By: David Guzmán, Mercury and Processing Specialist at ARM
March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization acknowledged SARS-CoV-2 (more commonly known as Covid-19) virus transmission as a pandemic. At that time, cases and casualties associated with the disease were 1000 times fewer than registered up to this date. However, lack of preparation from the government and decisions made by individuals have triggered several adverse effects, such as the sanitary or the socio-economic crisis.
Some of the consequences caused by the pandemic are easily predictable and treated quickly by different stakeholders worldwide due to their urgency. However, an issue that has not been properly addressed is how artisanal and small-scale miners have been affected. Currently, around 150 million people are estimated to live, directly or indirectly, from ASM (Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining).
How has the pandemic affected the artisanal and small scale mining sector?
In 2020 alone, it was estimated that 88 million people were pushed into poverty. This effect was highly noted in developing countries with fewer economic resources and capabilities to attend the emergency. It is not surprising that communities found a livelihood alternative in gold ASM in the middle of the financial crisis, especially when the precious metal price skyrocketed in international markets. Four hundred illegal miners were arrested in a conservation area in Indonesia, driven by the pandemic, and 800 illegal miners entered an abandoned mine in Mozambique, making the tunnels collapse due to improper procedures, which resulted in approximately twelve deaths.
Despite there are conditions that encourage gold mining, this is not the rule of thumb. Government-implemented measures to hold virus propagation also impacted gold supply chains and increased rigor in the control of these activities, leading to a reduction of illegal gold production in such cases. There were reductions of the gold price down to 40% in Colombia in informal mining influence areas, and 79 out of 85 gold shops in Ituri, an area in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were forced to close because of an extreme reduction in the demand.
As much as the first and second scenarios seem to have opposite effects, reality proves to be different. Apparently, the main effect is the increase of illegal mining worldwide, maybe because the restrictions set during the pandemic, which affected gold supply chains, also impacted formal and informal production units with a certain degree of control or tracing. Illegal activities are barely affected by these measures and find a way to satisfy not only an orphan demand but also to embrace miners who displace for work because of a lack of alternatives. Data about gold production increase in countries with a strong influence of illegal mining (Colombia, for example) support this hypothesis when comparing 2020 and 2019.
Is there any solution to face the crisis?
This situation brings up several issues, mercury use among them. Despite several exceptions, most artisanal miners use a method, called amalgamation, to collect the gold from the mineral that contains it. Amalgamation uses mercury, which easily makes a homogeneous mix with free gold (amalgam). Then, this amalgam is collected by taking advantage of its density, and it is burned to separate mercury, which evaporates at lower temperatures of gold. The main source of mercury emissions is artisanal and small scale mining because of its indiscriminate use, which reaches values of up to 838 tons per year in the atmosphere, according to the United Nations Environmental Program – UNEP in 2020.
When facing this panorama, it is impossible not to ask yourself: “What’s the solution?”. Even when the disease is aggravated by a situation, the formula is still the same: integral accompaniment. Minamata Convention on Mercury is “an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.” It has 28 signatory countries and prohibits mercury use in mining. However, a prohibition without alternatives is not a complete solution. It is essential for developing projects with a holistic vision that prioritizes the formalization of artisanal miners, proposing sustainable processes that promote innovative technologies for mercury-free gold collection and supporting them in all transversal aspects of their operation. This way, illegality is eliminated, and unemployment is faced by offering a formal, dignifying alternative aiming to fulfill Minamata Convention goals and Sustainable Development Goals.
The pandemic allowed us to think about our vision of the world and the relevance of topics such as public health and weather change. Let’s not wait for another pandemic to start taking action.