US retail jewellers have taken the unusual step of publicly opposing congressional legislation that would open more federal lands to mining, fearing a public backlash against gold jewellery if the industry became linked with environmentally irresponsible mining practices.
Jewelers of America, the trade association representing companies such as Tiffany, Bulgari and Cartier, this week urged the House of Representatives to drop certain provisions of a pending budget bill. The bill, written by Richard Pombo, chairman of the House resources committee, would change a complex 1872 mining law that determines which public lands are available for mineral rights and private purchase, and would lift a moratorium on processing mineral patent applications.
"Our 11,000 member stores, spread throughout the United States, firmly believe that mining reforms should include strict environmental regulations that adequately protect our nation's watersheds, forests and wildlife," said Matthew Runci, president of the association, in a letter on Monday to Dennis Hastert, the Republican House speaker.
The group was also upset by the manner in which amendments were "quietly slipped in" to the bill, which the House wants to push through before the Thanksgiving recess next week. "Any reform to mining laws must be done in the 'light of day'," Mr Runci wrote.
Retail jewellers have been in the middle of an effort to prevent the sale of so-called conflict diamonds, mined in the war-torn regions of Africa, following sustained pressure from public interest groups that threatened to trigger boycotts of diamond jewellery. Its recent efforts on mining mark an effort to pre-empt similar criticism over gold mining.
"The jewellers want to get out ahead of this rather than (fall) behind the curve," said Ian Gary of Oxfam America.
Michael Kowalski, chief executive of Tiffany who also sits on the Jewelers of America's board, said: "I think there is a recognition among jewellery retailers, and indeed among many mining companies and the entire jewellery supply chain, that we have a responsibility to make sure the entire supply chain conducts itself in a socially and environmentally responsible manner."
He said the company believed mining on public lands "is a privilege rather a right and it simply should be carefully evaluated against other possible land uses, and we feel that way because we believe that represents the sentiments of our customer base."
Environmental groups such as Oxfam America and Earthworks call the mining provisions a "land grab", claiming the amendment would open 270m acres of federal public lands in the western US for sale, including several national parks.
Mr Pombo disputes that interpretation, saying that a maximum of 360,000 acres would qualify for land purchase under the amendment. He also says national parks would remain out of bounds and that arduous hurdles would remain for companies seeking mining rights on public lands.
Green groups have praised the jewellers' efforts. "The last thing a company wants is a product that is supposed to be about love, romance or friendship to be associated with human rights violations or environmental exploitation," said Steve D'Esposito of Earthworks.
Tiffany first publicly called for mining law reform in 2004, and last May the industry launched The Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, an international initiative to ensure responsible business practices in the jewellery trade.
But unlike the 2002 Kimberley Process certification scheme that governs the diamond trade, no such international agreement exists for gold. Mr Kowalski said such an international agreement might still be a way off.
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