Artisanal miners use mercury to separate gold from sediment in Omai, Essequibo, Guyana. (Photo: Chika Ohasi, UNDP Guyana)

New $180-million Global Environment Facility programme will improve health conditions for artisanal miners across eight countries, while slashing mercury emissions harmful to the environment

●     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, which represents nearly  40% of the total emissions.

London, 18 Feb - 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 supporters of a new $180-million programme to reform the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASGM) sector.

Launched today at London’s Goldsmiths’ Centre, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) supported  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, promote 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.

“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,” said Gustavo Fonseca, GEF Director of Programs. “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 way to sustainably produced gold.”

Every year, more than 2,700 tonnes of gold is mined around the world. Twenty percent of that – over 500 tonnes annually is produced by artisanal and small-scale miners. These miners and processors— majority of them in developing countries often work in harsh conditions, without the protection of industry regulations on pay, health or safety, in order to sate the global hunger for gold—investment in jewellery and consumer products.

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.

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.

“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,” UN Environment GEF GOLD Programme Manager Ludovic Bernaudat said.

“By phasing out mercury use and connecting miners to markets for responsibly produced and sourced minerals, GEF GOLD is working to ensure the gold value chain both supports miners and provides consumers with access to ethically produced, environmentally sustainable gold.”

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.

Additional quotes:

Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support- “Transforming the extremely harmful practice using mercury in the artisanal and small scale gold mining  (ASGM) is essential to protect human health and ecosystems. GEF GOLD is a flagship initiative designed to tackle the global concern on mercury emissions. About 1.14 million people are engaged in ASGM in Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru. As part of GEF GOLD, UNDP will support the adoption of sound mining practices in these countries through strengthening institutions, policy and regulation framework, increasing the access to mercury-free technologies, disseminating best practices, rising awareness and sharing information. These package of interventions will contribute to poverty alleviation, addressing inequality, and improving the health and livelihoods of vulnerable communities engaged in ASGM.”

Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director, UN Environment-  “Mercury emissions impact health and ecosystems, contaminating the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. This is a long-term problem we need to confront now. Joint initiatives like GEF GOLD demonstrate that when we unite for environmental action we can protect community health, provide livelihoods to those most in need, and save the planet.”

Philippe Scholtès, Managing Director of Programme Development and Technical Cooperation, UNIDO- “The widespread use of mercury in the artisanal and small-scale sector affects the environment and people, particularly in developing countries. UNIDO is proud to be a part of the GEF GOLD programme, which supports innovative and viable solutions focusing on formalization, access to markets and finances, mercury free technologies and awareness raising. UNIDO will be working in Burkina Faso, and jointly with UNEP in Mongolia and the Philippines, with the aim of providing sustainable livelihood for the miners and their communities.”

Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO, Conservation International- “Mercury is not necessary to mine and process gold. In the developed world, mercury has not been widely used in gold production for a century. By improving small-scale gold mining in the developing world, we can improve the health of people and preserve Nature that provides us so much. That means mining in the right places and in the right ways. It means professionalizing practices to not only protect human health and the environment, but to create better returns for mining communities. With the support of the Global Environment Facility, and in close consultation with the government, we are doing exactly this in Guyana.”

For more information and interview requests:

Christian Hofer, Senior Communication Officer, GEF: chofer@thegef.org

Shari Nijman, Communication Officer, UN Environment News and Media Unit: nijman@un.org

Sangita Khadka, Communications Specialist, UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, New York: sangita.khadka@undp.org

Sayaphol Sackda, Advocacy and Media Relations Officer (OIC), UNIDO: s.sackda@unido.org

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