From everyday items such as phones and jewellery, to astronauts’ visors and the equipment the network industry uses, gold is vital to modern day economies. But sourcing this raw material does not come without a cost.
The importance and impact of the gold trade has hit South American and African countries harder than other parts of the world. Suriname, Guyana, Sudan, Ghana, are but a few names on the list of impoverished countries which are scarred by the gold trade. Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Miners (ASGM) produce a large part of the gold which is used nowadays, and recent estimates place their market value at over $27 billion a year.
Due to armed conflicts, pandemic-driven unemployment, and the rising gold prices, we are starting to see an increase of people coming into the trade, be them “garimpeiros*” or large corporations.
*Brazilian word for an artisanal miner
Gold can be encountered in many sizes, from nuggets and veins to small particles. Too fine to run through a sluice box or pan, these small particles are leading the environmental problem brought by mining enterprises. The preferred method to extract gold this small is a process called gold-mercury-amalgam(2)and is often used by illegal and small-scale mines.
Mercury serves has a double-edged sword, when the slithery silver metal encounters even the finer gold particles, it absorbs them through metallic bonding and easily separates it from debris, such as sand and mud.
Later, during the refining process, the mixture is heated using a blowtorch. Due to mercury having the lowest vapor point (356ºC) the mercury evaporates, becoming extremely dangerous due to how effortless it’s absorbed by our lungs, leaving a piece of high purity gold behind.
In recent years countries have been working to limit and/or issue a total ban on the usage of mercury following the “Minamata Convention on Mercury” of 2013 due to its wide range of toxic side effects, such as impotence, brain damage, loss of eyesight and touch, and a variety of neurological issues that can prove fatal.
Looking specifically at South America most of the countries have issued bans, however the way in which these bans were enforced is creating a warm bed for the same criminal networks that smuggle guns, gold, and drugs to now join in on the illegal mercury trade. Considering that this element is vital for ASGM it is as an easy way to find extra revenue.
The real damage done to these communities are in a lot of cases still unknown. These countries have low average wages and have been, in some cases, working with mercury for generations. The lack of education and the slow acting effect of mercury poisoning creates blissful ignorance towards quicksilver (liquid metal mercury). Mercury tests are expensive (3) and the treatments have stigmas and/or rumours attached to them that keep people away, but on the streets and mines the side effects are both seen and felt.
While bans have been enforced by governments, and in some cases even the army is called upon to fight the illegal mining, in most cases there is no solution or alternative provided by the governments.
Taking Suriname as an example, around 20% of its GDP is dependent on gold and oil export, 60% of that gold comes from ASGM’s, where mercury is the preferred method of extraction. It’s necessary that governments start subsidising education and re-gearing programs so that they can either increase the use of more sustainable methods or start shifting the miners and their families towards different industries by offering jobs and education.
Otherwise, the only result is running “small fish” out of business for the gain of large foreign gold-mining companies where the government has a stake, while continuously feeding the growth of the illegal mercury and gold trade.
One of the biggest dangers to humans brought about by mercury usage is when mercury settles at the bottom of waterbodies. Once settled, bacteria start converting it into the organometallic methylmercury. Methylmercury has been linked to several brain conditions and pregnancy issues, mostly due to how it effortlessly crosses through cell membranes. It has also been found to increase the likelihood of developing cardiovascular complications.
One of the scariest parts of methylmercury is that most organisms have a hard time excreting it. Even in humans it takes about 50 days to halve. In wildlife it affects mainly fish due to its severe bioaccumulation. Methylmercury is then spread up the food chain, affecting , progressively more animals and humans on the chain.
We see many plans for net zero emission and sustainability with aims at 2050, but sometimes shadowed, are other very pressing issues such has the severe loss of biodiversity and changes to ecosystems, deforestation, pollutions of waterways, continues greenhouse gas emissions and the growing scarcity of raw materials.
The necessity for further raw material exploration is at the at the root of many of these problems, while not a fix, a more circular and sustainable economy (4), with a cemented use of refurbished gear and with a bigger role for e-waste recyclers (5) could help in diminishing the needs for virgin resources.
Our world is at a critical state and change needs to come more accurately, it’s time to stop procrastinating.
In the words of Robert Swan “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”.