On January 19, His Holiness Pope Francis will touch down for a few hours in Madre de Dios, an area in the Peruvian Amazon. Displaying his usual compassion for the marginalized and the powerless, the Pope will spend his time meeting with indigenous people and children. While the Pope will focus on humanitarian issues, his visit to this region will inevitably shine light on a critical environmental problem there. As the Pope flies into Madre de Dios, he will be greeted by the sight of the widespread deforestation, caused mainly by unbridled small-scale gold mining. Over the last decade, miners have turned tens of thousands of hectares of once lush jungle into barren, sandy landscapes. Not visible but equally devastating is widespread contamination by mercury, a highly toxic chemical used by miners in the gold extraction process. I imagine it will be painful for the Pope to witness this devastation first hand, given his strong commitment as an advocate for the environment.
Peru is not the only country dealing with this modern gold rush—in more than 80 countries around the world, an estimated 10-20 million people rely directly on small-scale gold mining for their livelihood, with over 100 million engaged in the secondary economy that supports the sector. Collectively, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is now considered the largest source of mercury pollution in the world, using an estimated 1800 tons of mercury per year. Most of this mercury ends up in the air, soils, rivers and oceans, where it contaminates fish, a critical source of protein for millions of people around the world.
Small-scale gold miners are often portrayed as cartoon villains, ravaging the landscape and ushering in all manner of social evils, in a greedy quest to fill their coffers. Often, in response to this caricature, governments have rallied against these miners with a strong show of police, or even military, force. Uniformly, these efforts have failed to curtail mining in the long run, and in some cases, have made matters worse, as miners have moved to even more remote and pristine areas to operate.
Of course, real small-scale miners are much more complicated than cartoon characters. While no doubt there are some genuine villains in the sector, and some miners dream of getting rich quick, the more common drivers of small-scale mining are poverty, social inequity, and marginalization. For millions, especially the rural poor, gold mining provides desperately needed income to support themselves and their families. And their product is in high demand. In fact, in his seminal 2015 encyclical on environmental stewardship, the Laudato Si (on Care for our Common Home), the Pope himself specifically mentioned the issue of mercury pollution from gold mining, emphasizing its roots in the global demand for resources like gold, and thus the moral imperative for the global community to take action.
Fortunately, the global community is listening to the Pope’s call for action. In the spring of this year, a new global program, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), will begin to tackle some of the root causes of the harms caused by small scale gold mining, while also promoting its development potential.The program, called Global Opportunities for Long-term Development of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector (GEF GOLD) will work in eight countries, including Peru (as well as Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, and the Philippines), and will be led by three United Nations (UN) agencies (the United Nations Development Programme, UN Environment, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization) as well as Conservation International. NRDC will work in partnership with this group, to share what is learned in this program with other countries who are dealing with similar challenges.The program will not only help small-scale gold miners eliminate the use of mercury, but will also help create more sustainable livelihoods through their participation in the formal economy. This approach recognizes that addressing root economic drivers is the foundation of lasting change in the sector. As a program that emphasizes compassion and dignity for the marginalized, including women, children, indigenous people, and the poor, it is a fitting response to the Pope’s call for a deeply human approach to solving this critical environmental problem.