It has been over a decade since the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first sounded the alarm about the transboundary nature of mercury pollution, and four years since the nations of the world started negotiating a treaty to tackle this global problem. Finally, this past January, in the wee hours of a snowy morning in Geneva, the 140+ member countries of UNEP finally agreed on the text of an agreement, to be named the Minamata Convention once it is officially signed in that Japanese city in October.
The very existence of a multilateral environment agreement of any kind, in this age of global discord, is itself a minor miracle. Also notable is the fact that mercury use in artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) merited its very own Article in the treaty. This tacit acknowledgment of the importance of ASGM in the global mercury picture is a far cry from UNEP’s 2002 Global Mercury Assessment (GMA) which barely mentioned ASGM. In contrast, UNEP’s 2013 Global Mercury Assessment estimates that ASGM is now the largest source of mercury emissions and releases in the world. People can (and do) argue about the reasons why the ASGM emissions and release estimates have risen dramatically over the past few years, but whatever the numbers “really” are, there is little dispute that ASGM is a major source of mercury pollution that directly affects millions of miners and their families, nearby communities and the global environment.
Under the new treaty, countries where ASGM takes place will have to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate mercury use in the sector. The treaty does not require an outright ban of mercury use (contrary to some early erroneous reports), although restrictions on the supply and trade of mercury will likely make it more expensive and harder to find. Given that ASGM is now estimated to be the world’s largest source of mercury pollution, this approach may strike some observers as too flexible and even weak. If ASGM is such an important mercury pollution source, why not go all out and ban mercury use in ASGM immediately?
The short answer: that approach has been tried – and has failed. Even before the era of the mercury treaty negotiations, a number of countries with burgeoning ASGM populations recognized mercury pollution as a serious problem and responded with stringent laws banning the use of mercury in ASGM, essentially criminalizing the activity. Yet today, these same countries have flourishing ASGM sectors with continued widespread use of mercury. That unfortunate experience shows that it’s not enough to simply say “illegal” without addressing the root problems - and opportunities - that ASGM presents. Miners are not going to readily abandon their livelihoods without viable, profitable alternatives. Laws that criminalize miners run the risk of simply further marginalizing the sector and creating thriving black markets for both mercury and the gold it produces. This can severely undermine legitimate efforts to help miners transition away from mercury usage. In fact, I have heard anecdotes about such laws having the perverse outcome of increasing mercury exposures, because some miners choose to burn amalgam indoors, in their homes, away from the eyes of the law, but exposing themselves and their families to more mercury in the process.
The treaty suggests a different, and hopefully more successful, approach that recognizes the need for a period of transition during which miners must be given assistance, knowledge and training to convert to lower mercury, and ultimately non-mercury, processes while still reaping the economic benefits that ASGM can yield. The annex of the treaty, which guides countries on creating their National Action Plans, sheds some light on how UNEP expects countries to undertake this daunting task. Among other requirements, countries must develop strategies to eliminate some of the worst practices associated with ASGM including whole ore amalgamation, an intensive use of mercury causing some of the worst pollution. This focus on elimination of worst practices will help countries set priorities to deal with the largest and most dangerous uses of mercury first. Another element of the annex that may seem out of place in an environmental treaty: directing countries to develop strategies to formalize ASGM. Including formalization as a required part of the National Action Plans reflects the recognition that mercury cannot be effectively outlawed by the stroke of pen, but rather by addressing the root economic causes that underpin mercury use and ultimately by bringing the ASGM sector into the formal economy, where the use of mercury can be replaced with better technologies.
What does this all mean, in practical terms, for artisanal and small scale miners? Given the flexibility of the treaty, it is hard to predict the exact path that any given country will take. However, to fulfill its intended promise, the treaty should result in less mercury in the environment, better health and more profits for miners. Putting aside its environmental sins, mercury is often a poor way to extract gold when compared to other methods; helping miners adopt more effective, low/non-mercury techniques will mean less mercury exposure and more gold (and thus more money) for the miners. A technical document created for the Global Mercury Partnership describes these alternatives in more in detail. I also hope that the treaty leads to better recognition of ASGM as a legitimate part of a country’s economy, and that governments will use the mercury treaty as a window of opportunity to help miners more broadly by improving their practices, enhancing profits, and reducing health and environmental impacts generally (i.e. not only the impacts from mercury). Other stakeholders such conservation and environmental protection groups can seize this unique moment to engage miners in a more comprehensive dialogue about the proper balance between economic development from mining and the need to protect special and valuable natural resources and places.
Lastly, the treaty language encourages governments to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the process of designing and carrying out their mercury transition strategies, so the most important practical message for miners is: get involved, as quickly and vocally as possible, to make your voices heard.