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Frequently Asked Questions

Find answers to some of the most common questions that are asked about planetGOLD and about artisanal and small-scale gold mining

What is ASGM?

ASGM is an acronym that stands for Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining. There are various definitions of this sector within specific country contexts; however, 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.[1]

How many ASGM miners are there around the world?

There are an estimated 10-16 million artisanal and small-scale gold miners around the globe,[2][3] roughly 4-5 million of which are women and children.[4]

What countries have ASGM?

ASGM activities take place in approximately 80 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.[5]

How much gold does the ASGM sector produce each year?

The sector produces roughly 20% of the world’s gold supply each year.[6] In 2020, this gold was worth approximately $28-34 billion USD.[7]

How much mercury do ASGM miners currently emit?

2,000+ tonnes per year collectively, including emissions to air and releases to land and water.[8]

What are the health impacts of using mercury in ASGM?

Mercury is considered by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern.[9] Exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, is associated with serious health problems, and is a threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.[10]

How do people get exposed to mercury used in ASGM activities?

Liquid elemental mercury is added to an ore slurry to bind to gold and form a gold-mercury amalgam. This amalgam is burned over high heat to separate gold from the mercury, releasing high concentrations of mercury vapors. People working and living in ASGM communities are exposed to mercury mainly through inhalation of these toxic vapors. Mercury can also be deposited on surfaces such as walls, clothing and tools, where it can be re-released to the local environment over time.  Some ASGM practices can result in contamination of mine wastes (called tailings) as well as direct release of mercury to water bodies. Microorganisms in water and soil convert elemental mercury into organic methylmercury, which accumulates in the food chain.[11]

I live far away from areas with ASGM activities. How does mercury use in the ASGM sector affect me?

Mercury emitted to the air doesn’t just affect local conditions. Mercury can be transported around the world in the atmosphere and can contaminate locations thousands of kilometers from its point of release. It can cycle between the atmosphere and the surface of land or oceans for decades to centuries and longer.[12]

Are there alternatives to extract gold without mercury?

Yes. There are several technologies that either reduce or eliminate entirely the use of mercury in ASGM. The appropriate technologies will depend on the ore type, available resources, and social and economic factors.[13] There is no single technology appropriate to every ASGM situation, but successful approaches often include some combination of: improved crushing and milling; gravity concentration tools such as sluicing and shaking tables; flotation; and chemical leaching.

Is using mercury the most efficient way for miners to extract gold?

When used properly, mercury-free technologies can extract a greater amount of gold than traditional methods using mercury amalgamation.[14] Large scale mining companies, for instance, which have the highest gold recovery rates in the world, do not use mercury.

Where does the mercury used in ASGM come from?

Mercury enters via multiple formal and informal pathways, depending on the country. Mercury can often be bought at hardware and mining stores in cities and larger mining towns or directly at the mining sites where local traders offer mercury. In some cases, traders supply mercury in advance for access to the recovered gold.[15]

If miners know mercury harms human health and the environment, why do they continue using it?

There are several complex socioeconomic reasons why artisanal and small-scale miners use mercury. Many miners need to extract gold every day to meet subsistence needs and may not have the time for technologies that take longer to process ore. Many miners also do not have the financial capital required to get access to mercury-free technologies. Extracting gold using mercury is quick and easy, and can be done by a single person. Mercury can also be cheaper in the short term, and it is easy to transport anywhere, whereas other technologies sometimes require large equipment that cannot be moved easily.

If mercury use in ASGM is such a problem, why not ban it?

Miners cannot be expected to abandon their livelihoods without viable, profitable alternatives. Laws that criminalize miners run the risk of simply further marginalizing the sector and creating thriving black markets for both mercury and the gold it produces. This can severely undermine legitimate efforts to help miners transition away from mercury usage. It could, in fact, lead to increased mercury exposures, if miners choose to burn amalgam indoors, in their homes, away from the eyes of the law.

How much mercury use does planetGOLD aim to prevent?

