New UN agency plan paves way for safer, mercury-free mining

Kakamega County, Kenya:  Artisanal miners pan for gold on the River Galgol, outside of the town of Khayega. PHOTO/UN ENVIRONMENT/DUNCAN MOORE

IN SUMMARY

The artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s annual gold production

As many as 15 million people work in the ASGM sector globally – including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children

The ASGM sector is the single largest source of man-made mercury emissions, responsible for the release of as much as 1,000 tonnes of mercury to the atmosphere annually

New $180-million Global Environment Facility programme will improve conditions for artisanal miners across eight countries while slashing harmful mercury emissions

By ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT

Urgent action is needed to protect millions of men, women and children exposed to toxic levels of mercury through gold production every year, according to the backers of a new $180-million programme to reform the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASGM) sector.

“From smartphones to wedding rings, gold passes through all of our hands every day. But for most of us the source of that gold, and its real cost, remains a mystery,” Gustavo Fonseca, GEF Director of Programs, said.

“Introducing safe, mercury-free technologies into the ASGM sector will help provide a safe transition to job formality and dignified work for millions, while putting an end to the environmental impacts that can pave the way to sustainably produced gold.”

Every year, more than 2,700 tonnes of gold is mined around the world. Twenty per cent of that – over 500 tonnes annually – is produced by artisanal and small-scale miners. These miners and processors, the majority of them in developing countries, work in often harsh conditions, without the protection of industry regulations on pay, health or safety, to sate the global hunger for gold for jewellery, investment and consumer products.

Kakamega County, Kenya:  The mercury-gold amalgam is burned to remove the mercury, leaving just gold behind. Fumes from this process are extremely toxic and can cause serious health problems. PHOTO/UN ENVIRONMENT/DUNCAN MOORE

With many miners relying on toxic, mercury-based extraction methods, the ASGM sector is also the world’s single largest source of man-made mercury emissions, releasing as much as 1,000 tonnes  of mercury (almost 40 per cent of the global total) into the atmosphere every year.

Launched at London’s Goldsmiths’ Centre, the Global Environment Facility-backed Global Opportunities for the Long-term Development of the ASGM Sector (GEF GOLD) programme aims to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining and introduce and facilitate access to mercury-free extraction methods, while also working with governments to formalize the sector, promoting miners rights, safety and their access to markets.

Spanning eight countries the five-year programme is a partnership between the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Conservation International and the governments of Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, the Philippines and Peru.

“By phasing out mercury use and connecting miners to markets for responsibly produced and sourced minerals, GEF GOLD will help to ensure the gold value chain both supports miners and provides consumers with access to ethically produced, environmentally sustainable gold,” Jacob Duer, Head of the UN Environment Chemicals and Health branch said.

“Promoting and facilitating access to non-mercury processing techniques for artisanal and small-scale miners is vital – not only to reduce mercury emissions, but to protect the health of vulnerable communities.”

Studies indicate that mercury exposure in artisanal and small-scale miners is a major, largely neglected global health problem – putting miners and their communities at risk of impacts from permanent brain damage to seizures, vision and hearing loss, and delayed childhood development.

As gold production exposes millions of men, women and children globally to toxic levels of mercury every year, a new $180-million Global Environment Facility-backed Global Opportunities for the Long-term Development of the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector (GEF GOLD) programme will improve conditions for miners across eight countries while slashing harmful mercury emissions.

“The widespread use of mercury in the artisanal and small-scale sector affects the environment and people, particularly in developing countries” said Philippe Scholtès, the UN Industrial Development Organization’s (UNIDO) Managing Director of Programme Development and Technical Cooperation.

The ASGM, which accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s annual gold production, is the single largest source of man-made mercury emissions, responsible for releasing of as much as 1,000 tonnes of mercury to the atmosphere annually.

Kakamega County, Kenya:  The  final product is weighed and sold  to middlemen, who pay the miners far below market value. Gold from informal, small-scale mines are responsible for 20% of the world’s gold supply. PHOTO/UN ENVIRONMENT/DUNCAN MOORE

“Mercury emissions impact health and ecosystems, contaminating the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe,” explained Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment(UNEP). “This is a long-term problem we need to confront now” to protect health, provide livelihoods and save the planet, she added.

Moreover, some 15 million people work in the ASGM sector, including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children.

“By phasing out mercury use and connecting miners to markets for responsibly produced and sourced minerals, GEF GOLD will help to ensure the gold value chain both supports miners and provides consumers with access to ethically produced, environmentally sustainable gold,” said Jacob Duer, Head of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health branch.

To sate the appetite for gold for jewelry, investment and consumer products, miners and processors often work in harsh conditions without industry protections on pay, health or safety, with many relying on toxic, mercury-based extraction methods.

“It is important to transform the extremely harmful practice using mercury in ASGM to protect the human health and ecosystem,” stressed Abdoulaye Mar Dieye,  UN Nations Development Programme, (UNDP) Director of the Policy and Programme Support Bureau.

Studies indicate that ASGM mercury exposure is a major, largely neglected global health problem that put miners and their communities at risk of brain damage; vision and hearing loss; and delayed childhood development.

While ASGM offers employment for rural populations, miners frequently operate on the edges of legality, with ASGM either banned outright or limited by legislation. GEF GOLD intends to secure miners’ livelihoods by supporting regulatory and policy reforms to formalize ASGM across the programme countries – opening market and finance access to increase incomes and enable mercury-free technology.

Additionally, the GEF GOLD programme will work with the private sector to promote compliance with international standards on responsible mineral supply chains.

Spanning eight countries, the five-year programme is a partnership between UNEP, UNDP, UNIDO, the Global Environment Facility, Conservation International and the governments of Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, the Philippines and Peru.

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