Blog » Strengthening regional collaboration to address the effects of mercury contamination from gold mining in the Amazon

Strengthening regional collaboration to address the effects of mercury contamination from gold mining in the Amazon

Created Jun 29 2023, 6:03 PM by Maria Fernanda Larrea Lozano
  • Mining


Illegal gold mining in the Amazon of Brazil, Colombia and Peru has caused degradation of forests and rivers, loss of biodiversity and has substantially impacted the health and culture of indigenous and local communities. This illegal practice has increased coincidentally with the increase in gold prices, as well as the involvement of illegal groups (InSight Crime, 2021).  The predominant illegal mining activity in the Amazon is alluvial mining, which is defined by the Colombian National Mining Agency - ANM (2003) as "mining activities and operations carried out on riverbanks or riverbeds".

Alluvial mining can be carried out either in the open pit, close to rivers, or on rivers using dredge boats. In both cases it is common to use mercury and fuel (diesel or gasoline) to separate the gold and to operate the extraction pumps. The use of backhoes for open-pit mining activities results in deforestation, soil degradation, alteration of the quality and change or loss of natural water courses, among other negative impacts (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - UNODC, 2021). In the case of mining on rivers, the use of dredges or rafts in the exploitation areas alter suspended sediments and with this, the natural dynamics of the trophic chains. Regarding mercury, it is estimated that 78.5% of mercury emissions in South America come from illegal gold mining in the Amazon (WWF & GAIA Amazonas, 2019). Mercury is released into the environment, contaminates rivers and other water bodies, enters the trophic chains of freshwater species where it accumulates in the species at the top of the food chain. Local communities are negatively impacted as they rely on this contaminated fish as main source of food and livelihood.  Research conducted on local human communities in the Amazon about mercury has shown mercury concentrations 3 times higher than the limit allowed by FAO (FAO, 2003). The impact of mercury on human health includes loss of IQ in children and cardiovascular diseases (Vasconcellos, 2015).

With the purpose to raise awareness and action in response to this situation, the ASL regional project commissioned a set of activities aimed at strengthening regional collaboration to counteract, remediate, restore and respond to the impacts of gold mining and mercury pollution in the region. The process began in 2021 by the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), an NGO that leads the Amazon Regional Alliance for the Reduction of Impacts from Gold Mining (ARAIMO). The research work in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, expanded the understanding of regional dynamics associated with gold mining and mercury use, and strengthened the regional network by integrating government and civil society institutions, that work towards the analysis and promotion of strategies to prevent and respond to the problem of mercury use in illegal mining. New analyses were conducted on specific transboundary sites between the three countries that show a growing presence of illegal gold mining, and where there is potential to propose joint actions.

Roadmaps were developed and validated in national and regional meetings, with the participation of representatives from multiple sectors of the three countries. The main objective of the roadmaps is to propose collaborative actions focused on: (i) restoration and recovery of degraded ecosystems, (ii) support to vulnerable communities affected by mercury contamination, and (iii) capacity building and harmonization of policies and protocols for the implementation of environmental legislation. These roadmaps are targeted primarily at government entities from the various relevant sectors and their implementation is directed at research institutes, academia, civil society organizations (CSOs) and representatives of local social groups, among others.

The StoryMap summarizes the results of the process.

Complementary and instrumental to the process of supporting collaborative efforts to prevent and mitigate the use of mercury in illegal gold mining, ASL supported the work of Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF) to adapt, to the Colombian and Peruvian contexts, the calculator initially designed for the Federal Public Ministry of Brazil. The calculator estimates the socio-environmental costs of illegal gold mining through an innovative and robust method that values the impacts of mining based on field data and evidence from scientific literature contextualized to the different countries and using key input information available to users. From September 2022 to December 2022, CSF conducted national and regional workshops to collected and validate data specific to Colombia and Peru to adapt the calculator to these countries. In addition to the adaptation of the tool to these countries, and as a pilot, the calculator was used to estimate impacts in selected transboundary areas that resulted in specific case studies.

The tool is currently available online for public use and it includes a user guide that was developed as part of the adaptation process. The calculator helps to raise awareness of the impacts of mining and its scale, defines compensation and remediation payments, estimates efficient investment levels for planning and prevention of impacts, and considers investment in mercury-free technologies. In addition, it facilitates the homologation of procedures and, therefore, the development of joint actions to address a regional problem.

Here is a summary of the process. (in Spanish)

The contribution of the ASL to the process aims to facilitate inter-institutional coordination, the generation and analysis of information and the strengthening of governance and governability and to propose solutions with the objective of protecting and conserving the Amazon and its populations, through investments, management tools and policy instruments common to the countries in the region. There is interest and commitment to expand what has been initiated to other countries in the biome.