Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 765–785 | Cite as

Implications of the Minamata Convention on Mercury for informal gold mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: from global policy debates to grassroots implementation?

  • Samuel SpiegelEmail author
  • Susan Keane
  • Steve Metcalf
  • Marcello Veiga


In October 2013, after years of negotiation, governments from 92 countries signed a historic agreement called the Minamata Convention on Mercury, establishing mandatory measures to curb mercury use and pollution. Article 7 of the Convention stipulates that governments must create National Action Plans to reduce and where feasible eliminate mercury use in artisanal gold mining, a rapidly growing informal sector in much of Africa, with strategies to be monitored by the Convention Secretariat. The purpose of this study is to critically analyze the implications of the Minamata Convention for the artisanal mining sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, which currently depends upon mercury amalgamation for gold extraction. Our analysis draws on examples from Zimbabwe and Tanzania, countries with divergent political challenges but both with expanding artisanal mining sectors. We argue that a paradigm shift is needed to address intertwined technological, political and socio-economic challenges facing marginalized populations in mining communities. We highlight why meeting the Convention targets requires that international donors and national policymakers proactively engage—rather than vilify—artisanal miners who use mercury, prioritizing local knowledge and collaborative community-based decision making to develop effective pollution abatement initiatives in gold mining regions. We further argue that gender-sensitive grassroots empowerment initiatives including microfinance programs are vital to facilitate adopting cleaner technology, as required by Article 7. Finally, the analysis underscores the need for fundamentally reforming national mining policy priorities, recognizing marginalized mining communities’ resource rights and tackling livelihood insecurity as part of efforts to implement the Minamata Convention. In considering what ‘grassroots’ implementation could mean, the article contributes to a growing body of scholarship calling attention to fairness and equity concerns in order to achieve the aims of global environmental agreements.


Minamata Convention on Mercury International environmental agreement Pollution prevention Mercury pollution Small-scale mining Equity Sustainable development 



The authors would like to thank three anonymous peer reviewers who offered valuable comments on this manuscript. The study was possible due to support from the University of Edinburgh Strategic Research Support Fund, the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Trudeau Foundation, the University of British Columbia and the United Nations Environment Programme.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samuel Spiegel
    • 1
    Email author
  • Susan Keane
    • 2
  • Steve Metcalf
    • 3
  • Marcello Veiga
    • 3
  1. 1.Centre of African StudiesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  2. 2.Natural Resources Defense CouncilWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Mining EngineeringUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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