The programme supports countries’ commitments under the Minamata Convention on Mercury to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate mercury use in the sector. The initial phase of planetGOLD aims to achieve eventual mercury emission reductions of 369 tonnes, and the second phase of planetGOLD targets eventual reductions of 517 – for a total of 886 tonnes.

Is planetGOLD a gold certification system?

No, planetGOLD does not certify gold products.

How does planetGOLD ensure that sites it partners with operate in a safe, environmentally and socially sound manner?

Sites participating in the planetGOLD programme are expected to conform with the planetGOLD Criteria for Environmentally & Socially Responsible Operations, which ensures that artisanal and small-scale mining entities participating in the programme undertake sufficient efforts to avoid, minimize, mitigate, and where appropriate, offset adverse impacts to people and the environment.

Can I buy gold from a planetGOLD mining site?

Please communicate with the appropriate project contact person in the country you are interested in sourcing from (indicated on each country page on this web site), or for general inquiries contact finance@planetgold.org.

What is the difference between informal mining, illicit mining, and illegal mining?

Illicit ASGM production actively violates human rights, inconsistent with national and international law, and possibly funds organized crime or terrorism. Illegal ASGM production is either prohibited by law, or actors lack mining licenses or do not adhere to other requirements set in national regulations. Informal ASGM actors are not organized in or effectively represented by a legal entity, do not receive governmental support, or do not benefit from enforcement of policies that enable them to understand and comply with the requirements set in national regulations. Globally ASGM is still largely informal, which can contribute to negative social and environmental consequences that are often associated with the sector.[16]

Isn’t extracting minerals in any way inherently unsustainable?

Yes, extractive industries by nature are not sustainable. Many minerals are necessary to support modern life, and planetGOLD is committed to mitigating adverse impacts of ASGM activities on the environment. The programme’s Criteria require mining entities to have systems in place to address and protect biodiversity. These efforts complement activities by some planetGOLD projects and others globally to remediate legacy sites and integrate restoration planning into ongoing and future ASGM operations.

Where does gold go between the ASGM mine and the consumer market?

After gold is processed, in some countries, miners sell gold directly to state-sponsored gold buying entities. In other countries, typically gold buyers or traders purchase it from processing centers or co-ops, or directly from individual miners. The gold buyers then sell it to bigger regional and national gold buying companies. From there, some gold remains in the country with local goldsmiths who produce jewelry, but most will be exported directly to an international trader, which sells it to a foreign refinery. Refined gold is then sold on the international market.[17]

For more on mineral supply chains and due diligence responsibilities, see duediligenceguidance.org.

What is blockchain and is it necessary for the ASGM industry?

Blockchain is a digitally distributed ledger technology that can support chain of custody and potentially provide new opportunities for supply chain traceability. Blockchain can be used to document the origin and path of a responsibly-produced product from mine to market. However, to apply a digital system such as blockchain to a physical system like gold requires that every gram of gold be uniquely identifiable in the digital system, differentiated from other gold. This is possible but may not always be practically feasible with ASGM gold.[18][19]

Isn’t ASGM a major contributor to deforestation in some countries?

Yes, unfortunately ASGM has contributed to deforestation, particularly in areas with alluvial gold deposits, including in some areas with high biodiversity such as the Madre de Dios region of Peru.  The planetGOLD Criteria require that mining entities avoid areas of high conservation value, and assess and mitigate identified environmental risks. This may include minimizing deforestation where relevant. A plan must also be prepared for rehabilitating mined land after operations are complete, and multiple planetGOLD country projects are actively supporting site remediation. It is important to also bear in mind that there are other large sources of deforestation on a basin-wide scale, such as agriculture and logging.

Isn’t ASGM often associated with organized crime and with human rights violations such as child labor?

As in many informal economic sectors, illicit activities and human rights violations have unfortunately been associated with ASGM. These are not inherent parts of the sector, however, as there are millions of people working in ASGM simply striving to earn a living. The planetGOLD programme strongly condemns any human rights violations and organized crime affiliations with ASGM operations. The programme’s Criteria stipulate that mining entities verify they are not involved in or linked to any activities that violate human rights, including child labor and/or forced labor. They must also verify they are not illegally controlled or subjected to illegal taxation or extortion of money or minerals by non-state armed groups. The programme focuses more broadly on governance and formalization of the ASGM sector in order to mitigate violations like these.

