Across Africa, from Mali to Tanzania to Zimbabwe, millions of people, including children, work in small gold mines. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a vital source of income, but it is also very dangerous because miners use toxic mercury to separate the gold from the ore.
Mercury is a shiny liquid metal that attacks the nervous system. Exposure can result in life-long disability, and is particularly harmful to children. In higher doses, mercury can kill. Its largest use globally is in small-scale gold mining.
In Tanzania’s small-scale mines – in the informal as well as the formal sector – we have seen with our own eyes how miners mix the mercury into the ore with their bare hands, create a gold-mercury amalgam, and then burn the amalgam over an open flame. Even children do this, unaware of the risk.
Some children in mining areas are exposed to mercury from the moment of their birth. One of them was 12-year-old Erevu, who processed gold with mercury at a mine in Tanzania’s Chunya district and said he suffered from dizziness and headaches every day.
Now, the fight against global toxic pollution has reached a critical milestone: a new treaty on mercury – the Minamata Convention on Mercury – came into effect on August 16. This week, governments are coming together for the first conference of the parties to the convention. African governments played an important role in creating the treaty and should exercise strong leadership in putting it into effect.
The treaty is named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata, where a chemical company caused mass mercury poisoning several decades ago. As a result, many people died or were born with severe disabilities. The Japanese government has compensated about 60 000 victims.
Under the treaty, governments must protect their citizens from the harmful effects of mercury and put controls in place on polluting industries. For mining, the convention obligates governments to promote mercury-free gold processing methods; take special measures to protect vulnerable populations from exposure, including children and women of child-bearing age,; and put an end to particularly harmful practices in gold processing such as burning the mercury-gold amalgam in residential areas.
Governments commit to improving healthcare for populations affected by exposure to mercury. The treaty also regulates mercury use in products and manufacturing processes, emissions from coal-fired power plants, and other industries. To help countries achieve these goals, governments can apply for funds to create mercury reduction programmes.
African governments and nongovernmental organisations played an essential role in the process leading to this new convention. The Africa region strongly pushed for more stringent protections from mercury during the multi-year negotiations. African groups gave a voice to the victims and pressed for fast, effective measures to prevent exposure and treat those already affected by mercury.
African governments can also play a key role in making the convention a success. It is encouraging that 20 African governments have ratified the treaty since its adoption – among them gold producers Ghana, Mali, and Madagascar.
But much more needs to be done to protect people from the harmful effects of mercury.
The 34 African governments that have not ratified the convention should do so, and countries with ratification under way should quicken their pace. East Africa, in particular, is noticeably absent from the ratification effort. The only country to have ratified there is Djibouti. Even countries with important small-scale mining sectors, such as Tanzania and Sudan, have not ratified.
All African governments need to put in place quick, effective measures to prevent their own citizens from suffering toxic mercury exposure. Many governments that have ratified have yet to take concrete steps to put an end to mercury exposure. For starters, they should eliminate some of the most harmful uses of mercury in mining and ensure that no child works with the dangerous metal. Those who are already suffering from mercury poisoning need to be identified promptly and receive adequate medical care. And most important, governments need to ensure that miners use mercury-free gold processing methods.
If governments act now to end mercury use, they can make small-scale gold mining truly beneficial for local communities.
Haji Rehani is an environmental activist and mining expert with Agenda, a Tanzanian nongovernmental organization. Juliane Kippenberg is a child rights expert at Human Rights Watch who has conducted research in artisanal mines in Tanzania, Mali, Ghana, and the Philippines.