$180-million investment to tackle the hidden cost of gold

Camarines Norte, the Philippines: Mercury combines with gold to create an amalgam, which is then heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving only gold.
Photo: Veejay Villafranca/ UN Environment

Originally published on the Global Environment Facility website.

  • 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

London, 18 February, 2019:

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.

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 today 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 many as 15 million people work in the ASGM sector globally – including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children. While ASGM represents a development opportunity for rural populations, who often have few livelihood alternatives, miners operate on the edges of legality in many countries, with ASGM either banned outright or limited by legislation and licensing procedures designed primarily for large-scale operations.

By supporting the regulatory and policy reforms needed to formalize the work of artisanal and small-scale miners across the eight programme countries, GEF GOLD aims to secure miners’ livelihoods, through opening up the access to markets and finance needed to increase incomes and enable the uptake of mercury-free technology. By phasing out mercury use, the programme aims to achieve eventual mercury emission reductions of 369 tonnes, supporting countries’ commitments under the Minamata Convention on Mercury to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate mercury use in the sector.

Alongside working directly with artisanal and small-scale miners and national authorities, the GEF GOLD programme will work with the private sector across industries and partners including the Better Gold Initiative, Alliance for Responsible Mining and Fairtrade International to promote compliance with international standards on responsible mineral supply chains.