The OES Mercury Program promotes pilot projects that serve as models for on-the-ground activities to reduce mercury pollution. In addition, through workshops and other information sharing activities, our Program contributed to the development of the Minamata Convention on Mercury and will continue to assist developing countries to meet or exceed their obligations under the Minamata Convention. Since the Mercury Program awarded its first grants in 2010, OES-led mercury projects have targeted key countries throughout the developing world, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The mercury projects concentrate primarily on three areas of direct and indirect transboundary pollution: air emissions, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), and interim storage of mercury. Air emissions and ASGM are the two largest global sources of mercury pollution, and the sound storage of mercury is important to limit availability of mercury, including for ASGM. Our projects have been leveraged by countries to qualify for additional funding, estimated at over $7 million from other donors, which helps ensure the Program’s impact. We also work with our grantees to strengthen projects so that they are replicable and sustainable.
ASGM refers to gold mining conducted by individual miners or small enterprises with limited capital investment and production. Miners ofter resort to using mercury to extract gold from ore because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to use. But there are alternative methods to extract gold, often with higher yields. Due to the rise of gold prices over the past decade, the ASGM sector now provides the main source of income for 10 million to 20 million miners in more than 70 countries, primarily developing nations. The secondary economy surrounding ASGM supports 50 million to 100 million people around the globe. The World Bank and other agencies consider ASGM to be a potential source of economic development and poverty relief: Mining incomes are often two to four times higher than incomes from typical agricultural activities in the same region. Even if the price of gold were to drop by 25 percent, ASGM will remain an attractive activity for the rural poor.
Projects under the Mercury Program have led to on-the-ground improvements in how and whether mercury is used in various ASGM communities, reducing transboundary mercury pollution that would have resulted from those activities. Here are some examples:
In the Philippines and Indonesia, Mercury Program grantees Ban Toxics and BaliFokus are facilitating the development of national and regional approaches for mercury storage and phase-out of mercury use in the ASGM sector through outreach to indigenous people (Indonesia) and women (Philippines).
The NGO Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) is working with local communities in Burkina Faso and recently set up equipment it has purchased and shipped for a demonstration plant to teach non-mercury mining techniques to the artisanal miners. Take a look at a video of this exciting development:
For more information on the ASGM, please see the ASGM fact sheet.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is increasing global interest in mercury pollution reduction activities, particularly in the area of ASGM. This global spotlight presents an opportunity to refocus and magnify Mercury Program efforts in the area of ASGM where there is the greatest need, and where U.S. assistance will produce the greatest benefits. Under the Minamata Convention, countries will identify nationally determined measures to address mercury use in ASGM. The Convention provides this flexibility in recognition of the complex challenge from this sector, and the reality that drivers of mercury use in ASGM activities vary from country to country. OES projects will continue with replicable and scalable projects aimed at reducing mercury use in the ASGM sector, and, going forward, will contribute to the development of a global “toolbox” of best-practice models and information resources.
AGC is also working closely with Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal to raise awareness among villagers on the health effects of using mercury for gold mining and techniques they can use to reduce their exposure.
Building on these activities, AGC has just started a similar project in Nicaragua, where they will be working closely with both the ASGM sector and large scale mining companies to improve cooperation and better mining techniques.
In addition, the Mercury Program is working with the Environmental Law Institute, which is developing a white paper “Legal, Policy, and Institutional Recommendations to Address Mercury and Lead Exposure from Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining in Nigeria” in response to the Zamfara State tragedy where many children died from lead poisoning related to ASGM activities and to promote better practices that reduce mercury exposures and environmental pollution.
With the Biodiversity Research Institute, the Mercury Program continues work in the Andes by preparing and disseminating training materials to artisanal gold miners on reduced or mercury-free gold extraction techniques.
The Mercury Program is also supporting efforts to collaborate and communicate globally, regionally, and in-country through such activities as supporting the UNEP Global Forum on ASGM in September 2013 in Lima, Peru and the UNEP Andean ASGM Forum.
The Mercury Program made it possible for the University of British Columbia to hold training sessions for Andean miners on alternative mining techniques at a pilot plant in Portovelo, Ecuador. These techniques are more efficient and help miners recover more gold from the ores they process. UBC’s Slogan is: “more gold, less mercury, better health.” Miners were so excited about what they learned in the training sessions that some of them are now working with the trainer to set up similar processing plants, which will in turn educate an even greater population of miners on more environmentally friendly techniques. So far, there are 41 plants in Ecuador and Colombia.