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Mercury Ban! A Bold Move Towards Environmental Sustainability

By Paul Matshona-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

What is the MINAMATA Convention?

The Minamata Convention is a legally binding instrument pushing towards mercury reduction and elimination[1]. Currently, the Convention has 128 signatures and 123 ratifications (including 50 African countries).[2] Zimbabwe signed the Convention on 11 October 2013 to curb mercury use. The objective of this Convention is to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The cabinet of Zimbabwe has undertaken a valorous move to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury (Hg) in the country[3]. The move to ban mercury use is long overdue noting that other sub-Saharan countries such as Ghana, and Mozambique have already banned the use of mercury and are achieving high rates of gold recovery without it, benefiting their health, the health of their communities, and the environment. 

Why ban the use of mercury?

Endorsement of the convention is essential as a move to reduce environmental impacts associated with mercury in ASGM processing. The ban on the use of mercury is a crucial move and long-awaited effort to reduce anthropogenic mercury exposure to miners and community members after so many years of rampant use and disposal into the environment. With hardened support, the ban in the ASM sector is crucial to ensure environmentally sustainable mining communities. Hg is neurotoxic and chronic exposure can lead to severe health impairments. The impacts of Hg can be vast owing to its long-range transport in water bodies and the atmosphere. Its ability to bio-accumulate in environments and its significant health impacts make it a chemical of concern. Of particular, nervous system disorder is a major impact of mercury on vulnerable populations, and especially on a developing nervous system; at high risk are children, pregnant women, and unborn children.

Is Zimbabwe ready to ban the use of mercury?

Zimbabwe is not ready to implement the convention because the sector is not yet formalized and structured for proper regulation, hence control of the artisanal players will be difficult if not impossible. The convention seeks to attain effective and sustainable ways of eliminating the use of mercury by 2022, Adopting a total ban policy will be in the interest of this timeline, rather than the economic effects of the embargo. The economy of Zimbabwe is being sustained by gold mining with the ASGM contributing more than the large-scale miners. The ASM contributes more than 60% of gold deliveries to the Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR).[4] Complete ban of mercury will affect the production of the ASM players- the major contributors in terms of gold deliveries and they are the major handlers of mercury. Banning mercury use without an adequate action plan will have a significant effect on the economy. The problems around mercury banning might have a huge adverse impact on the Government’s projections in the mining sector and the US$12 billion mining industry target. It is necessary to pause on the ratification, create action plans, create policies consistent with the MINAMATA convention, providing for training, financial assistance to the miners in a bid to help to transition into mercury-free gold mining.

In artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), Hg based gold extraction is a common practice. The artisanal small scale miners are responsible for smuggling about 200-350 tonnes of Hg per year[5]. The majority of the gold panners and commercial miners around the country have no alternative means to extract gold besides mercury use despite its detrimental effects on the environment and human life[6]. ASGM represents the greatest source of anthropogenic Hg pollution. Worldwide, around 14 to 19 million people work in ASGM.[7] In Zimbabwe, the ASM sector employs more than five hundred thousand miners and provides a source of livelihood for more than three million people indirectly[8]. Recently Fidelity Printers and Refiners adopted a flexible gold pricing strategy to lure more gold deliveries from the sector.It must be noted thatratifying the Minamata convention will force ASGM to move away from mercury use to other technologies such as gravity concentration methods and gold recovery methods such as chemical leaching methods and the transition will significantly reduce production if adopted.

Is the ASGM industry ready for such technologies?

In an interview with some miners, the majority claimed that they are not well versed with other technologies in gold processing and they required a lot of capital for procurement.

An artisanal miner in Mazowe, who goes by the name Rutendo commented that:

“Mercury is the only way of processing that we know, it is cheap, easier and is not time-consuming ”

Moses Marufu, Disability Empowerment Trust Permanent Secretary added that:

“The miners do not have an immediate alternative they can resort to due to the high cost of procurement while information on the dangers of mercury is not well disseminated in our communities”

The ASGM sector is still in its premature stages characterised by informal activities, and short of regulatory frameworks such as the Gold policy. Ratifying the convention will put a burden on the government through environment reclamation cost since it may be difficult to regulate un-institutionalized miners which add to the pressures already expressed before around coming up with a cadastre system.

What the government should have done before ratification?

  • Formalisation

Before ratifying the convention, it is necessary to formalise the sector for easy regulation. The sector has ten thousand registered miners, yet is home to approximately five hundred thousand miners, which translates to 2% of miners are registered[9]. Challenge will be on regulating the operations of 98% of mines who are nomadic. Gold production is the lifeblood of Zimbabwe at the moment. Ratifying treaties- de facto ban mercury uses- with the potential toreduce gold production is not a move for sustainable economic development especially at a time when the gold price has recorded high in the past decade and uppermost mark and expected to rise thereafter. ASGM is a source of livelihood for more than five hundred thousand individuals and three million indirect beneficiaries, banning mercury will destroy the sole source of livelihood in mining communities and exacerbate poverty levels in already side-lined groups.

