ARM advocates for gradual reduction in mercury use. Would it not be better to ban mercury use worldwide?

No.  The mercury issue is not only an environmental problem. The mitigation, reduction and elimination of mercury in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) in the world are a complicated subject that requires global coordination and an agreement to act from many different parties. The exclusive focus on prohibition produces undesirable effects, most notably the increased marginalization of mining communities and negative impacts on health and environment. Instantly banning the use of mercury would only foment a black market and make matters even worse.

For the vast majority of the fifteen million people that depend on gold mining for their livelihood, mercury is a technology that is available and accessible. The gradual elimination of mercury in Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) will require holistic strategies, which include:

  • Determining where mercury is used and taking measures to educate the miners and the communities about its impacts and best practices.
  • Mitigating risk of mercury contamination to people and ecosystems by promoting concentration and the use of retorts.
  • Incorporating alternative technologies that can be easily and efficiently adopted by artisanal miners.
  • Creating financial and credit systems which will allow miners to access funding for technological advance.
  • Facilitating access to new markets in order to create incentives for formalization and the progressive elimination of mercury use.

Miners feel the damages of mercury on their own bodies, environment, communities, and are willing to make changes in their methods when they have the possibility to do so. In order for these changes to become reality, it is necessary to legalize and recognize ASM activity and to assure technology transfer and capacity building, as well as access to infrastructure and basic support services.


What is artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM)?

ASM is labor intensive but requires little specialist technology, knowledge, or skill. The mining method differs depending on geology. For example, Colombian miners in Oro Verde pan for gold in water, whereas those working for Aurelsa in Peru carry out hard-rock mining using dynamite and machinery to extract ore, which is then processed to extract gold.

ASM attracts economically disadvantaged and vulnerable people seeking a higher income. It is also seen as an important alternative to less attractive or profitable activities. It is also a chance to improve economic situations. These miners produce just 10-15% of global gold supplies, but make up 90% of the labor force in the gold industry.


How big is the Artisanal and small scale mining sector?

Globally, between 60 and 100 million people depend on Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) for survival. The 15 to 20 million ASM miners work in harsh and dangerous conditions to produce just 10-15 percent of global gold supplies, but they make up 90 percent of the global work force in gold extraction.


What challenges do ASM miners face?

Globally, the roughly 100 million ASM miners are characterized by high levels of poverty and are often from the most disadvantaged part of society. They often do not receive the full price for their gold – sometimes as little as 70% of the internationally agreed prices. Most mining communities lack basic sanitation, clean and safe drinking water, have poor housing, little or no access to education and healthcare and are financially unstable. Lack of transparency in supply chains makes it virtually impossible for consumers to know where and under what conditions the gold in their jewelry was mined.

Mining laws are usually geared towards large-scale industrial mining and governments tend to give the large-scale industry preferential mining rights. This leaves small-scale miners, who find it hard to access legal mining rights, more vulnerable and pushes them into informal or illegal operations where working conditions are hazardous and health and safety measures are non-existent. The unskilled handling of toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide poses severe risks to miners’ health and natural environment.


How do artisanal and small-scale miners use chemicals to extract gold?

Mining methods vary according to geology of the area. The gold found in riverbeds is easier to extract from the surface without chemicals using just basic tools, river terraces, or digging pits. Hard-rock mining underground extracts ore which is processed on the surface to extract the gold. Most commonly, it is mixed with mercury, which captures the gold to form a mixture known as amalgam. The amalgam is then heated which evaporates the mercury, leaving residual gold and other metals.

Some small-scale miners use cyanide as an alternative to mercury. Cyanide leaches the gold from the crushed ore, dissolving it in the water. As this process requires substantial investment, special training, a longer processing time, and significant financial capacity, it is less widely used by ASM miners. However when used properly, cyanide enables miners to eliminate mercury completely and increase gold recovery rates.


What is the impact of chemicals used in mining?

The environmental impacts of ASM depend on where it occurs, but can include deforestation, land degradation through air, water and soil pollution from dust, mud or toxic substances, as well as impact on local wildlife. By working with the mining organizations before certification, it is possible to drastically reduce these impacts with the proper support and incentives. ASM is not significantly dirtier per unit of output than other mining activities, and since ASM processes much less ore than large-scale mining per ounce of gold, the magnitude of its impact on the land is much smaller.


Where are the miners ARM works with?

Fairmined gold comes from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. More mining organizations from Latin America are expected to join the system, and work with miners in Africa and Asia to bring them into the system has also begun.


What kind of miners does ARM work with?

The scope of the work only covers ASM miners and not medium or large-scale industrial mining. This is where Fairmined certification can have the most impact. Other initiatives support improvements in medium- and large-scale mining such as the Responsible Jewellery Council.


What is a Support Organization?

Support Organizations are the local partners that have easier and more direct contact to the miners and are specialists in local issues and laws. ARM does not work in any countries or with any mining companies without also having a partnership with a local organization, and we are always looking to expand our network of partners worldwide.


I have questions I would like to ask the miners. Can I get in touch with them?

Yes, but remember to contact us in good time to make the arrangements. Not all miners have access to the internet, and they can be hard to reach by phone as most miners work underground or in other remote areas where there is little or no telephone coverage.


What language do the miners speak?

The miners speak their native language and rarely others. If you want to interview and/or visit a miner in Latin America for example you should speak Spanish or provide a translator.


Can I go visit a mining community?

Yes. Get in touch with us and we will help you plan it. Contact us in good time as the planning takes time and some mining communities have special schedules for visits. The miners are happy to show you their communities but remember that in order to receive you, some of them have to take the day off from the work in the mine which affects the gold production and their work schedules.


Would it not be better if they stopped mining and found another way of life?

If Artisanal and Small-scale Mining is carried out in a responsible manner, it can be both socially and environmentally sustainable. Most Artisanal and Small-scale miners have no available alternatives. Mining, which is extremely hard work, provides their only possible income. ASM has great potential to create sustainable economic development in communities otherwise often trapped in poverty.



Are you a miner? See our Miners Sections and FAQ.

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Our Vision

Our vision is to transform the ASM in a formalized, organized and profitable activity that uses efficient technologies and is socially and environmentally responsible; that it progressively develops within a framework of good governance, legality, participation and respect for diversity;
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