Mali is one such country, where small-scale artisanal miners rely on the revenue they can earn from digging for gold. So while the fighting in Mali’s north goes on, gold production continues unabated in the stable south and southwest of the country.
However, in these regions, as elsewhere in Africa, another battle is being waged, this time against the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining. Mercury is used by small-scale miners to separate the gold from its surrounding ore and rock debris. Though other safer substances can be deployed for this purpose, they’re not as cheap or as easy to use.
However, the widespread use of mercury – which has no taste or smell – causes frequent contamination of local water and food supplies. Once ingested or taken in through exposure to the skin or by inhaling fumes, it causes severe neurological problems. Children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable, but high enough doses can cause brain damage in adults. Speaking to The Guardian, a senior environmental analyst confirms that in communities where small-scale gold mining takes place, it’s common to see “people who have tremors, who have difficulty walking [and] who have a lot of uncontrolled eye movements”.
Now a new treaty has been drawn up by the United Nations to provide rules on the use of this toxic element. Finalised in Geneva this week, the treaty will regulate the supply, trade and use of the substance. Governments will also be encouraged, though not obliged, to manage the health impact of mercury exposure and to draft national action plans to phase out its use. More than 140 countries are expected to sign the treaty in October later this year.
Some have argued that the treaty will be ineffective, because it does not ban the use of mercury outright. However, the aim is to encourage countries to phase out its use gradually and introduce other alternatives as they become more widely available. This reflects an acknowledgement that many miners in poor countries such as Mali would have their living destroyed if a sudden ban came into force.
In the meanwhile, development organisations, such as the UN’s child agency UNICEF, are eager to continue pressing countries to respect laws against hazardous child labour and calling on international buyers to ensure their supply chain for gold is child-labour free.