mercury (c) Bram Ebus

IUCN NL sheds light on the formal and informal mercury trade

When thinking about artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), many people don’t realize that often another metal is involved: mercury. However, mercury causes damage to both human health and the environment. But eliminating its use has proven rather difficult. A new report by IUCN NL sheds light on mercury trade routes and the mechanisms that drive the continued use of mercury in ASGM.

Around the globe, 10 to 20 million people work in the ASGM sector and many of them use mercury on a daily basis. This resulted in 838 tonnes of mercury being released into the air in 2015 by ASGM alone, making ASGM the largest contributor to anthropogenic mercury emissions.

The Minamata Convention and informal trade

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is regulating the formal trade and use of mercury. The convention aims to reduce and if possible eliminate mercury in ASGM. But a long-term shift towards mercury-free techniques is hard to achieve. To understand which systems are constraining mercury-free artisanal gold, more insights into the informal mercury trade were needed.

The report “Opening the black box: Local insights into the formal and informal global mercury trade revealed” sheds light on the mercury trade routes, the supply chain and actors involved in Bolivia, Suriname, Guyana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burkina Faso and the Philippines. It further identifies factors that hinder the understanding of mercury trade and highlights mechanisms that drive the continued use of mercury. 

Mercury trade and supply chain

Mercury enters countries through multiple formal and informal pathways. The conversion of formally imported mercury for usage in ASGM, misdeclaration, smuggling and bribing are common. The mercury trading networks are cartel-like structures with multiple layers of importers, wholesalers and retailers involved. They are well-established and generally operate in secret, as most of the trade is informal.

The mercury trade is often – but not always- linked to the gold trade and in many cases the same actors are involved in both trades. This can cause power imbalances between miners and traders, perpetuating the poverty of miners.

Main drivers of mercury trade

While miners are the end users of mercury, they are not the driving force behind the trade. Many miners are trapped in a poverty cycle in which mercury is the only affordable method to produce gold. Additionally, some traders who trade both mercury and gold create dependencies in which the miners have to keep using mercury and cannot easily break ties with the dealer.

The individual ASGM miners cannot afford the investment required for changing to mercury-free extraction methods. Traders or investors of mining operations have no incentive to make the investment, as the trade in both mercury and gold is very lucrative.

Addressing all sides of the problem

A combination of factors is driving the continued use of mercury, including the lucrativeness of the trade, the informality of the ASGM sector, the poverty of many miners and the power imbalance between many traders and miners. Mercury governance within the investigated countries has potential for improvement. To tackle the mercury problem, action should be taken that addresses the problem from all angles and takes all key stakeholders into account.

Webinar Golden Myths

On June 3 Barbara Hendus, Program Officer Extractives & Conservation at IUCN NL, presented the results from the report during a webinar facilitated by Solidaridad and The Impact Facility. The event was part of  a webinar series called Golden Myths, which aims to demystify the myths surrounding the risks, ethics and opportunities of ASGM. A full recording of the webinar can be watched below.

In order to view this movie you have to accept ‘Social media and advertising’ cookies. Click here to change your cookie settings.

Webinar Minamata online

On 29 September 2020, Barbara Hendus also presented the study findings in a webinar during Minamata Online. The recording of information session called “Mercury material flow: Supply, demand and trade” can be watched below.

In order to view this movie you have to accept ‘Social media and advertising’ cookies. Click here to change your cookie settings.

Download the report

Regional mercury reports

Learn more

Mark van der Wal
Senior Expert Ecosystems & Extractives
Barbara Hendus
no longer working at IUCN NL