MAC: Mines and Communities

First UN Treaty on Mercury Control

Published by MAC on 2013-01-28
Source: Indian Country Today,

It seems that the first binding pact to reduce mercury emissions has somewhat dodged the issue of mercury use in artisanal gold mining.

The treaty calls for "countries with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force to reduce and - if possible - eliminate the use of mercury in such operations."

This hardly seems a radical, or indeed progressive, position. It will be interesting to see how such national plans aim to develop the sector based on sustainable livelihoods for miners' communities, rather than just demonising them.

It has also angered indigenous negotiators because the treaty's preamble refers to "communities" rather than "Peoples", which sets a retrograde step in bundermining the international standard set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Previous article on MAC: Mercury poisoning and the gold curse

New mercury treaty leaves artisanal gold miners in limbo

Cecilia Jamasmie

21 January 2013

The first legally binding pact to curb mercury pollution, approved over the weekend by over 140 nations, will rewrite the rules on how the mercury can be used around the world. However it is not clear how the treaty will impact small-scale gold miners in the developing world, who suffer the worse health consequences from the toxic element exposure.

"The scientific evidence is so incontestable ... and the health impacts are so debilitating," Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told The Guardian.

"We want to find a way in which mercury can be taken out of the small-scale gold mining sector. Unbeknown to many of the people who are engaged in this gold mining, it is a very harmful compound, " he added.

According to the UN report on artisanal gold mining, this activity is the largest source of global mercury pollution. It is also the only source of income for as many as 15 million people in 70 countries, mostly poor ones.

A decade ago, Switzerland and Norway began pushing for an international treaty to limit mercury emissions, a process that culminated in the adoption of an accord Saturday after an all-night session that capped a weeklong conference in Geneva and previous such sessions over the past four years.

But the ruling only requires that countries with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force to reduce and - if possible - eliminate the use of mercury in such operations.

Governments also approved exceptions for some uses such as large measuring devices for which there are no mercury-free alternatives; vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative; and products used in religious or traditional activities.

Switzerland, Norway and Japan each contributed $1 million to get the treaty started, but U.N. officials say tens of millions more will be needed each year to help developing countries comply. The money would be distributed through the Global Environment Facility, an international funding mechanism.

The U.N. Environment Program said the treaty would be signed later this year in the southern Japanese city of Minamata. After that, 50 nations must ratify it before it comes into force, which officials think won't happen until late 2017 or 2018.

Mercury Treaty Falls Short of Tough Measures and 'Indigenous Peoples'

Gale Courey Toensing

Indian Country Today

24 January 2013

A new and legally binding international treaty to reduce harmful emissions of mercury was adopted by more than 140 states at the 5th International Negotiating Committee session at the Minimata Convention on Mercury at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 19. But representatives of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus expressed disappointment that the treaty fell short on some of the tougher measures they had hoped for and failed to include the term "Indigenous Peoples."

However, the fact that Indigenous communities around the world suffer disproportionate impacts of mercury contamination was recognized in the document's preamble "as a result of a monumental effort carried out by representatives of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus attending the INC5 95th (International Negotiating Committee) negotiations," the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and the California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA). said in a joint press release January 23.

"The term Indigenous ‘communities' rather than ‘Peoples' was used in an important preambular paragraph addressing specific impacts. Neither Indigenous Peoples nor communities were mentioned in the operative text, despite proposals for wording using ‘Peoples' presented by the Indigenous Caucus," the organizations said.

The United Kingdom and France stated outright that they could not accept the term "Indigenous Peoples" in either the preamble or operative text despite their votes in favor of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007, the organizations said.

Representatives of the Indigenous Caucus made several interventions in the plenary and met with states and regional groups throughout the session. The Indigenous Caucus received strong support for including "Indigenous Peoples" in both the preamble and text from Nepal and Canada, which proposed including "Indigenous Peoples" while highlighting the Arctic and its vulnerability to the global transport of mercury. The United States, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and several Latin American countries also supported the language, but could not overcome the objections from France and United Kingdom in the drafting process, which is consensus-based.

The new treaty aims to cut mercury pollution from artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, utility plants and a host of products and industrial processes, by setting enforceable limits and encouraging shifts to different processes and products in which mercury is not used, released or emitted. Mercury is a natural element that cannot be created or destroyed. It has been a known poison for centuries. Mercury is released into the air, water and land from gold mining, coal-powered plants, and from discarded electronic or consumer products such as electrical switches, thermostats and dental amalgam fillings. It accumulates in fish and goes up the food chain, posing the greatest risk of nerve damage to pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children. The World Health Organization says there are no safe limits for the consumption of mercury and its compounds, which can also cause brain and kidney damage, memory loss and language impairment.

