Gold is booming during COVID-19. Smuggling is too

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In a crisis, investors tend to flock to safe havens. And historically, the safest asset class has been gold.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception. Gold is up 14% since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 12 and is now trading at $1,820 per ounce, a nine-year high.

Not only are people investing in gold contracts in the commodities market, but demand for the real McCoy—physical gold bars—has also been so strong that there’s a global shortage. That’s the result of panic-buying, with both hedge funds and wealthy individuals stashing bars in safety deposit boxes, as well as the fact that some of the refineries that smelt gold bullion and some of the normal routes for shipping gold bars around the world temporarily shut down because of the coronavirus.

But goldbugs beware: If you thought you’d sleep easier with a few lustrous bars tucked under the mattress, you might find your conscience bothering you. There’s growing evidence that demand for gold is stoking an illegal trade that helps fuel wars and contributes to unsafe working conditions in the developing world.

Conflict gold

In the midst of this gold rush, it’s perhaps unsurprising that gold smuggling is booming. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that record amounts of gold from small artisanal mines in the eastern war zones of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being illegally smuggled into Uganda. The United Nations estimates $100 million worth of illicit gold is trafficked through Uganda each month.

More surprising is how that gold is getting to market: In Uganda, the Journal reported, gold is given counterfeit stamps and paperwork, and then shipped out on the very same aircraft that are being used to ferry humanitarian relief and medical supplies into the East African nation to help it deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police in Entebbe recently seized the largest shipment of illicit Congolese gold to date: 205 pounds, worth $5 million. And the U.N. estimates that 95% of the gold shipped out of the country doesn’t actually come from Uganda.

Smuggling has become particularly attractive because fighting in Eastern Congo, plus the coronavirus, has actually forced the small-scale miners operating there to sell gold more cheaply. The Journal reported that prices at the Congolese gold pits have fallen as much as 40%, even as the world price has soared. That means more money for those running the smuggling rings, while the miners themselves struggle.

Human rights groups have found deplorable working conditions in many Eastern Congolese mines, with scores of workers killed each year in accidents.

The scramble for gold is also helping to fuel conflict in the war-torn region, which has seen almost continual fighting over the past two decades, with numerous armed rebel groups at war with the Congolese government and one another. Renewed violence has left at least 1,300 civilians dead since March, according to the U.N. War in the Congo has displaced an estimated 6 million people, including 1.2 million in the gold-rich province of Ituri.

International trade

The U.N. has imposed sanctions on a number of Congolese smugglers and pressed gold smelters, jewelers, and electronics manufacturers, which often use small amounts of gold in components, to rid their supply chains of illicit gold and other conflict minerals. The London Bullion Market Association, which certifies gold smelters, has also sought to stem the tide of gold nuggets from artisanal mines in war zones or which use unethical labor practices. None of it has stemmed the booming illicit trade.

The waves of corruption spread far beyond Uganda. Smuggled Congolese gold has been shipped to Dubai. From there, at least some of it has made its way to India, where demand for physical gold—for use in wedding jewelry and as a hedge against currency fluctuations—is high even during normal times and has intensified during the pandemic.

Earlier this month, customs officials in India’s southern state of Kerala discovered 66 pounds of gold hidden inside a shipment of bathroom fittings that were addressed to the United Arab Emirates’ consulate in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. The UAE has denied any involvement and says it has launched an investigation, pinning the blame on an Indian woman who formerly worked for the consulate.

The case has become a political scandal for Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, who has faced calls to resign after it emerged that his official secretary associated with the alleged smuggler. Meanwhile, in another Indian state, Tamil Nadu, customs officials have seized twice as much smuggled gold this year as in 2019. To try to conceal the gold, smugglers have used everything from laptops to skateboards to a meat cleaver, officials said.

The high price of gold has tempted many new players into smuggling, N. Anantha Padmanaban, the chairman of All India Gem and Jewellery Domestic Council, said.  But Somasundaram PR, the India country director for the World Gold Council, the gold industry’s marketing arm, says that fewer flights into and out of India because of the coronavirus ought to actually reduce overall smuggling levels.

In Australia, a well-known gold smelter, the Perth Mint, which is owned by the government of Western Australia, has also been caught up in a scandal over the origin of some of the gold it produces. Australian newspapers have reported the smelter has accepted gold from a Papua New Guinea company called Golden Valley, which is known to buy gold from artisanal mines in that country that use child labor. Government officials have ordered an investigation.

Gold might save your portfolio. But don’t expect it to do much for your soul.

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