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Several denouncements by environmental and indigenous rights groups followed. The activists point out that government regulations, particularly in Nevada, are notoriously lax, and so claiming adherence could hardly be considered an accomplishment. For example Love, Earth's mercury standards meet federal guidelines but, according to scientists, allow for "unacceptable amounts" of the dangerous substance to be released.
The mines also rely on a controversial process called cyanide heap-leaching, which can result in one of the most toxic substances on Earth entering local water supplies. Indeed, the process is so problematic that it's been banned in Montana, and the European Union is considering a similar prohibition. Love, Earth boasts that its mines voluntarily subscribe to the International Cyanide Management Code. But according to Dr. Robert Moran, a hydrogeologist and geochemist whose clients included the mining industry for more than 40 years, this makes little difference.
"There is no real enforcement," Moran says. "The code was written by the industry and allows the discharge of waters that can be lethal to aquatic organisms. It also fails to measure some cyanide or cyanide-related compounds that are likely to be present at mining sites." Moreover, the code's own monitoring processes have repeatedly proven problematic. Authorities in Ghana recently fined Newmont $4.9 million for failing to prevent or properly report and investigate a 2009 cyanide spill.
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Scott Cardiff, international campaign coordinator for Earthworks' No Dirty Gold campaign, says that his organization provided comments to Walmart during the development stage for Love, Earth but says Walmart did not end up going with the more rigorous standards. Most important, Love, Earth gold sites have never allowed for outside, third-party monitoring — a crucial component of responsibility, he says. "These [Love, Earth] mines do not represent precautionary best practice, which is what responsible mining must be," Cardiff concludes.
Additionally damaging, say community groups, is that the sites of Aurafin's raw material do not adhere to their own criteria of community approval or, in their own words: "to engage with communities directly affected by the project... ensuring that their rights are respected."
"The source mines for Love, Earth have not received this consent," says Julie Cavanagh-Bill, legal counsel for the Western Shoshone Defense Project, "and this is well-known and documented."
Cavanagh-Bill and her husband, Larson, live in a home nestled in the Ruby Mountains, just a few dozen miles from Newmont's Carlin Trend operations. Bill and his native ancestors have been on the land since before it was known as Nevada.
Larson, a cowboy-boot-wearing grandfather of two, still recalls the way he felt upon seeing the Love, Earth placard on display, listing the gold mines surrounding his land as responsible producers. An easygoing man who's quick to chuckle, Bill remembers his anger: "I said to myself: That's green?"
The entrance to Aurafin's Exportadores Bolivianos factory is tucked on a dead-end alley, perpendicular to the steep slopes of the Andean city of La Paz. There is no sign, nothing to indicate its existence as one of the largest factories in highland Bolivia. The reception area is lined with heavier security than most Bolivian airports, and to the right, a mammoth poster in Spanish: "Walmart's Standards for Suppliers."
Up a short flight of stairs is the inner sanctuary of Eduardo Bracamonte, general manager of Aurafin's factory, who granted this interview in August 2008. The clean-cut, self-assured father of two was sought out by Aurafin to start its operations in Bolivia in 1993. The factory saw 25 to 30 percent growth in its early years thanks in part to its biggest buyers, Walmart and Kmart. "I've been to Bentonville, and really, they are very pleased with our work," Bracamonte says, flashing pearly whites.
Downstairs, 680 workers toil away under the glare of fluorescent lights. At two long tables, a group of about 40 peer through magnifying lenses that resemble robotic, metallic 3-D glasses as they braid gold chains. "How's it coming along?" Bracamonte asks as he pokes his head in on a group of trainees below his office. "Looking good!" he says to his polishers, resting his hand briefly on the shoulders of a few workers.
"Ah, there it is," say Bracamonte, as he smiles big and points toward a polishing table. "Love, Earth," he confirms.
Bracamonte remembers being approached about the innovative line. The Aurafin factory had already been a Walmart supplier for ten years, so when headquarters decided to partner with Walmart on the new initiative, the Bolivian facility entered in as part of the deal. According to Bracamonte, no inspectors arrived, and there was no specialized review. He recalls: "There were a lot of forms to fill out."
Those papers filed, Love, Earth production began — alongside the rest of Aurafin's normal manufacturing. "All that is just my usual stuff," Bracamonte says, pointing to the hundreds of pieces lying inches from the "responsible" ones. He explains that it's high season and that in addition to the Love, Earth order, the Aurafin factory is readying a shipment of 237,000 pieces. He admits he's slightly behind; workers are going to have to put in overtime. "That's all voluntary," Bracamonte, who likes to take the kids to Disney World, is quick to assure. "But we never have trouble in having people stay because they want to earn overtime and because my staff feels truly committed to finishing production and with top quality."