Pippa Small MBE, Fairtrade and ethical jewellery designer, reflects on meeting first Fairtrade gold miners, after winning the Ethical Jewellery Business of the Year category at the UK Jewellery Awards 2015.
I was thrilled to receive the Ethical Jewellery Business of the Year Award, and to be awarded for something I love doing and am so lucky to be doing.
I have been so fortunate and privileged to have been able to pursue projects that have taken me around the world, to have creative working relationships with craftsmen and women in such diverse places as the Kalahari Desert to the war torn streets of Kabul, the slums of Nairobi to the fair trade cooperative gold mines of the Andes.
Along the way I have learnt so much about the lives of others, in often difficult and challenging places, about the struggles of poverty and hopelessness and also what can happen when a small business flourishes, the rippling impacts this has on many, the creative satisfaction of a young woman in Afghanistan finishing her first piece of jewellery for a shop like Monsoon.
I have been overjoyed to see the pieces of jewellery made from recycled materials that were discarded on a city dump (which incidentally is also the home to thousands of people in one of the largest slums in Africa) turn into pieces of jewellery sold on Bond street or in Notting Hill Gate, adorning the arms and necks of women who in wearing these pieces show a sort of solidarity with the unknown women who made them.
I started to work with the cooperative gold mine Cotopata in Bolivia in 2007. My first trip I arrived in La Paz landing high in the Alto Plano, it was such a memorable drive down at dawn through the just waking city, through low clouds and along cobbled roads past sleeping dogs and markets slowly coming to life. Indigenous ladies walking down the steep mountain in full skirts and neat bowler hats, tasselled shawls and rainbow striped cloths wrapped around their market wares and long plaited hair adorned with colourful pom poms.
Cotopata was at the time still piloting to become certified, doing all the things required to clean their production of gold – it was not until 2011 that it was certified as the first FairTrade Gold Mine in the world. There was a very moving gathering in Hatton Garden to celebrate with the head of the cooperative from Bolivia - a triumph for the unrepresented artisanal miners of the world.
I went to visit the mine with the head of the cooperative who was taking supplies down, I squeezed into the back of the pickup truck between miners, ropes and piles of new yellow hard hats and off we sped out of the city. We quickly were in the vast wild open valleys with rivers rushing down the slopes and small farm houses, and huge herds of Llamas and Alpacas grazing peacefully on green grass.
It was simply beautiful.
We drove up to the highest point, the last pass before the decent down to the amazon basin. The truck veered off the road and pulled up to an abrupt stop, we all piled out and bottles of beer appeared and were poured on the ground - prayers were said to Pachamama, the earth goddess, to protect us on our journey. Other travellers and families around us near that essential glacier and icy windblown lake built fires and made offerings. An ancient pre Spanish tradition – the earth goddess rules outside the churches of the city. I looked over the edge of the mountain at the clouds below and caught my breath at the beauty.
It was not much further down that again we pulled off the road and went down a small track and peered over the mountain – we were suddenly in a warmer lusher landscape butterflies and little birds, curling fronds and large leaves dripping with rain water were a gentle orchestra, down a narrow track just wide enough for one person, twisting down the mountain side to the bottom where the mine was situated, with no road, everything is carried on peoples backs or mules.
We set off down among the trees and little waterfalls, at the bottom we were greeted by the miners who were chewing cocoa leaves to keep their energy up and busy processing the pills of rocks brought out of the mountain, the mercury was contained in pool as it separated the rock from the gold. Their aim was to be mercury free, to use the less toxic borax in the future.
Reaching the Fairtrade standards took them over ten years to achieve, but they were proud and excited to be part of the movement and have safer and cleaner practices at their mine. I sat on the side of the hill under a tree as it rained with a man who had been mining there for 20 years, the underground and gold was his life. However most miners work for shorter stretches in the mines. It is unimaginably hard work.
Through Sebastian I met Javier who was to go on and work with me for the last 8 years. An Aymara Indian Javier had started his work life as a miner and then moved into goldsmithing making the Aymara Cholla's their magnificent gold pieces that are worn and kept as investment and insurance in case of hard times, when they are simple melted and sold for cash.
Although he speaks no English and my Spanish is limited we muddle through marvellously and with many laughs as I explain my design ideas and he translates them into gold – our lives unfolding. He has had a new baby girl, I have had my twins, two more mines in Peru have certified and more mines in East Africa have started piloting. The world is now beginning to be aware of the issues around gold mining and what the impacts are of artisanal mining.
I was very excited to go to Uganda in November 2014 with the Fairtrade Foundation to see the mines that are piloting to become certified and those that are not, to see the realities and impacts on a poor rural community. It was shocking to see mothers burning poisonous mercury in their kitchens over their cooking fires and tipping the waste into the rivers where they wash and gather water. There was exploitation, danger and fatalities, in the mines that were on the scheme. There was hope, safety measures and fair pay for the gold. It was very interesting to see the two mines working side by side and the impacts of both; so devastating in one and so potentially in the other.
The jewellery industry has historically been an exploitative and damaging industry – it is so exciting that thanks to the efforts of people like the Fairtrade Foundation, Greg Valerio and Cristina Cisilino, and others who have pioneered these alternative and empowering means of producing beautiful pieces much needed employment, incomes and new standards are now in place.
Click here to visit Pippa's website.