Throughout history, gold and silver's monetary role has conferred extraordinary riches on those who control it and was once the key to wealth and economic dominance.
Thirst for gold fuelled war and conquest. As King Ferdinand V (whose portrait is seen here) of Spain once commanded: "Get gold, humanely if you can, but at all hazards get gold."
The Spanish, who followed Columbus, took around half a century to strip the major treasures of gold and silver accumulated by the indigenous people of South and Central America. In the process, the Spanish enslaved and virtually wiped out the rich Indian nations until they literally ran out of things to loot.
The Spanish melted gold and silver artworks and cultural icons into ingots to ship back to Europe saving only a few pieces. Albert Durer, the German artist, who saw some of the artefacts before they were minted into coins observed that: "All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much of these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art and I marvelled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands."
Today, armed groups fight for control of gold mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The earnings from gold mines are the currency that allows the purchase of weapons and finances wars. Governments have sanctioned forcible eviction of local people and small-scale miners to make way for large commercial gold mining operations in Indonesia and Peru.
As the more easily accessible rich deposits of gold have been exhausted, mining gold in more remote, inhospitable and often more fragile environments increasingly leads to irreversible damage. Mining flattens mountains and destroys pristine forests.
Extracting a single ounce of gold sometimes requires mining around 250 tons of ore and rock. Mercury, used to separate gold from the ore, is highly toxic. Gold mining generates probably more waste per ounce of metal extracted than any other comparable metal. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation ("UNIDO") estimates that a high percentage of mercury released into the environment is the result of gold mining.
Gold mines bring jobs, wealth and development.
In poor countries, miners work in dangerous conditions sometimes deep underground (as deep as close to four kilometres (over two miles)). The temperature in these mines is around 35 degrees centigrade despite the tonnes of ice pumped into the mine every hour. The work is dangerous and the rate of death amongst miners is high.
In small scale, artisanal gold mining, safeguards are fewer and the risks higher. At Peru's La Rinconada mine, miners have a saying: "Al labor me voy, no se si volvere." It translates into "Off to work I go, I don't know if I'll make it back."