Mongolian Gold Miners Put Health before Wealth
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Behind the unassuming brick walls of a remote compound in Mongolia’s Mandal district lies what may be part of the solution to the pressing health challenge posed by the use of mercury in artisanal small-scale gold mining.
Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that is especially harmful to developing foetuses and young children. Once emitted, mercury can travel great distances through the atmosphere, causing global contamination of ecosystems, animals and the human food chain.
Despite the dangers, miners continue to use mercury. This year’s UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment found that small-scale gold mining accounts for 35 per cent of mercury emitted into the air and directly threatens the health of an estimated 15 million miners in 70 countries—mainly in Africa, Asia and South America.
However, some of the roughly 100,000 Mongolian small-scale gold miners now have an alternative. Inside the compound, which is surrounded by stark hills and grassy plains dotted with grazing horses and cattle, sits one of only a few mercury-free processing facilities in the country.
“While Mongolia banned mercury use in small-scale mining in 2008 to help protect its population and environment, mercury is still used here,” says Brenda Koekkoek, Programme Officer in the chemicals branch of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The Artisanal Gold Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the sector, estimates that approximately 11 tonnes of mercury are used each year in Mongolia.
Koekkoek sees the facility as part of the solution to continued use and a model for others to follow, particularly since many nations will soon have obligations under the Minamata Convention—a global treaty on controlling mercury use, emissions and releases agreed in January after four years of negotiations convened by UNEP.
“These types of initiatives put Mongolia in a strong place to be able to sign and ratify the convention and comply with its obligations,” she says. “It also provides a great model for other countries to adapt to their needs.”
The privately owned processing plant was replicated from a pilot project set up in Bornuur by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Mongolian government, in consultation with miners and other stakeholders. Other organizations like the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) actively support countries to develop solutions.
The Mandal plant operates 24/7 to cope with the steady stream of miners filing in to pay $10 per tonne to have their ore processed.
The sacks of rock hacked manually from the earth are crushed and put through a gravity sluice to concentrate the gold. At this point in the traditional process, mercury would be added to form an amalgam of gold and mercury that when heated sees the mercury burn off in a toxic vapour and the gold left behind.
In the plant, a shaking table is used to separate the precious metal and allow it to be safely smelted down.
“Miners would be happy if there were facilities like this all over the country: this is a safe process and they recover the same amount of gold as they would through mercury amalgamation,” says Felix Hruschka, a mining engineer consulting with the SDC. “The problem in Mongolia is that there are not enough of such processing plants.”
Enkhbaatar, a grizzled 43-year-old who has been mining gold for 13 years to support his wife and two children, agrees. When the government banned mercury, he looked for alternatives to avoid being branded “a criminal” and to protect his family’s health. Now he uses the plant.
“Everybody is happy to be served by this facility, but when lots of miners bring their ore here they have to queue for a long time,” he says. “I would like to see more of these places built.”
While the overall policy approach for artisanal and small-scale mining varies from country to country, Mongolia—the global host of UNEP’s World Environment Day 2013—is looking to move to a greener and more-sustainable future through renewable energy, ecotourism and other measures.
In the meantime, government officials recognize that small-scale gold mining provides an important livelihood. Gold can represent an excellent method of transferring wealth to rural communities as small-scale producers often get 70 per cent or more of international prices, which is higher than products such as coffee or bananas.
Nonetheless, most small-scale miners scrape by. According to Hruschka, one tonne of ore produces on average 20 grammes of gold, which can be sold for about 700 dollars on the local market. This money has to be shared between up to 15 miners, who may have taken two weeks to produce the ore.
“Although they work with gold, and it is shining and glittering, artisanal miners are in general poor,” says Hruschka.
Still, the recognition of small-scale mining as an important livelihood is why Mongolia’s Ministry of Mining has been working on formalization of the sector and sees such facilities as crucial until they can transit these miners to other sectors.
“Without this processing plant, many people would still be using mercury,” says B. Batbayar, Senior Officer for Artisanal Small-Scale Mining in the ministry. “We plan to build several more plants. However, we are going to shift these miners into other activities over the next five years as the economy grows and we develop infrastructure and further businesses.”