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Empowering communities: mercury-free artisanal gold mining takes a stand against biodiversity loss



Every week, Ibu Sugiyanti makes her way to the small-scale gold mining camp where she teaches mercury-free alternatives to other women miners. The site is located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, in the village of Logas, an impressive biodiversity hotspot that is also home to hundreds of small-scale gold miners. Sugiyanti’s efforts aim to empower women and transform the way mining is approached in this vibrant corner of Sumatra. 

She is part of the planetGOLD Indonesia project, which aims to reduce and, eventually, eliminate mercury use in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector. This goal was pursued by strengthening institutions, increasing mining communities’ access to the financing needed to purchase mercury-free processing technologies, and strategically partnering with women in ASGM communities to support their participation and economic empowerment. As a leader, Ibu Sugiyanti knows well the dangers that mercury poses to the community when used to recover gold from ore, and in particular how disproportionately it affects women. "I like to spread my knowledge so that women miners will never again use mercury. I do not want my descendants and other women miners in my village to put themselves at risk with mercury," says Sugiyanti.

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Ibu Sugiyanti teaching ASSGM mercury-free techniques. Credits: PlanetGOLD Indonesia

ASGM remains the largest contributor to global mercury use, emissions, and releases, resulting in harmful impacts on human health, ecosystems, and biodiversity across the globe. Operating in over 70 countries, often in areas with limited economic opportunities, ASGM employs approximately 15 million people, including 4 to 5 million women and children. When using mercury, the sector not only poses health and environmental risks but also severely impacts vulnerable groups such as women, children, Indigenous Peoples and local communities who may already be contending with significant preexisting socio-economic risk factors. 

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, many Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty that is turning six this year, have been actively working to address the challenges posed by ASGM. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), in its role as part of the financial mechanism of the Convention, has funded the development of 48 ASGM National Action Plans (NAPs). ASGM NAPs are the starting point for a Party to the Convention to bring together its stakeholders to develop and implement viable strategies to protect human health and the environment from mercury use in ASGM. They can also play a critically important role in broader efforts to address the daunting challenges of deforestation, encroachment of protected lands, and biodiversity loss, through approaches such as enforcing regulations regarding the trade of mercury, improving transparency in the gold trade and supply chain, and prioritizing free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples. These approaches are essential to attain lasting protection of communities and the environment.

While praising the efforts of the Parties that have successfully developed National Action Plans in line with the Convention's requirements, the journey toward minimizing the impact of mercury in areas where ASGM is practiced is still ongoing. “The plans have presented Parties to the Convention with an opportunity to tailor-fit solutions to mercury use in ASGM. This includes handling the broader impact of the sector and harnessing ASGM’s potential to address its unique development needs. We must amplify efforts in capacity-building, technical assistance and knowledge sharing, and really integrate them with biodiversity and other strategies at the national level, so that many more ASGM communities are fully empowered to embrace safer, responsible, and more sustainable practices: important first steps in reducing mercury exposure and fostering the well-being of both miners and their families”, highlighted Monika Stankiewicz, Executive Secretary of the Minamata Convention.

The financial mechanism of the Minamata Convention, composed of the GEF and the Specific International Programme, plays a vital role in empowering Parties to reduce mercury use in ASGM. 22 Parties have been involved to date in the planetGOLD programme, funded by the GEF and led by the UN Environment Programme, that actively promotes alternative technologies and processes in ASGM and a clean global supply of gold from small-scale miners. Projects in countries such as Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Peru, and the Philippines have already made significant progress in developing new mercury-free processing systems.

In addition, the $1.4 billion work programme recently approved by the GEF Council aims to accelerate efforts to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises, with some funding expected to flow into projects designed to reduce mercury pollution. 

In its relatively young life, the Minamata Convention has collaborated closely through its Parties to reduce and prevent mercury emissions and releases into the environment, minimizing their impact on ecosystems and wildlife. When released, mercury pollution is able to travel long distances, bioaccumulates in fish and amplifies its effects through biomagnification, contaminating the food chain. Indigenous Peoples and local communities can be particularly at risk due to their economic, spiritual and cultural connections to the land, as well as their dependence on local food and water resources. 

“Last year, the Conference of Parties (COP) adopted a decision for Parties to engage with Indigenous Peoples, local communities and other relevant stakeholders in developing and implementing National Action Plans. We hope that the upcoming COP recognizes the varying needs and priorities of different Indigenous Peoples and local communities affected by ASGM and provides them with platforms to contribute to mercury governance in a more inclusive and equitable way to address mercury pollution and prevent more biodiversity loss,” announced Stankiewicz.

With the support of the Minamata Convention’s Specific International Programme, 24 projects of developing country Parties and Parties with economies in transition have jump-started their efforts to tackle mercury pollution. Through the implementation of environmentally sound practices, and the promotion of mercury-free alternatives, the work under the Convention is helping curtail the detrimental impact of mercury on aquatic ecosystems, protecting vulnerable species and ensuring the integrity of our planet's biodiversity.

In October, the fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention has the opportunity to further make a dent in global mercury pollution by increasing efforts to reduce the use of mercury in processes, further addressing mercury use in consumer products, strengthening the implementation of national action plans, renewing support to the Specific International Programme and making crucial progress on measuring the effectiveness of the Convention. 

Amidst these efforts, dedicated individuals like Ibu Sugiyanti are leading the way. Local communities in places like Logas and many other villages are taking the first steps towards reconciling their economic needs with ecological and health protection. They inspire a global ripple effect that can empower and support the needs of the millions of women, children, Indigenous Peoples and local communities that are in danger every day from mercury exposure. They remind us that through strong commitment and concerted efforts at the local level, and through governments and stakeholders working together at the national and international levels, the global community can truly make mercury history.

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