Burkina Faso woman miner

ASGM 101

A Primer on Mercury Use in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

The Minamata Convention on Mercury defines artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) as gold mining conducted by individuals or small enterprises with limited capital investment and production.

Mercury is often used in ASGM to extract gold from ore or sediments. The resulting mixture of mercury and gold, known as amalgam, is heated to vaporize the toxic mercury and leave the gold behind. Despite the prevalence of mercury use in ASGM, techniques for extracting gold without mercury are readily available and can yield higher recovery rates for miners.

ASGM by the Numbers

  • 15 million Miners working in the ASGM sector globally

  • 4-5 million Women and children working in ASGM

  • Over 80 Countries where ASGM is occuring

  • 2000 Tonnes of mercury released to the environment by ASGM annually

  • Up to 20% Of the world's gold comes from ASGM

  • 28 billion Estimated annual value of ASGM gold in USD

ASGM as a Driver of Development

  • ASGM is also an important source of livelihood for millions of people in the developing world who have few other income-generating alternatives.
  • ASGM should not be viewed as a problem to be stamped out. Rather, efforts should focus on bringing miners into the formal economy and encouraging practices that do not use mercury and minimize negative environmental and social impacts.

Countries that are parties to the Minamata Convention are required to take steps to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate the use of mercury in ASGM. Countries with "more than insignificant" ASGM are required to develop and implement a comprehensive national action plan, including national objectives and reduction targets, actions to eliminate the worst practices, and various strategies to reduce the use and impacts of mercury.

The Impacts of Mercury Use in ASGM

  • Miners and their communities are directly exposed to toxic mercury, presenting a serious health hazard. The rights and health of children engaged in and affected by artisanal and small-scale mining are an issue of major concern.
  • According to the World Health Organization, several studies examining children in ASGM communities have found associations between mercury levels and increased deep tendon reflexes, poor leg coordination, decreased performance on visuospatial organization tests, and reduction in motor function, attention, visual contrast sensitivity and manual dexterity.
  • The International Labor Organization estimates that about one million children aged five to 17 are engaged in artisanal and small scale mining (of all types, not just gold mining). Almost all work performed by children in ASGM is hazardous and has characteristics that fit the definition of a “worst form of child labor” under ILO Convention No. 182.

The Opportunity

The planetGOLD programme sees the opportunity to improve the practices of small-scale miners—sustainably boosting their productivity while improving the gold supply chain and significantly reducing global mercury pollution. Transforming the artisanal gold mining sector has the potential to inject new capital into local economies and directly improve the lives of more than 100 million people, who rely on this industry as a critical source of their livelihoods.