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Mercury use by Uganda’s small-scale gold miners


New programme seeks to make small-scale gold mining safer, cleaner and more profitable

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | A new five year project is seeking to eliminate mercury use among Uganda’s artisanal and small scale miners.

The project which is targeting 4,500 artisanal miners working in 11 mines around the country is aimed at reducing the use of mercury by 15 tonnes over the next five years. It also intends to support the formalization of the artisanal gold mining sector and increase access to finance.

It is hoped that these interventions will eventually lead to the adoption of mercury-free technologies and allow access to more responsible and traceable gold supply chains in Uganda.

A virtual inaugural inception workshop on Nov. 23 brought together Ugandan mining governance authorities and the technical services of the mining administration to introduce the key themes and priorities of the project.

“Artisanal gold mining is a critical source of livelihood for many in Uganda and an important opportunity for economic development,” said Ludovic Bernaudat, the head of UNEP’s GEF chemicals and waste portfolio.

Both women and men are active in the artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) sector but their representation varies from one region to another. For instance, in districts like Kisoro, in southwestern Uganda, women do not make up a high percentage of those working in ASGM production and trading, while in Karamoja region, in the northeast of Uganda, there are mine sites which are comprised of over 90% women miners.

On average, women’s representation in the sector is estimated to be about 45%, and women are deemed to be at a high risk of mercury exposure because they are often engaged in the processing and washing stages, where exposure to mercury is high.

Through PlanetGold Uganda project, a programme that seeks to make small-scale gold mining safer, cleaner and more profitable, artisanal and small-scale gold miners will be introduced to solutions to the environmental and social challenges in the sector and help them transition to more responsible gold mining practices,

The five-year project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and will be executed by the international non-profit organisation, IMPACT, in partnership with Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the country’s Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM).

Mercury use

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the world’s largest source of anthropogenic emissions of mercury pollution and the partners will work together with local communities to reduce the use of mercury and improve the health and lives of local mining communities. The Ugandan project is part of a global programme similarly implemented in 23 countries.

In Uganda, gold holds great livelihood significance as an important source of income and employment to miners and their dependents.  An estimated 400,000-600,000 women and men work in the wider artisanal and small-scale mining sector. However, close to 31,600 are specifically involved in gold mining in the districts of, Amudat, Buhweju, Busia, Kassanda, Kisoro, Moroto, and Namayingo.

Some small and medium-sized gold production operations exist with increasing mechanization but the majority of those working in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector rely on manual methods of gold extraction.

While the quantities that miners are extracting and processing are very small, the use of mercury is very common with 73% of Uganda’s artisanal gold produced using mercury.  According to reports, up to 15 tonnes of mercury is released into the environment annually.

Since 2008, which saw the onset of the gold rush across Uganda, officials from the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM) say artisanal and small scale gold mining activities have risen by 40% across Uganda’s gold-rich districts of Mubende and Kassanda in central Uganda, Karamoja in northeastern Uganda, Buhweju in western Uganda and Namayingo and Busia in southeastern Uganda.

With the urge to make money quickly, the miners have thrown caution to the wind and are deploying the most rudimentary means to mine the gold, thanks to the local industry’s lack of regulations.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to mercury – even small amounts – may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, as well as pose a threat to the development of the child in the womb and early in life.

Mercury has also been noted to cause among other health conditions-brain damage, digestive problems, a weakened immune system and loss of vision. Most of these ailments manifest over time.

People who burn the gold usually take in large doses of mercury because they directly inhale the metals but those who may get it after eating food that is contaminated with mercury take it in slowly and it accumulates over time.

Mercury also contaminates the soil, water, air, and the equipment that is used. It is highly toxic to miners and others who come in direct contact with it—particularly when vaporized or among children and pregnant women. Mercury emitted to the air can also circulate around and contaminate water, fish, and wildlife far from the mine from which it was released.

In 2019, Uganda ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Yet, despite Uganda being a signatory to the Minamata and the International Labour Organisation conventions that banned the use of mercury globally, the heavy metal remains in use across Uganda’s artisanal gold mines.

A 2012 report authored by UNEP titled, “Analysis of formalization approaches in the artisanal and small scale gold mining sector experiences: A case of Uganda,” detailed the constant use of mercury in the Uganda mining sector.

“We are eager to partner with the PlanetGold Uganda project to implement our commitments to reduce and eliminate the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining,” said Dr. Barirega Akankwasa, the Executive Director of the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA).

“We look forward to introducing a cleaner, more responsible, and more prosperous artisanal mining sector that benefits both the people and the planet.”

With the growth of the artisanal mining sector over the past decade, Uganda has had to reform its legislative approach to keep up with the changing context of the mining sector.

Agnes Alaba, the Acting Director of the Geological Survey and Mines noted during the virtual launch that the Mining and Minerals Act 2022 provides for the opportunity to support responsible development in the sector, which includes gazetting of artisanal mine sites for easy management, environmental stewardship, improved health and safety at mine sites, and elimination of hazardous chemicals such as mercury.


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