JA Urges Congress to Protect Federal Land from Mining

November 17, 2005

JA Urges Congress to Protect Federal Land from Mining

Jewelers of America, the trade association representing U.S. jewelers, this week urged the House of Representatives to drop certain provisions of a pending budget bill, reports the Financial Times of London. 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, JA president and CEO, in a Nov. 14 letter to Dennis Hastert, the Republican House speaker.

JA 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'," said Runci.

JA is a central player in the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, designed to prevent the sale of conflict diamonds, mined in the war-torn regions of Africa, following sustained pressure from public interest groups that threatened to trigger boycotts of diamond jewelry. Its recent efforts on mining mark an effort to pre-empt similar criticism over gold mining, said FT.

"The jewelers want to get out ahead of this rather than [fall] behind the curve," said Ian Gary of Oxfam America, one of the human rights groups that has been lobbying against what it calls "dirty gold" mining practices in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Michael Kowalski, CEO of Tiffany & Co., who also sits on the Jewelers of America's board, said: "I think there is a recognition among jewelry retailers, and indeed among many mining companies and the entire jewelry 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 270 million acres of federal public lands in the western U.S. for sale, including several national parks.

Pombo, author of the mining bill, 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 JA's 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 in May the jewelry industry launched The Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices, an international initiative to ensure responsible business practices in the jewelry trade.

But unlike the Kimberley program that governs the diamond trade, no such international agreement exists for gold. Kowalski said such an international agreement might still be a way off.

by Peggy Jo Donahue

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