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Interview: Greg Valerio, Fairtrade jeweller

03 January 2014

'Small-scale miners are not even getting the crumbs under the table'

I never set about wanting to get into the jewellery industry. It was always about being a campaigner and advocate for the poor.

I started the business because I recognised that "trade not aid" is the best way of alleviating poverty.

My childhood gave me a natural empathy for the marginalised. It took my finding faith in God for that empathy to find its way into practical action. Poverty can appear to be utterly hopeless, but it's not if you hold a faith perspective.

We wanted to do a fair-trade business, I and a few others. Arts and crafts didn't sell very well, but jewellery did, and we ended up focusing on that: a divine accident, but the scales of poverty and exploitation in the jewellery trade are huge. They're even more extreme by virtue of the fact that you're dealing with extremely valuable commodities. The London Bullion Market Association estimates that it's worth $US 290 billion to the global economy. There are over 100 million people dependent on small-scale gold-mining, on a dollar-a-day economy.

That's the scale of the economic injustice in the gold industry. These extremely valuable commodities create extreme amounts of wealth for the minority, while the overwhelming majority, the small-scale miners, are not even getting the crumbs under the table. The Archbishop of Canterbury is absolutely right to declare war on immoral banking.

The only player in town, at the moment, addressing this with any credibility is the Fairtrade movement.

Can jewellery be ethically produced? As with all parts of life, yes and no. I can honestly say when I first started in the business in 1996, there was no ethical jewellery being sold anywhere in the UK. But over the past ten years, we have seen a big change in the industry, with more traceable sources for gold, diamonds, and gemstones coming into the market, and a greater understanding of the complexities in the jewellery supply chain. Fairtrade gold has been a very significant part of this ethical revolution in jewellery.

I'm a social entrepreneur, so the most creative part of the jewellery industry for me is the creation of transparent and traceable supply chains that drive real value back to the small artisan producers. I'm currently working on developing a supply chain of Greenland Ruby from the hands of local Inuit people. If we're successful, it will be the most beautiful ruby in the world.

I've been to Greenland, Congo, Peru, Columbia, Kenya, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, India, the US, Mexico - all over. Because it's always related to mining, I visit places off the beaten track, where I actually get to see the most extraordinary things - deserts, savannah, the Arctic.

My work in Congo was a one-off piece of work this year, alongside Peace Direct and the Centre for Conflict Resolution. They asked me to visit the small-scale mining sites, meet the miners, and advise about forming a small-scale gold-mining association for peace and development.

It was an amazing trip. I was able to witness first-hand the devastation that the conflict has brought to peoples lives - the direct link between the conflict and the gold used to fund the conflict. But, most importantly, I saw local people working together for peace, justice, and reconciliation, and using gold- mining as a means of achieving this. A truly hope-filled moment.

Mining companies, financiers, stock markets, bankers - we're persuading them to change by doing it differently, and demonstrating that it can be done differently.

And telling the consumers to change their purchasing habits. Consumer pressure is the only way it will happen. Bankers are deaf to moral arguments. Consumers, the average person in the street, are a different matter. They understand what it is to be exploited by the invisible power-brokers. People understand it, and they're willing to make the change when we give them the opportunity to.

It's quite simple: it's our choice, what we choose to purchase. The complexity is implementing that. My book Making Trouble tries to show what it took to create the alternative.

The Church doesn't get how powerful it is. If it did, it would be a lot more effective than it is. Pope Francis's opening up unused church buildings for the homeless; the Archbishop of Canterbury's calling for credit unions to reach every community in the country with economic justice - it's unrivalled. There's not an institution in the country that can match that.

Very practically, it's the Church that will flip the gold market, because it's in every community in the country. You imagine every church promoting Fairtrade wedding rings. Job done. The impact on small-scale mining communities would be revolutionary.

The wedding ring, the iconic symbol of love and marriage, is the gold purchase that can change the entire face of the jewellery industry. We are going to the market with a very simple request. We want 50,000 rings to be exchanged in wedding ceremonies next year. That will take half a ton of Fairtrade gold, and mean that $1 million of Fairtrade premium will go back to small-scale marginalised communities in South America and Africa.

We're asking the Church to lead on the narrative. It's the place where many people get married. (I could do with them being a little more proactive and getting back to me. Ecclesiastical time is a very different thing from everyone else's time.)

Bringing God into these negoti-ations is the only way you can cut through the bullshit, because the Church is the only functioning institution in some of these parts of the world.

Native people instantly get this. My first trip to Greenland, I was with a couple of Inuit guys, and we prayed just before I checked-in at the airport. They instantly got the fact that God is the God of the land and the people, so why wouldn't you invoke his blessing on this business? I'm off to Santa Fe next week to meet a Pueblo Christian Elder. He's doing a sweat; so it will be my first native American sweat-lodge - very interesting; and I'm going to lend my support to a Fairtrade mine there.

I wear some jewellery, all with significance. I value beautifully sourced and beautifully hand-created pieces. I still wear the very first silver bangle we had made in Nepal, a Mauritanian bangle, a silver ring on a chain from a street kid I met in Ethiopia, a hand-carved whale-bone Inuit drummer from Greenland, and, of course, my two wedding rings - given by the same wonderful wife.

Without my wife, Ruth, and the kids, I wouldn't have anyone to bring me back down to earth and ridicule my daily indulgences. The kids still can't work out why anyone would be interested in what I do, as I am so boring.

As a child, I wanted to be an actor and a writer; so I guess I managed at least 50 per cent of my dream. I'm still waiting for a call from Quentin Tarantino, though.

The most important choice I've made was to follow Christ. Simple. I had an encounter with him when I was 18 or 19. It was very real, visceral, tangible call, and I knew it was Jesus. I'd been baptised and confirmed, but I'd dismissed it as a social irrelevance. I was working in the theatre then, which was pretty anti-Christian, and my girlfriend and my friends weren't Christians. But I was very clear it was Jesus, and knew what he was saying to me.

I have no regrets. Even the biggest mistakes have offered me an opportunity to reflect on my weaknesses and my humanity, and learn more about what is important in life.

If my kids are still talking to me when they leave home, I'll consider that to be something worthy of remembrance.

Jember Teferra, the community development activist in the slums of Ethiopia, was a true inspiration to me, one of the most wonderful individuals I have ever had the privilege to know.

My favourite place is the British Isles. I really do live in a stunningly beautiful and mystical part of the world.

Favourite books: The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

I love the Gospel of John. My least favourite bit? I cannot confess to reading the Book of Numbers very often.

I love listening to birdsong. It's the closest to angelic singing there is.

I get angry when I watch the news and witness political stupidity.

I'm happiest when I'm at home. Apart from that, when I am out on retreat or pilgrimage around Britain. Bliss.

If I don't pray every day, I feel incomplete and internally uncomfortable, but I don't often pray for much: I'd rather contemplate the Divine than present a list of wishes.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with St Columba. He was a towering figure of the early British Church. Learning from him the simple rhythms of prayer and daily encounter with Christ would be challenging, but liberating, I'm sure.

Greg Valerio was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Making Trouble: Fighting for fair-trade jewellery is published by LionHudson, £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10  -Use code CT440 ).

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