Boys paddle boat in Colombia

United for nature, toward a mercury-free Colombia

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The wealth of a country bathed by two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. A privileged geographical location that gives it a diversity of ecosystems with a large number of fauna and flora species. That is Colombia, the country with the world’s second-highest biodiversity, distinguished as the first nation in the world with the largest number of species of orchids and birds, and the second in diversity of plants, amphibians, freshwater fish and butterflies, some considered the rarest and most exotic ever seen.

With a total of 62,125 registered species and 91 aquatic, coastal, marine and island ecosystems, Colombia has become the epicenter of global celebrations on June 5, World Environment Day, which this year revolves around the protection of biodiversity.

This tribute to the country that is home to 10% of the planet's biodiversity not only represents the commitment of Colombia, but of the global community, to join efforts for nature and for the protection of the environment. To tackle the urgency of the global crisis in which ecosystems find themselves, facing climate change, pollutant emissions, air quality and food security.

Photos of iguana, aves and fish from Colombia
Iguana, marine ecosystem, and Ara Macao | Photo: Juan Manuel Chavarría

Cleaner mining: a challenge for the protection of the environment

The country's megadiverse wealth does not compete with its gold wealth. Both attributes of Colombia focus attention on the need to promote sustainable development with the responsible production and consumption of natural resources.

According to figures presented by the UN Environment Programme in 2018, 38% of mercury emissions in the world correspond to artisanal and small-scale gold mining practices. After Indonesia, Colombia is the fourth-highest emitter of this toxic metal, and 94% of this mercury is emitted by the small-scale mining sector.[1]

This environmental problem represents a threat to the rivers of the most biodiverse regions of Colombia, as well as to the fish and the neighboring populations that consume these species every day as a source of food. How does this happen?

Mineral selector women in Cauca Colombia
Mineral selectors in Cauca | Photo: Juan Manuel Chavarría

Some bad practices use mercury to concentrate gold, forming an amalgam that, when processed, falls into the sediments of rivers and swamps where sulfate-reducing bacteria transform it into methylmercury, a highly toxic compound due to the effects it has on living organisms like inhibiting functions of reproduction, gestation and development.[2]

Based on the latest study by Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia (National Natural Parks System) about the presence of mercury in rivers and Amazon communities, among 26 species of fish analyzed, 17 exceeded the permissible limit by the WHO, which indicates that it must be less than 0.5 micrograms per gram. This means that around 65% of the studied species did not meet the established value and represent a risk of chronic systemic effects caused by their mercury content.[3]

Based on the above and due to the high impact of this polluting substance on the environment and human health, the elimination of mercury in small-scale and artisanal mining practices has become a global challenge to reduce its levels as much as possible and thus protect and recover the ecosystems that are currently vulnerable.

Road to a mercury-free Colombia

Law 1658 of 2013 established a ban on the use of mercury in mining in Colombia, granting a period of five years for miners to make the transition to the use of clean technologies to obtain responsible gold. On July 16, 2018, and after this deadline, the country officially banned the use of mercury in gold mining. This fact was confirmed a year later by the current Government, which ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury and affirmed Colombia’s commitment to regulate emissions and releases of mercury in the world, as well as addressing its threats.

On the route to a country free of this polluting substance, what stands out is the spirit of the national government, local governments, civil society and international cooperation organizations which organize strategies for the total elimination of its use through construction and application of clean technologies, as well as raising awareness and education for mining communities in different regions of the country.

Between 2017 and 2018, 76 gold beneficiation plants were strengthened in the priority regions of the country for the proper transition to technologies free of polluting substances. Likewise, the Ministry of Mines and Energy trained 42,678 gold panners in good practices to avoid the use of mercury in their artisanal activities and thanks to the inter-administrative framework agreement number 0032 of 2016, together with the National Learning Service Institution (SENA), 360 miners from six departments—Antioquia, Bolívar, Santander, Cauca, Nariño and Caldas—were trained in construction, operation and maintenance of equipment for the benefit of sustainable gold mining.

Miners in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, Colombia
Miners in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia | Photo: Juan Manuel Chavarría

In the last six years, Colombia has eliminated the use of close to 90 tonnes of mercury, a figure that outlines a path of hope for the country which, today, takes up the challenge of continuing in this task through the planetGOLD Colombia project: "Integrated Sound Management of Mercury in Colombia’s Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining Sector,” an initiative financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), executed by the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Colombia and which also has the participation of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Health and Social Protection.

The planetGOLD Colombia project's main objective is to eliminate and/or avert 20 tonnes of mercury from the environment through comprehensive intervention with 2,000 miners, 20% of whom must be women, in the regions of: Bajo Cauca Antioqueño, Sur de Bolívar and Cauca. The strategy will provide technical assistance, technology transfer and formalization support, where they will also be able to access financing opportunities for the purchase of equipment that avoids and eliminates the use of mercury. Likewise, these mining communities will participate in awareness-raising processes on the impact of mercury on the environment and health. In the case of women, the risk is higher when they are of childbearing age or pregnant.

Through these types of initiatives and in alliance with the National Government, the challenge of promoting the small-scale and subsistence mining sector in the country is a key factor in strengthening conservation actions, facilitating the sustainable use of natural resources and protecting the country’s biodiversity from mercury contamination.

planetGOLD Colombia Video:

 

Key facts:

About celebrating World Environment Day:

  • Colombia was selected by the United Nations as the host country for the celebration of World Environment Day within the framework of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP25).
  • The celebration is led by the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and has the support of the United Nations Environment Programme and the government of Germany.
  • In the face of the health emergency caused by COVID-19, the event takes place through virtual means and has six informative panels on conservation, green businesses, air quality, climate change, sustainable development and the circular economy. The schedule is at the following link: https://dia-mundial-medio-ambiente-mads.hub.arcgis.com/

About the planetGOLD project in Colombia:

  • The project proposes to establish 3 fixed beneficiation plants in each intervention region, and 6 more mobile ones that will be rotating in the prioritized municipalities to transfer knowledge and form other mining communities.
  • Access to a minimum of 50 credits will be provided to finance clean technologies.
  • At least 3 women mining organizations' access to the gold market will be facilitated
  • The strategy includes a gender dimension and a differential approach to improve, in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, the living conditions and development of the regions.
  • For more information, visit: planetgold.org/colombia

Contact:
Juan Manuel Chavarría, Communications and Pedagogy Specialist
juan.chavarria@undp.org
Cell phone: +57 3127344592

 


[1] United Nations Environment Program (2018). Global mercury assessment.
[2] García C, et al (ed.) (2017). The Minamata Convention. This is how Colombia acts against mercury. Cali, Colombia: WWF-Colombia.
[3] Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, Dirección Territorial Amazonía. El mercurio en comunidades de la amazonía colombiana. (2018). Cartagena - Bogotá, Colombia.

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