Gold, mercury and the next Minamata
April-June 2014
By: Yuyun Ismawati

Mercury is also widely used in products such as thermometers, barometers, manometers, sphygmomanometers, mercury switches, mercury relays, fluorescent lamps and other devices. In some industrial processes, mercury is a catalyst. Under the new mercury convention, the global community agreed to phase out its use in several products and processes by 2020. However, the target does not apply to the small-scale gold mining sector.

Local problems, global challenge

In the last several years, as global gold prices rose sharply, tripling between 1995 and 2014, so did the cost of exploration and production. In addition, most remaining deposits of gold are reportedly in remote areas, including under protected forests, national parks or traditional lands of indigenous peoples. Much of it can only be reached by smaller mining operations or groups of small-scale miners.

Globally, UNEP stated that as of 2013 smallscale gold mining was being practiced in more than 70 countries, involving between 10 and 15 million miners including as many as five million women and children. The small-scale sector produces between 12 percent and 15 percent of the world’s gold, and releases about 1,400 metric tons of mercury per year into the environment, causing harmful and irreversible health and environmental effects. The latest finding identified the ASGM sector as the largest single source of mercury emissions from intentional use.

Bryant (1997) stated that in the last decades, the link between poverty and environmental degradation is becoming more widely recognized, as poverty’s profile has become increasingly environmental. Small-scale mining is very often poverty driven and a form of a modern economic slavery, passing on debt to the next generation of family miners.

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