Peter Wall Institute International Research Roundtable 2015-16

Miners, Minerals and Minamata: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Artisanal Gold Mining and Sustainable Development

Artisanal Gold Mining (AGM) supports 15-20 million livelihoods worldwide, with up to ten times that number of indirect dependents. Overall, artisanal miners operate in over 70 countries, accounting for 12-18% of global mineral production (IIED 2014; UNEP 2013). AGM can provide better wage creation for rural communities than agriculture, fishing or forestry, (Siegel & Veiga, 2009), but has traditionally been seen in a negative context i.e. illegality, land-use conflicts, social marginalization, gender discrimination, child labor, and poor environmental performance. Consequently, AGM has received a small proportion of development aid relative to its contribution towards rural livelihoods in Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In recent decades, academic institutes, the United Nations, and development agencies promote advancement of AGM as a livelihood strategy, with a growing body of literature and continued development of best practices to minimize adverse social and environmental impacts. Despite recent progress, complex challenges remain for scientists, practitioners, policy makers and bi-lateral cooperation to support the AGM sector at global, regional and local scales. Given the global nature of mineral supply chains, trade and growing patterns of consumption to meet emerging demands, international cooperation must be encouraged for vulnerable populations in developing and emerging economies to harness the potential of and equitably benefit from mineral resource endowments.

Canada is home to 57% of the world’s mining companies (OECD, 2014) and about 2,400 Canadian mining and exploration properties are located in developing countries (DFATD, 2015). Recognition of the sector’s connection to poverty alleviation and conflict mitigation between artisanal miners and large-scale mining companies has rapidly increased in the last decade (ICMM, 2009). Despite numerous international conferences and initiatives seeking to address policy issues on mining and sustainable development, few acknowledge AGM directly. In many cases, artisanal mining is considered a peripheral issue in the extractive industries, rather than a sector in its own right. Conventions, standards and platforms that mention artisanal mining such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards, the Global Reporting Initiative’s Mining and Metals Supplement, and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, have emerged in recent years. In contrast, voluntary principles on human rights, the Extractive Industries’ Transparency Initiative (EITI), and the International Council on Mining and Metals’ (ICMM) Sustainable Development Principles fail to discuss AGM within a clearly articulated context.

AGM contributes to more than 37% of global anthropogenic mercury (Hg) emissions by amalgamation processes to extract gold from concentrated or whole ore (UNEP, 2013). Today, this represents almost 1,500 tons of mercury being released into air, soil and aquatic environments. Owing to its infinite persistence, Hg contamination is a legacy that transcends generations, geopolitical boundaries, environmental media and trophic levels. Recognition of mercury as a global pollutant is addressed directly by the Minamata Convention with the objective to reduce, and where possible, eliminate its use in industrial applications to safeguard human and ecosystem health (UNEP, 2013). Minamata is also the first Convention that explicitly targets artisanal mining (Article 7) through legislative reform, awareness raising, technology transfer and capacity development at operational and strategic levels. Despite prospects for poverty reduction through mining revenues, public health impacts of mercury use are severe and illicit trade remains a persistent issue for national governments.

With the recent adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury in 2013, the global community urgently requires solutions to advance, sustain and support artisanal miners and their families. Interventions must consider development perspectives well beyond issues associated with mercury. Due to the complex socio-ecological linkages associated with AGM, any meaningful dialog must consider its role in local communities, regional cooperation, global markets and broader sustainable development initiatives. Assessments of the social, economic and environmental impacts associated with AGM require integrated and interdisciplinary approaches to identify knowledge gaps and prioritize key development challenges at the leading edge of the post-2015 development agenda. 

The roundtable objective is to: i) Identify knowledge gaps, ii) prioritize research areas and iii) propose solutions addressing multi-scale issues in AGM to support knowledge mobilization, strengthen partnerships and target key areas for intervention and future research grant development. Major outputs include academic publications in high impact journals, infographic and public outreach materials, an agenda for action and online knowledgesharing platform, an agenda for priority international research projects as well as public events.


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The MOA Cultural Event on December 3, 2015 is open to the public. See event details here and please register here.