But the treaty only requires that nations with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, one of the biggest sources of mercury releases, to draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force to reduce and - if possible - eliminate the use of mercury in such operations, according to an Associated Press report. Governments also approved exceptions for some uses such as large measuring devices for which there are no mercury-free alternatives; vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative; and products used in religious or traditional activities, the report said.

Parnuna Egede, an advisor on environmental issues for the Inuit Circumpolar Council - Greenland explained why it was important to include Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the treaty and why the treaty does not go far enough in reducing mercury emissions. "Mercury reaches the Arctic region solely through long-range transportation from other regions of the world," Egede said. "In this otherwise pristine environment, Arctic Indigenous Peoples are heavily impacted by mercury through their traditional diet. It is therefore disappointing that provisions on atmospheric emissions came out rather weak, with a mix of legally binding and voluntary measures. It will probably be decades before we can actually measure declines of mercury levels in the environment."

Other Indigenous representatives pointed out that although the treaty prohibits new mercury mines, the long time-frame for closing existing mines combined with weak language on emissions reduction from existing sources means there will be no immediate relief from exposure to the highly toxic element for the members of many communities whose health, especially the health and development of babies and unborn children, is severely affected through their traditional foods and other sources.

The approved preambular paragraph highlights the effects of mercury on Indigenous communities overall. "Noting the particular vulnerabilities of Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities because of the biomagnification of mercury and contamination of traditional foods, and concerned about indigenous communities more generally with respect to the effects of mercury ..."

A representative from Bolivia stated for the official record that the preamble's final compromise language referring to "communities" rather than "Peoples" was "rather worrying," because it would set a precedent that undermines the international standard set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus agreed.

Attorney Danika Littlechild, who led the International Indian Treaty Council's delegation at INC5, acknowledged the Indigenous Caucus's successes in achieving recognition of mercury contamination's devastating impacts on Indigenous communities around the world, halting new mining as well as the inclusion of a specific article on health which was another objective of the Caucus. "This is the first new multi-lateral environmental Convention to be negotiated at the United Nations since the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007," she said. "We cannot understand why states which voted in favor of the Declaration refused to include the term ‘Indigenous Peoples' which is so important for the full recognition of our rights and status in the international arena. It is clear that we still have a lot of work to do in the fight for our recognition and rights within the environmental program of the U.N."

Jackie Keliiaa, vice-president of the Board of Directors for the California Indian Environmental Alliance, said it was "encouraging that a number of countries, including the United States and Canada, expressed support for including "Indigenous Peoples" in the document and for acknowledging the disproportionate effects of mercury exposure on Indigenous Peoples across the world. "We will continue to build on the valuable progress we have made in the implementation of the Convention," Keliiaa said.

The U.N. Environment Program said the treaty will be signed later this year in the southern Japanese city of Minamata, for which it is to be named, the AP reported. After that, 50 nations must ratify it before it comes into force, which officials predicted would happen in three to four years.

Minimata disease, a severe neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning, was discovered in the late 1950s because of methylmercury escaping from the city's industrial wastewater. The illness, which sickened people who ate contaminated fish, killed hundreds and left many more badly crippled.

Governments Strike First Global Mercury Control Treaty

Environment News Service

26 January 2013

GENEVA, Switzerland - A worldwide ban on the manufacture, export and import of batteries and other products that contain mercury will be in place by 2020 under the provisions of the world's first treaty agreed by 147 governments at a United Nations forum in Geneva.

Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems.

In the presence of bacteria, mercury can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury easily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children, is of greatest concern.

On the treaty's list of products to be banned are soaps and cosmetics containing mercury, switches and relays, certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps.

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also marked for phase-out by 2020.

Exceptions were made for ‘button cell' batteries used in implantable medical devices, vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative, as have products used in religious or traditional activities.

Global and legally-binding, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was reached Jan. 19 after "complex and often all-night sessions," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environmental Programme, UNEP, which convened the talks.

The treaty takes its name from Japan's Minamata Bay, contaminated with some 27 tons of deadly organic mercury from industrial waste from 1932 to 1968.

More than 2,000 people who ate fish from the bay have died and over 10,000 others have received financial compensation from Chisso, the petrochemical and plastics factory that discharged the mercury, according to Japan's National Institute for Minamata Disease.

"Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come," Steiner said.

Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for Environment, agrees. "This new treaty will bring benefits to all populations around the world, including the citizens of the EU, given the long distances that mercury can travel in the air."

"Pregnant women, infants and children are at particular risk from mercury in the food-chain," he said, "and this treaty will bring about significant decreases to their exposure to this toxic substance."

