New mercury treaty leaves artisanal gold miners in limbo

The first legally binding pact to curb mercury pollution, approved over the weekend by over 140 nations, will rewrite the rules on how the mercury can be used around the world. However it is not clear how the treaty will impact small-scale gold miners in the developing world, who suffer the worse health consequences from the toxic element exposure.

"The scientific evidence is so incontestable … and the health impacts are so debilitating," Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep) told The Guardian.

"We want to find a way in which mercury can be taken out of the small-scale gold mining sector. Unbeknown to many of the people who are engaged in this gold mining, it is a very harmful compound, " he added.

According to the UN report on artisanal gold mining, this activity is the largest source of global mercury pollution. It is also the only source of income for as many as 15 million people in 70 countries, mostly poor ones.

A decade ago, Switzerland and Norway began pushing for an international treaty to limit mercury emissions, a process that culminated in the adoption of an accord Saturday after an all-night session that capped a weeklong conference in Geneva and previous such sessions over the past four years.

But the ruling only requires that countries with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force to reduce and — if possible — eliminate the use of mercury in such operations.

Governments also approved exceptions for some uses such as large measuring devices for which there are no mercury-free alternatives; vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative; and products used in religious or traditional activities.

Switzerland, Norway and Japan each contributed $1 million to get the treaty started, but U.N. officials say tens of millions more will be needed each year to help developing countries comply. The money would be distributed through the Global Environment Facility, an international funding mechanism.

The U.N. Environment Program said the treaty would be signed later this year in the southern Japanese city of Minamata. After that, 50 nations must ratify it before it comes into force, which officials think won’t happen until late 2017 or 2018.

(Image: Gold panning in Liberia, by Program on Forests)

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