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Sub-Saharan ASGM remains a major concern

In Sub-Saharan Africa, artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) is a major source of gold production and an important source of income for many families. Many ASGM outfits use mercury to extract gold, and this is a major concern as the toxic, silvery liquid causes serious environmental problems and harms the communities that live near mining sites. As a vast majority of Sub-Saharan ASGM activities lie within the informal space, it remains a challenge to curb the use of poisonous mercury and eliminate it from the gold supply chain altogether.

Mining has a storied legacy in Sub-Saharan Africa. 1​ Ghana was the world’s largest producer of gold from 1493 to 1600, and large-scale mining operations commenced in the nineteenth century. 2​ Mining was also the catalyst for Mozambique’s remarkable development from 1993 to 2010. 3​ Though the industry may be a driver of economic development, poverty reduction has not occurred at a significant rate. Sub-Saharan Africa has substantial population centres and the trickle-down effects from large scale mining may not be sufficient. This, coupled with the low barriers to entry for artisanal mining, may be the reason why so many vulnerable individuals are dependent on ASGM. 4

ASGM outfits often employ a process that involves adding toxic mercury to ore, and this mercury-gold amalgam is then heated to recover the gold. 5 This is a hazardous practice which causes mercury pollution, and around 37 per cent of global mercury emissions is attributed to ASGM. 6

The effects of mercury emissions extend far beyond the region of the mine. Mercury enters the atmosphere when it is vaporised, and returns to the ground and water bodies when it rains. This pollutes a vast amount of land and degrades the soil, making it unsuitable for agriculture. 7​ When mercury enters water bodies, microorganisms may convert it into methylmercury ​— a potent, bioaccumulative neurotoxin. It is consumed by plankton, which is then eaten by small fish. Larger fish eat the small fish, and this is how ​methylmercury permeates the food chain​. At every single step up the food chain, methylmercury is believed to be concentrated by a factor of ten, and when the apex predators of the marine world find themselves on our plates and into the human body, the exposure to mercury is considerable. There is no such thing as a safe level of mercury ingestion or inhalation, and exposure to mercury may result in the decreased performance in cognitive functions. Prolonged exposure to mercury will inevitably lead to death. While miners who are in direct contact with mercury vapours are most susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury poisoning, it is also important to consider the danger that mercury poses to the wider community and the environment.

Miners in ASGM may be using mercury due to its affordability and widespread availability. 8 This is the reason why actions need to be taken with urgency. There are some miners who may not realise the implications of mercury poisoning. Other miners may not possess suitable processing equipment to extract gold safely, cleanly, and efficiently. To expunge mercury from the gold supply chain, the formalisation of ASGM in Sub-Saharan Africa is needed. This will bring mining outfits into the formal space, and it is an important step that will allow institutions to step in with financial and technical support. With the regulatory framework borne from formalisation, efforts can then be made to promote the use of non-toxic mining lixiviants to the ASGM sector. 9 Only in this way can ​mercury be dehubbed from the gold supply chain.

Growing recognition of ASGM’s importance in the Sub-Saharan region is propelling African policymakers to rethink development strategies for the sector. It is truly a challenge to intensify the delivery of technical know-how to ASGM outfits in rural regions, but many are looking into novel approaches to bring ASGM operations into the legal domain, where it is widely believed they can be monitored and supported more effectively.

A global push to make mercury history has resulted in the ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which placed restrictions on the different stages in the management of mercury and its compounds from production, export, storage to usage, and disposal. 10 With the global pressure to phase out mercury and its compounds from use in industry, a nuanced development strategy grounded in local realities may be required for formalisation to have a transformative effect on the livelihoods of those engaged in ASGM in Sub-Saharan Africa. Governments in the region will need to formulate constructive frameworks for the formalisation of ASGM, and compel miners to move away from pollutive processes that involve mercury.

Sub-Saharan Africans can harness the growth potential of their ASGM sector by mining for gold cleanly, safely, and sustainably, and their utilisation of a clean gold recovery reagent will undoubtedly help in advancing sustainable development efforts. Regulators should evaluate sustainable alternatives, such as ​Clean Earth Technologies​’ gold recovery reagent which produces genuine, non-toxic mining outcomes.

More needs to be done to combat anthropogenic mercury pollution, and there remains a fundamental need to educate miners, especially those working in the artisanal and small scale gold mines, about the dangers of using mercury. Legislative frameworks, regulatory standards, and enforcement mechanisms must be sufficiently strong so that local authorities can compel mining outfits to transition to alternative, non-toxic lixiviants such as Clean Earth Technologies’ mercury-free and cyanide-free gold mining reagent.

 

Clean Mining is part of the Clean Earth Technologies group.

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​[1] Ivailo Izvorski, “7 Surprising Findings about Resource-Rich Sub-Saharan Africa,” August 2, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/08/01/7-surprising-findings-about-resource-rich-sub-saharan-africa/.

[2] ​Anthony Bebbington et al., Governing Extractive Industries Politics, Histories, Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018): pp 152-196

[3] Mozambique achieved tremendous economic growth that was attributed to its mining industry. For a non-oil exporting country, it achieved annual growth rates exceeding 8% between 1993 and 2010. For more, see, Stefaan Dondeyne and Eduardo Ndunguru, “Artisanal Gold Mining and Rural Development Policies in Mozambique: Perspectives for the Future,” Futures 62 (2014): pp. 120-127,​ ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2014.03.001​.

[4] Gavin Hilson, “Small-Scale Mining, Poverty and Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Overview,” Resources Policy 34, no. 1-2 (0AD): pp. 1-5, ​https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2008.12.001​.; ASM provides direct employment to over one million people in Ghana, with ASGM contributing a sizable 34 per cent of Ghana’s total gold export in 2013. For more on this, see, Anthony Bebbington et al., Governing Extractive Industries Politics, Histories, Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018): p 189

[5] See, for more on the extraction process, Louisa J. Esdaile and Justin M. Chalker, “The Mercury Problem in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining”, Chemistry – A European Journal, January 03, 2018: pp. 6907-6908, ​ https://doi.org/10.1002/chem.201704840

[6] ASGM is the largest source of anthropogenic mercury pollution, and puts out an amount which exceeds even the combined emissions from sectors such as coal combustion and large-scale industrial mining. For more on mercury emission by sector, UN Environment, “Global Mercury Assessment 2018”, UNEP – UN Environment Programme, 2012: pp. 14-15, https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/11524

[7] Ran Xiao, Shuang Wang, Ronghua Li, Jim J. Wang and Zengqiang Zhang, “Soil heavy metal contamination and health risks associated with artisanal gold mining in Tongguan, Shaanxi, China”, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, vol. 141, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoenv.2017.03.00​2

[8] Frederick Armah et al., “Unsafe Occupational Health Behaviors: Understanding Mercury-Related Environmental Health Risks to Artisanal Gold Miners in Ghana,” ​Front. Environ. Sci. 4, no. 29 (25AD), https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2016.00029​.

​[9] Commodity Monitor, “Changing the Status Quo in Ghana’s Mining Sector,” April 19, 2020, https://commoditymonitor.org/2020/04/19/changing-the-status-quo-in-ghanas-mining-sector/.

[10] ​“Minamata Convention on Mercury” 16 August 2017, No. 54669, http://www.mercuryconvention.org/Portals/11/documents/Booklets/COP3-version/Minamata-Convention-booklet-Sep2019-EN.pdf

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