Why don’t you just train miners to do other jobs?

Mining is often the best source of livelihoods for people working in areas with ASGM activities. These miners typically earn 70-80% of the global gold spot price, a rate higher than nearly any other commodity.[20] This has the potential to directly inject much-needed money into rural communities. Often mining is already an alternative livelihood source for people engaged in agriculture, which is increasingly challenging due to agriculture’s extreme vulnerability to climate change. Furthermore, not all miners want to do other jobs. In many cases it is a traditional activity they and their families have done for generations.

Is using cyanide really any better than using mercury?

When employed appropriately with strict controls, cyanide can have lower impacts on the environment and can have very high gold recovery rates. While mercury is a persistent, bioaccumulative element that does not break down in the environment, cyanide easily breaks down quickly and can be neutralized proactively to ensure it does not harm the environment or local populations. As cyanide is still a toxic substance, strict environmental and occupational health controls must of course be in place when using it.

What about using borax in gold processing?

Borax is often used to smelt gold ore concentrate, including concentrate produced without using mercury. However, the “borax method” is itself not an alternative method of responsible gold production and should not be promoted as such. The use of borax does not represent a simple one-to-one replacement of mercury for another chemical but requires new or improved processing techniques to produce a gold ore concentrate suitable for smelting and will generally require training and assistance to promote their adoption. Therefore, the planetGOLD programme does not use the term “borax method” to describe these enhanced concentration methods.[21]

 


[1] Minamata Convention on Mercury: Text and Annexes
[2] Global Mercury Project. http://archive.iwlearn.net/globalmercuryproject.org/documents/documents.htm
[3] Seccatore et al. “An estimation of the artisanal small-scale production of gold in the world.” Science of the Total Environment. 2014. p. 663
[4] The Delve Database. https://delvedatabase.org/
[5] UN Environment Programme, 2019. Global Mercury Assessment 2018
[6] Artisanal Gold Council and UN Environment Global Mercury Partnership, 2018. Estimating mercury use and documenting practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM): Methods and Tools
[7] Calculation based on 500-600 tonnes of ASGM gold production per year and on the average closing price of gold for 2020 (source: https://www.macrotrends.net/1333/historical-gold-prices-100-year-chart)
[8] UN Environment Programme, 2019. Global Mercury Assessment 2018
[9] World Health Organization International Programme on Chemical Safety. https://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/chemicals_phc/en/
[10] World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mercury-and-health
[11] World Health Organization, 2021. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/340192/9789240020320-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[12] UN Environment Programme, 2019. Global Mercury Assessment 2018
[13] Reducing mercury use in artisanal gold mining: A practical guide
[14] ibid
[15] Stichting IUCN Nederlands Comité. Opening the Black Box: Local Insights into the Formal and Informal Global Mercury Trade Revealed
[16] UN Environment Programme and UNITAR, 2018. Handbook: Developing National ASGM Formalization Strategies within National Action Plans p. 17
[17] Artisanal Gold Council and UN Environment Global Mercury Partnership, 2018. Estimating mercury use and documenting practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM): Methods and Tools
[18] Laurent E. Cartier, Saleem H. Ali and Michael S. Krzemnicki, The Journal of Gemmology, 2018. Blockchain, Chain of Custody and Trace Elements: An Overview of Tracking and Traceability Opportunities in the Gem Industry
[19] Antoinette van der Merwe, ETH Zürich NADEL, 2020. A blockchain is only as strong as its weakest link: transparency and artisanal gold
[20] Artisanal Gold Council and UN Environment Global Mercury Partnership, 2018. Estimating mercury use and documenting practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM): Methods and Tools
[21] UN Environment Programme, 2018. Guidance Document: Developing a National Action Plan to Reduce and, Where Feasible, Eliminate Mercury Use in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining