya, we decide to move along to Dwali. Phurkiya to Dwali is a downhill route 5km which we cover in around 2.5 hrs. At Dwali we light up a campfire and have conversation with Aksu and Simon (from Finland). The topics ranged from food, traveling in India to genetically modified food and monopolies of Monsanto. It is surprising to know that both Aksu and Simon enjoyed traveling in public transport all over India and they think it as very convenient. next page >>

Narrow Escape (day 4)

Day 4: (Khati –Dwali – Phurkiya 16km) Phurkiya - 10,600 ft.
After breakfast, we start the trek at 8:00 a.m. towards Dwali and then eventually Phurkia. We still haven’t managed to find the ice-axe and we know our shoes aren’t good enough to walk on ice. Khati to Dwali is a gradual climb of 11km through dense forest and you tend to walk along a big river flowing besides you. This river is a confluence of two rivers, Pindhari and kafni, both named after the respective glaciers. The riverside can be a great place for camping. Sadly, we aren’t carrying a tent and we have a schedule to follow.
The climb to Dwali is as tiring as the day before. But the sight of river flowing, huge waterfalls, birds diving for fish, is very soothing and keeps us going. Moreover there are so many photo opportunities that I have both my DSLR and the camcorder always on. I am compulsive shooter and on the way to Dwali me and Rajeev get separated. Rajeev moves ahead and is nowhere to be seen. Our next destination is Phurkia, just 5 km but this is the route where we have to cross snow fallen over the flowing streams forming small glaciers, moreover we don’t have the ice-axe and our shoes have gone flat. Rajeev is nowhere in sight, though I am really tired, I keep walking, hoping to catch up with him. This is the first difficult moment on the trek, the weather suddenly changes and it is about to rain, this is where I start to panic. What if I have taken the wrong path that led nowhere ? I curse Rajeev for not waiting for me at Dwali, or maybe he is behind me ? or did he take the wrong route ? I decide to keep walking. The forest is dense and lonely. I see a sign painted on a rock that says “Phurkiya 4Km”, this is a sigh of relief, I am on the right track, but then I am worried about Rajeev, since his shoes are worse than mine. With all this in mind, I hit upon the first patch of snow in front of me. As I look down, the slope is some 60-80 feet, if at all I slip, I would end up sliding straight into the river. I manage to reach almost to the other end and the moment I put my last step forward, the block of snow beneath me sinks and I land 3 ft below into the stream flowing below the ice. I escape unhurt but scared to death for a moment. It’s a narrow escape and here I realize that the trek is not just about physical strength but more psychological. I gather myself up and there is Rajeev behind me, with an ice-axe on his shoulder, it is such a relief, for both of us. We now have the ice-axe, but who the hell knows how to use it ? Rajeev atleast knows in theory how an ice-axe is supposed to be used. The learning curve is steep and we come across 10 such small glaciers. After walking for another 3 hours there is no sign of Phurkiya. Meanwhile the skie turn overcast and it starts to rain. I have developed sores on my feet. It gets very painful and the last 2km, we walk as if we are drunk. Taking every next step is an effort that requires tremendous will power. At about 7:00 pm it is really dark when we see the sign board that reads “Phurkiya TRC” and a group of foreigners waving at us.
We settle in the room and the daily ritual follows, hot water bath, heavy dinner, apply moov all over the body, pop a pain killer and crash in bed. next page >>