Mercury circulates through land, water, and the atmosphere, and its chemical form changes in each domain, explains Yoshiaki Yasuda, Department of International Affairs and Environmental Sciences, National Institute for Minamata Disease, Ministry of the Environment, Japan.

The new treaty covers all phases of the mercury cycle, from primary mining to waste disposal, including trade provisions, rules for artisanal and small scale gold mining, products containing mercury and mercury emissions to air.

It calls for pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating the effects.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury covers the direct mining of mercury, as well as export and import of the metal, and safe storage of waste mercury.

It places controls on mercury and mercury reductions in products, processes and industries ranging from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs, to the cement and coal-fired power sectors.

Using mercury to extract gold poses health risks to artisanal miners and the treaty covers this use.

And when issues arise in the future, there is a provision in the agreement for future development so that further action can be taken.

"The new treaty is a forceful driver towards a comprehensive mercury phase-out, and we are proud to see that many EU concepts and ideas have made its way into the text," Commissioner Potocnik.

Early adoption of the Minamata Convention is high on his agenda.

"The EU has fought for a global mercury treaty for almost seven years - and now we are there," Potocnik said. "We have reached a robust, balanced and dynamic environmental agreement."

Steiner said nations "have laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century."

"I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible," he said.

But both men know it will take time to reduce levels of mercury in the environment.

"Whilst the EU has an overarching strategy for controlling mercury at all stages of the mercury life-cycle, such controls are unfortunately lacking in many parts of the world," said Potocnik.

"It would be unrealistic," said the commissioner, "to expect more than 100 countries around the world, with economies and living conditions significantly different to those of European citizens, to simply live up to our environmental standards here and now."

Calling for a holistic approach to mercury reduction based on broad formalization processes

Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) press release

15 January 2013

Geneva - Reducing and eliminating the use of mercury in Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM) is no doubt a complicated issue and a big challenge that needs the attention and engagement of many different parties. The use of mercury threatens the environment, human health and moreover the lives of the miners using it, their families and communities. The Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) recognizes that processes need to be implemented to reduce mercury use and insists that these processes must take precedence in formalization of the sector and in creating alternatives and opportunities for Artisanal and Small-scale miners.

ARM welcomes the report "Mercury - Time to Act" presented by UNEP and the new data on mercury use, and invites governments and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to extend the proposed holistic approach for ASGM in chapter "Acting Now" beyond measures such as introduction of techniques and mercury capturing devices, which mainly address only the symptoms. The causes of all environmental and occupational health and safety deficiencies in the ASGM sector, among which mercury emissions are only one of many problems, are poverty, marginalization and exclusion from the mining sector. A true holistic approach needs to be based on national policies aiming for development of the ASGM sector, sustainable livelihoods for miners' communities and inclusion of ASGM in the formal economy. ARM also calls for disclosure and public accessibility of the database used to compile the statistics published in the report as well as of other available data and new information on the issue to facilitate further public participation, research and additional interpretations. It is of central importance that all interested parties have access to the methodologies adopted in the assessment of ASGM mercury data.

Artisanal and Small-scale miners and ARM continue to underscore the importance of national governments implementing formalization processes and politics for training, access to clean technologies and credit for the ASGM sector. The implementation of these processes requires a long term vision. Not implementing such policies will only lead to:

It is commonly accepted that ASGM plays one of the most important roles in generating direct and indirect income for millions of impoverished people and therefore in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, and ARM continues to insist that miners must be heard and included in discussions and initiatives affecting them.

ARM strongly opposes the generated criminalization and demonization of ASGM that almost always fail to mention the complexity of the issue and fail to account for the fact that ASGM provides 90% of the workforce in international gold mining and supports the livelihood of 70 to 100 million people in rural areas worldwide.

This sector is here to stay, and the issue of mercury is not one that can be solved by simple solutions.

- ENDS -

For more information please contact:

Maria Laura Barreto, Chair of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, who is available for interviews in Geneva.
tel: +33 6 61 36 12 30
Siri Teilmann-Ibsen, Communications Coordinator.
tel: (+574) 3324711

Notes to editors:

The Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) is an independent, global-scale, pioneering initiative established in 2004 to enhance equity and wellbeing in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities. ARM is committed to social justice and environmental responsibility as the values driving the transformation of ASM.

ARM's vision is for ASM to become a formalized, organized and profitable activity that uses efficient technologies, that is socially and environmentally responsible, that increasingly develops within a framework of good governance, legality, participation and respect for diversity, and increases its contribution to the generation of decent work, local development, poverty reduction and social peace in our nations, driven by a growing consumer demand for sustainable minerals and ethical jewelry.

For more information on ARMs position on mercury use go to:

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