  • Gold funding and capital support

The technologies such as gravity concentrators are expensive especially for artisanal miners who are mainly seasonal workers, earning marginal figures. The government though the Gold Mobilisation Fund, tried to provide the necessary equipment required for processing, but a few miners received the fund. On average a small scale gravity concentrator cost, US$5400 and a hammer mill cost US$3800 and is a substantial investment when compared to an average pay rate of US$25 per day determined during a field investigation in artisanal mining communities. This amount earned is wholly spent to cover daily expenses and artisanal miners squander their money as a way to celebrate life after a risk and dangerous work leaving nothing to save for investment. Mercury costs on average US$85-100 per kg which is cheap for a miner who is looking to buy a few grams to process the gold ore. In the end, the miners devote to mercury processing. The government needed to provide gold funds and capital injection into the ASM sector to provide the necessary equipment required to transition from mercury use.

  • Formulate gold processing policies

To ensure that ASGM is accountable for its processing method, it is necessary to instigate the gold processing mechanism in mining communities. However, this renders a no questions asked policy ambiguous. The no questions asked policy in Zimbabwe is a strategy that gives miners power to trade their gold without explaining how and where they acquired the gold. If mercury is to be banned will no question be asked? This will create a challenge when trying to comply with the convention and regulating the local miners. There are no policies that support the convention, there is a need to go back to the drawing board and create policies that help to regulate the use of mercury in Zimbabwe.

  • Mercury Action Plan

Section 4 of Article 7 in the Convention encourages the implementation of mercury action plans to prepare the community for the transition. The government of Zimbabwe has not engaged in any mercury action to ensure a proper transition from mercury processing to mercury-free technologies. Section 4(b) requires that outreach, education programs, and outreach initiatives to promote mercury-free processing. Efforts by Civil Society Organisations(CSOs) to train miners on mercury-free processes and to push on doing without mercury are not adequate to justify an abrupt transition. The number of miners who are not ready to transition to mercury-free methods is worrisome and indicates that more training was necessary to promote transition. The total Hg smuggled in Zimbabwe is still high owing to the ease with which mercury can recover gold with the highest recovery percentages, and to the lack of knowledge on other processing methods.

Section 4(d) in the Convention requires, financial assistance in technology to be one of the ways needed to promote the transition of mining processes. The government has not provided help in that respect to small scale gold miners (SGM). The loan facilities that the government of Zimbabwe has grubstaked through the FPR under the Gold Mechanisation fund, has not been received by many SGM players due to truncated information dissemination.  Approximately there are ten thousand registered small-scale miners in Zimbabwe. About 255 miners benefited from the loan scheme, statistically, the fund was accessed by a meagre 2.5% of the registered small-scale miners. Consequently, a large number of SGM are still using mercury processing methods. In addition, the unavailability of formalization structures in the ASM sector makes it is difficult to assist artisanal gold miners (AGM). This then means the embargo is far out of reach.

What is the way forward?

ASGM Is resuscitating communities during the Covid-19 pandemic, banning the use of mercury without a readily available alternative will greatly affect people’s livelihoods. Is the government ready to provide for relief to several communities that solely depend on mining? The government needs to delay banning the use of mercury, at least until they can provide for other technologies in these communities. Now there is a need for an awareness program on the effects of mercury and encourage reducing the amount of mercury used per tonnes of ore. This can be achieved by applying concentrator. Concentrated ores require less mercury compared to whole ore. The community need to be encouraged to use retorts to reduce mercury leakages into the environment Staged transition from mercury use to technological, mercury-free processing is crucial to ensure that mining communities are not incapaciatated. In an average community, these technologies are not well adapted and implementation of the convention should have been staged and planned adequately. Poor adoption has seen the communities suffering from the rampant use of mercury even when the government had signed the convention.

The intrepid action by the government tries to eliminate the environmental impacts associated with mercury use. Although many miners use mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, it is possible to safely and economically recover gold without it. Mercury-free techniques are safer for miners, their families, and local communities.  They may also help miners market their gold at higher prices in the world market. Other ASGM in neighbouring sub-Saharan countries such as Ghana and Mozambique are achieving high rates of gold recovery without mercury, benefiting their health, the health of their communities, and the environment. However, this requirement was enforced at a time when generally, the Zimbabwean community is not prepared to adopt such methods and the ASGM community is large to manage it. Banning mercury in other countries was achieved in other countries due to their small mining communities, there is a need to formalise the sector, train the mining communities, provide financial assistance and formulate gold beneficiating policies that eliminate the use of mercury in a harmonised and sequential way.

[1] http://mercuryconvention.org/Convention/Text/tabid/3426/language/en-US/Default.aspx

[2] http://www.mercuryconvention.org/Countries/Parties/tabid/3428/language/en-US/Default.aspx

[3] https://www.zbcnews.co.zw/government-set-to-ban-the-use-of-mercury/

[4]  https://www.rbz.co.zw/documents/mps/Monetary-Policy-Statement-17-February-2020.pdf

[5] https://bulawayo24.com/index-id-news-sc-local-byo-74722.html

[6] https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-111

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935120302723

[8] http://www.industriall-union.org/calls-for-safety-standards-in-artisanal-mining-as-zimbabwes-flooded-gold-mines-claim-28-lives

[9] http://www.industriall-union.org/calls-for-safety-standards-in-artisanal-mining-as-zimbabwes-flooded-gold-mines-claim-28-lives

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