Over the last 30 years, Mongolia has moved from a centrally planned economy to a market driven economy. This shift, and the reliance on natural resources like gold, are providing a much needed economic stimulus for the country as a whole. However, there are disparities in the mining sector, with large-scale mining being formalized and operated by industry specific professionals , and the majority of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) operations being informal and non-professional. The path towards establishing a formal mine is a long one, for both the industrial and artisanal sectors and one of the keys to this is the adoption of proper chemical management. For artisanal mining under Mongolian regulations, this means chemical-free processing methods. This is in keeping with Mongolia’s National Action Plan for the Minamata Convention on Mercury and is at the heart of the Global Environment Facility funded planetGOLD Mongolia project - executed by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism of Mongolia.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury and Mongolia
The Minamata Convention on Mercury was opened for signatures on October 10, 2013, with the main objective of protecting human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal and one of the Earth’s primordial elements, that cannot be destroyed and therefore persists in the environment once it is added to it. Elemental mercury use in ASGM can cause acute and chronic mercury intoxication, caused mainly by the inhalation of toxic elemental mercury vapours during gold processing. While acute intoxication is caused by very high levels of exposure and mainly affects the lungs, chronic intoxication is caused by long-term exposure to low or medium levels of elemental mercury vapours. Chronic exposure mainly affects the central nervous system (causing for example tremors or memory problems) and the kidneys, ranging from moderate to severe health impacts. Mercury use in ASGM has been banned in Mongolia since 2008, yet its continuing clandestine use means there is still a need to raise awareness of the environmental and negative health effects of its use.
In 2015, the Parliament of Mongolia ratified and became a party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. According to Article 7 of the Convention, parties are obligated to develop and implement a National Action Plan to reduce and where feasible, eliminate the use of mercury in their artisanal and small-scale mining sectors. The National Action Plan for reducing mercury pollution caused by ASGM was developed and approved by the Government of Mongolia in 2016 and is on the ‘List of National Action Plans to be continuously implemented between 2016 and 2020 by the Government of Mongolia’ and will continue as per the obligations of a party to the Convention.
In an effort to aid in the implementation of the NAP, planetGOLD Mongolia has been working hand in hand with local authorities in Altai soum, Khovd province, Mandal soum, Tunkhel village of Mandal soum, and Bayangol soum, Selenge province and Yusunbulag soum, Gobi-Altai province. This is important because although it is a “national” plan, it can only be realized if it is implemented at the local level.
Implementing the NAP at the Local Level in Project Target Areas
As the planetGOLD Mongolia project works towards formalizing the sector, and reducing the use of toxic chemicals in ASGM, focus has been placed on strengthening local government’s understanding of the implications and benefits of the Minamata Convention, thus incentivizing its implementation using the NAP as a guide. To put this into motion, two training sessions on the ‘Minamata Convention on Mercury and ASGM’ were organized in Mandal soum, Selenge province and Jargalant soum, Khovd province in 2020. The topics covered:
- the Minamata Convention on Mercury
- the host country’s obligations and benefits,
- the recently approved National Action Plan (NAP), which details international best practices to reduce ASGM-related mercury emissions,
- local activities that would contribute to the implementation of the NAP, and the need to improve public awareness on the hazards of mercury.
The trainings hosted 39 local government officials (29 men, 10 women) and 25 artisanal miners (14 men, 11 women) in September and October, 2020. After learning about the Minamata Convention and its application through the NAP, a strategy session was held to assist the attendees in the development of solutions and opportunities to address ASGM and mercury issues within local development plans to be rolled out this year. These included policy actions, ASGM related activities such as introducing mercury-free technology and capacity building, ensuring gender equality and monitoring and evaluation of the NAP implementation at the local level.
To further increase awareness on the harmful effects of mercury use, the training sessions incorporated the ‘Silent Threat of Mercury and Minamata Convention’ photo exhibition. The exhibition, was organized in cooperation with the Fresh Water Resources and Nature Conservation Center to address the negative impacts of mercury on human health and the environment by showcasing the history of the Minamata disease (a rare case of severe methylmercury intoxication) and elemental mercury usage in the ASGM sector in Mongolia.
The workshop participants and over 1,200 members of the public viewed the photo exhibition to better understand why the Minamata Convention was named after the Japanese city of Minamata. It should be noted that methylmercury poisoning was first discovered due to a mysterious illness found in many people and animals in the region around Minamata Bay. The local population’s high reliance on fish - which is a strong accumulator of mercury through bioaccumulation and biomagnification - was one reason the disaster was so profound. This brought global attention to mercury poisoning and environmental mercury pollution.
Workshops and photo exhibitions like the ones hosted by planetGOLD Mongolia are important tools when it comes to increasing knowledge and raising awareness. They create a much needed call to action, and create a trickle down effect for information sharing amongst mining communities and local stakeholders.
Though mercury is banned in Mongolia, informal miners continue to use it clandestinely. In this light, one member of the local government who participated in the training sessions was unaware of the need to work with artisanal and small-scale gold miners to effect change in the use of toxic chemicals.
“At this workshop, I have learned that the local government and the ASGM community should work in cooperation to abide by and implement the laws and regulations for mercury by using the strategies described in the NAP. As well, I learned about the negative and dangerous impacts of elemental mercury. In my opinion, the series of workshops should be organized to increase and sustain the knowledge. I got to know that mercury harms human health, the environment and the livestock sector. It could even impact the whole soum or local unit, so I will always keep this in mind and spread the knowledge to the local citizens. I was glad to see that the photo exhibition is open to the public and that the informal miners would be able to understand how toxic the mercury is for the community and the environment.”
*The planetGOLD Mongolia team is developing an agenda to organize the third workshop and the photo exhibition on the Minamata Convention on Mercury virtually in Gobi-Altai province. This will be held in cooperation with local government officials and the ASGM community in upcoming months, as it was delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and the ongoing restrictions within Mongolia.