by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore
Throughout much of the world, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) provides subsistence livelihoods for more than 15 million people and produces up to 30% of the world’s mined gold.
Unfortunately, the sector relies heavily on mercury as a critical part of their gold extraction process. Mercury is added to ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam. This amalgam is then burned, causing the mercury to vaporize and leaving behind pure gold. While an effective process—one that has been in practice since at least 1000 CE— this type of mining leads to the direct exposure of miners to mercury, often with severe health impacts. ASGM is also responsible for the direct release of mercury into the environment and, according to the recently released Global Mercury Assessment 2013, small-scale gold mining is currently the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions. Additionally, ASGM drives a black market in mercury trade—check out Mark Staples’ blog on the illicit mercury trade to learn more about this.
Some nations, such as China, have already banned ASGM practices. Practically, however, these bans are difficult to implement. ASGM occurs almost entirely in the “informal section”—i.e., not as part of regulated industry—throughout the world, making it hard to monitor and control. As a result, the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations still occurs in nations that have implemented ASGM bans.
Despite the challenges associated with monitoring and regulating ASGM, acting to limit this major source of mercury releases is critical and possible. Accordingly, ASGM has attracted significant attention at INC5. The debate around article 9, which addresses ASGM issues, has focused on whether the import and export of mercury will be allowed for ASGM purposes, and if a phase-out date for ASGM will be introduced. In the next 24 hours, these are issues that will likely be resolved in balance with other supply and trade and products and processes issues. However, for now, it remains to be seen what will be decided.
Track us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore to see what the negotiators decide on this critical issue!
A friend sent me this NY Times op ed about reality shows on the History Channel and Discovery Channel that glorify small-scale gold mining in South America and Africa – I had no idea that these shows existed and it’s pretty disturbing. The op ed also points out additional environmental and health effects of ASGM not specifically related to mercury, like urbanization of tropical forests and miners disturbing indigenous peoples: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/18/opinion/a-rumble-in-the-jungle.html?ref=opinion&_r=0
Thanks for sharing this, Hannah. I agree with you: media that glorifies ASGM without making clear the potential health and ecological impacts could be very misleading. As we have learned here at the INC5, ASGM is a very important part of millions of people’s livelihoods and many local, regional, and even national economies. However, we need to be mindful of the environmental and health impacts of the practice. Fortunately, there are some organizations (like the Artisanal Gold Council–we’ve met some of their representatives here) that are doing some exciting work to help ASGM be a more sustainable practice.