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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. As these terms have frequently been debated and their interpretations vary, we follow a long-standing tradition of using the terms “artisanal” and “small-scale” mining interchangeably to refer to small-scale producers’ use of rudimentary technologies of mineral extraction (UNEP 2012b).

  2. Chouinard and Veiga (2008) provide details on the nature of six UN pilot projects, including in Geita and Kadoma, which combined training activities and risk awareness in mining communities as well as capacity building with government officials.

  3. 2010 Mining Act, Part II, Clause 15.

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Acknowledgments

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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Spiegel, S., Keane, S., Metcalf, S. et al. Implications of the Minamata Convention on Mercury for informal gold mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: from global policy debates to grassroots implementation?. Environ Dev Sustain 17, 765–785 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-014-9574-1

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Keywords

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