It is a fact that mercury cannot be used in extraction operations in the country. But, how do you get small miners to cast it aside when it gave them good results at a low cost?
Article for Revista Semana – Mercury special edition (july 2018)
The use of mercury by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) can be explained due to four main reasons: 1) Because it allows gold to be obtained faster, simpler and cheaper; 2) Because the low level of formalization of the mining activity leads extraction decisions and benefits to be considered based on speed and low costs, without regard for productivity, compliance with environmental laws and workplace safety and health laws; 3) Because the access of miners to information on mercury-free processes and technologies has been historically highly limited or inexistent; 4) Due to the difficulties they stumble upon when accessing credits that generate resources to embark in technological transformations.
In line with the above, Mercury Law 1658 of 2013 established a series of strategies that, if adequately implemented, would help ASM overcome the most important challenges and eliminate mercury use as a result. But, what is the implementation status of these strategies on ASM the month this Law comes into effect?
Articles 3, 6 and 7 highlight the need for research, development, transfer, training, technical advice, process implementation and measures to limit and eliminate the use of mercury within the industry. In light of this, the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Sena, several universities, NGOs, consulting companies and private companies have developed tailor-made strategies to bring small miners closer to clean, simple and fast technologies. While these require a greater economic investment than technologies that require the use of mercury, they have demonstrated a significant increase in the recovery percentage that can be accomplished through their implementation (a 20+ percent increase depending on the type of mineral). This constitutes an incentive to choose clean technologies. If, on top of the stated measures, we added the increase in the price of mercury (over one hundred percent since late 2017) due to import and trade controls (article 5), therein lies another incentive for miners to consider new alternatives.
In article 10, the Law refers to incentives for the reduction and elimination of mercury use in the mining sector by means of soft loans via Banco Agrario, Finagro or some other specialized State agency. Even though efforts have been made toward an increased use of banking services by the industry in order to enable miners to access loans, the process has presented another challenge for ASM in Colombia: that it does not count with the information and financial support required by the banking system. This partially explains the numbers of the Ministry of Mines which show that just two loans have been issued in the entire country to small miners (both coal miners), and another 18 are under evaluation, out of which only one corresponds to gold mining.
Credits are important for miners to be able to finance studies that allow them to identify the spectrum of technological possibilities and processes that are suitable for the characteristics of their mines, count with professionals that provide advice in regard to the process and, finally, to undergo the necessary technological transformation. Even though a greater coverage is required, some studies and professionals have been hired mainly by the Ministry of Mines and International Cooperation, developing mercury elimination plans to be implemented based on resource availability.
On the other hand, in article 11 the Law invites small-scale informal workers to legalize their status through the Subcontracting for Mining Formalization and the Restitution of Areas for Formalization legal frameworks. Nowadays, the entry into the legal system of small-scale miners strongly depends on these legal frameworks and on the special reserve areas (ARE). In May of this year there were 92 registered ARE (with 2,784 miner awardees), 77 formalization subcontracts (1,170 miner awardees) and 2 area assignments. In addition, 2,328 Mining Product Units (UPM) are undergoing a process of formalization. These numbers evidence an increase in excess of 150% in relation to 2017 figures.
As an answer to the question at the beginning of this article, even though, as mentioned by the General National Comptroller’s Office in its October, 2017 report, there is no updated and reliable information on the number of mercury users countrywide to allow for an accurate knowledge of the number of UPM and small-scale miners have managed to eliminate the use of this chemical, there are success stories in regions such as Nariño, Caldas, Cauca, South Bolivar and Antioquia. And what is more important, the entry barriers for some artisanal and small-scale miners had to eliminate mercury use in a sustainable manner have been reduced. Now, the challenges for the new government are analyzing the lessons learned so far, continue with the successful strategies and scale up the process with those miners that have not yet managed to eliminate mercury use in their working process.
Natalia González is an economist with studies in local development and environmental economics. Since 2009, she has worked in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector in Colombia, for various international cooperation projects and working directly with the mining communities. She is currently the territorial director of the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). Before working at ARM, she collaborated for a year as a new initiatives consultant at the Amigos del Chocó Foundation, in Colombia. Complementing her work, Natalia has worked as a teacher and researcher, especially on issues related to the economic valuation of environmental impacts, mercury and failures of institutional coordination in the gold mining sector in Colombia.