The Shadow of Gold sheds a light on the dark corners of today’s mining industry

Gold miners at work on a mountain in Peru.

Gold: a much-worshipped metal, often used to symbolize greatness and purity. But before it reaches consumers, gold undergoes a process that undercuts the greatness we often ascribe to the final product. In fact, the operations of the contemporary mining industry are anything but pure. Exploring the stories of people in the gold-mining industry, the new documentary The Shadow of Gold helps consumers understand the complicated supply chain required to get gold into rings, watches, and electronic devices, and then into our hands.

The allure of gold has a long history, and its link to concepts like prosperity and luxury is difficult to break. Today, mining fuels a significant part of the global economy, and it’s crucial to the revenue of nations like Canada, where fifty percent of the world’s mining companies are based. Because of this, our government is inextricably connected to big mining companies. The major problem with this stems from the mechanisms used for the extraction of gold, which causes consequences for the environment, for our taxes, and for our health.

When things go wrong, it seems the highest price is paid by the victims, not the perpetrators. Such was the case after the August 2014 tailings pond dam disaster at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia. Only one year after the spill, the mine re-opened with barely any reparations provided by Imperial Metals. It’s this lack of accountability that concerns the film’s producer/director Robert Lang, who spoke with VW by phone. “The most important change,” he says, “is to make sure that people are held to account when their behaviour doesn’t meet the necessary environmental standards that should be engaged by mining companies.”

At Mount Polley, the poor environmental regulations deeply affected First Nations communities when they resulted in the contamination of the river, a primary source of food. Controversies like this haven’t ceased since. When I asked Lang what such minor repercussions suggest about our current government’s declared sustainable development focus, he warned against confusing the problem: “It’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that we should just be anti-mining because things are not working accordingly. Regulations need to be really tight, so that when people in charge make mistakes, they’re inevitably held responsible.”

A glimpse of industrial-scale mining.

There are two types of gold mining: small-scale artisanal mining and big-industry mining. The first uses mercury in order to increase the gold recovery rates, while the second uses a substance called sodium cyanide. Additionally, zinc is removed with sulfuric acid to further refine the product. Both mercury and cyanide deeply harm the environment, and in the case of artisanal mining, workers are put in jeopardy by dealing with the substance directly.

To illustrate how both fields impact the lives of workers, the film moves beyond our borders to give viewers a look into international production. Featured interviewee Carlos Monge, from the Revenue Watch Institute, explains the high stakes of artisanal mining in countries like Peru and Colombia, which stand within the Amazon basin: “…the tens of thousands of miners working here constantly exceed the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. Such operations deplete the Amazon’s capacities, like the river’s freshwater provision and the forest’s carbon sink against global warming.”

The documentary closes by bringing our attention to possible solutions. The last part of the film covers Sir Fraser Stoddart’s proposal for a cyanide-free production process. Although it’s a long shot that large-scale corporations will happily accept this sort of disruption, Lang says the proof of Stoddart’s efficiency in purifying the production process of gold is “an important step in the right direction.” Solutions to the issues facing the artisanal sector are also discussed, as the film covers the introduction of NGOs like the Canadian organization Impact, whose goal is to clean up the supply chain of ‘conflict gold’ in places like the Republic of Congo.

Lang hopes that The Shadow of Gold will inspire people to reflect on and change their role as consumers. By shining a light on the possibilities for more sustainable practices, the film encourages viewers to strive to protect the purity of our environment, and, finally, to re-think the sort of luxury that comes in gold.

The Shadow of Gold premieres Monday, March 11th at 6:30 pm in Vancity Theatre. For additional information, check out the film’s official website at