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UN Human Rights Expert Calls for an End to the Trade in Mercury and its Use in Small-Scale Gold Mining

UN Special Rapporteur urges closing a loophole in Minamata Convention on Mercury to stop human rights abuses linked to mercury in gold mining

Geneva, Switzerland - As many as 15 million men, women and children around the world suffer significant and potentially life-threatening human rights abuses from mercury used in small-scale gold mining, according to a groundbreaking report presented today by Marcos A. Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights. Small-scale gold mining is the largest contributor to mercury pollution globally, and the UN report notes that mercury contaminated sites from gold mining and accumulated mercury pollution in the food chain already affects millions of people and may poison countless future generations.

Orellana’s report notes that “The most devastating aspect of [small-scale gold] mining, for the workers and for the global community, is the use of mercury to extract the gold from the ore… with grave consequences for millions of miners, vulnerable women and children, indigenous peoples, ecosystems and aquatic life.”

The UN report urges closing loopholes in the Minamata Convention, the global agreement on protecting human health and the environment from mercury pollution, due to significant gaps in how it addresses the mercury trade and the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining. Among other recommendations, the UN report today calls for amending the Minamata Convention to:

  • End exports in mercury (effectively ending the international trade in mercury);
  • End mercury mining in 10 years; and 
  • Prohibit small-scale gold mining as an allowable use of mercury, with immediate reductions and elimination of mercury in small-scale gold mining within 3-5 years under National Action Plans.

The EU and the US banned mercury exports over 10 years ago and most uses of mercury in products and industrial processes have been phased out, but many countries continue to profit from this poisonous trade.

 “This situation is unacceptable,” said Yuyun Ismawati, IPEN Lead Adviser on mercury in small-scale gold mining and a speaker at a UNHCR side event on the topic on September 21. “We need to end the mercury trade immediately because greedy people keep making profits, protected by influential people, creating long-term suffering for many. The Minamata tragedy has taught us that cleaning up contaminated sites is expensive and leaves vulnerable populations who will never again enjoy their right to live in a healthy environment.”

The impacts of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxic metal, have long been known, and the ongoing and widespread use of mercury to extract gold from poor quality ore by impoverished small-scale gold miners results in serious human health impacts. Mercury can damage the kidneys and heart and cause permanent brain damage, resulting in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision, and hearing and memory problems. Women of childbearing age are especially at risk since mercury exposure is linked to birth defects and damage to the developing fetus. 

IPEN has long worked for the elimination of mercury pollution including in small-scale gold mining and supports the recommendations from today’s report. Lee Bell, IPEN Mercury Policy Advisor said, “It’s time to turn off the mercury tap. There is no legitimate reason to mine mercury and sell it on the global marketplace. We know that nearly all of it is being directed to small-scale gold mining and deposited directly into the environment, contaminating waterways, fisheries, and poisoning communities. We must immediately stop the international mercury trade to end the human rights abuses from small-scale gold mining.”

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report documents many cases of Indigenous People, especially in the Amazon, being threatened, attacked, and forced to allow wildcat gold miners to encroach on their land, destroying river environments, contaminating fish sources, decimating wildlife for food and destabilizing their social fabric with violence, drugs, and prostitution. 

“There are many powerful interests seeking to extract profits from gold in protected and Indigenous lands where mining should be prohibited or inaccessible,” said Carmen Capriles of Reaccion Climatica in La Paz, Bolivia. “Impoverished gold miners unwittingly become the foot soldiers of the big gold institutions and gold brokers (seekers) who use them to extend their reach into Indigenous lands, affecting biodiverse habitats, nature reserves and protected areas, like National Park Madidi or National Park Pilon Lajas. We must put a stop to these environmental and human rights abuses now, not only working for the implementation of the Minamata Convention but also recognizing the Escazu Agreement as a tool to fight so these places do not become sacrifice zones.”

“The data that we have collected in communities in Bolivia have shown that women from Indigenous communities with no relation to mining activities have mercury levels on average 7.6 times higher than the maximum allowed by the WHO, demonstrating that the mercury problem is no longer a purely mining versus environmental issue but is more and more a problem of public health and a violation of fundamental human rights.”

“Our findings in hundreds of Indonesia's ASGM hotspots show that mercury concentrations in all environmental matrices, such as soil, air, and water, including biotic components, have already reached alarmingly hazardous levels,” said Ismawati. “As a result, over 75% of adults and almost 50% of children have mercury in their biomarkers above the safe level.”

The UN report notes that mercury used by the small-scale gold miners is typically dumped without environmental protections, contaminating the air and land, and washing into the rivers, lakes and oceans of the world at a truly shocking rate, estimated at thousands of tonnes per year. While miners and surrounding communities are directly affected, the contamination is widespread, with harmful effects on communities hundreds or thousands of miles from gold mining due to mercury contamination of the food chain.  

Mercury pollution is magnified through the aquatic food chain, resulting in many larger predatory fish species accumulating dangerous levels of mercury which they pass on to people who consume fish as a main source of dietary protein. Studies by IPEN have found very high mercury levels in women of childbearing age in dozens of small island developing states where residents have seafood-based diets, including the pacific islands. None of these locations have small scale gold mining.

Inland populations reliant on fish from rivers for protein have similarly elevated levels of mercury even if they are not engaged in gold mining. This has been particularly evident in parts of Indonesia, Africa, and Latin American countries.

“Mercury is exported to Africa and its use in gold mining is out of control,” said Griffins Ochieng, IPEN Steering Committee member and Director of CEJAD (Center for Environmental Justice and Development) in Kenya. “The harm I see on the ground to women and children is sad, because the gold traders and refineries are the real profiteers. I am hopeful that the UN Human Rights council can help protect the rights of Africans to end the international trade of mercury, which pollutes Africa’s environment and people.”

“For too long we have favored profits from the gold trade over the human right to a healthy environment,” said Bell. “On the fifth anniversary of the Minamata Convention, today’s report should remind us of the urgent need for a stronger global agreement to ban the international mercury trade, end gold mining as an allowable use, and accelerate the end of mercury use in small-scale gold mining. IPEN is eager to engage with delegates for the adoption of these amendments at the next Conference of the Parties in October 2023.”

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is named after the devastating mercury poisoning experienced by the residents of Minamata, Japan, a small coastal fishing village. In Minamata, for decades the Chisso chemical corporation dumped mercury-contaminated wastes into the Shiranui Sea, resulting in thousands of residents suffering disability and death due to eating mercury contaminated fish.