Monday, 10 November 2014

The Minamata Convention: Exactly What Are We Doing?

If the rumours are correct, Ghana has finally signed the Minamata Convention. On 24 September 2014, at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, some of its high-ranking officials, along with representatives from 18 other countries, put pen to paper, pledging a commitment to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercuric compounds. The Convention, we are told, will only come into force when ratified by 50 countries, and although we are nowhere close to being in this position, you never really know with some of these policymakers, who do not really need a reason to sign a treaty, however ridiculous it may be. Despite being packaged as a general environmental agreement, this is really a move aimed at changing behaviour – specifically, eliminating amalgamation practices – in the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector, the world’s largest source of anthropogenic emissions of mercury. There are a number of reasons to be concerned about our approach to minimizing emissions of mercury at small-scale gold mines, the most recent highlight being the drafting of the Minamata Convention.

For starters, we continue to view and, by extension, tackle, mercury use in ASM – for lack of a better word – incorrectly. The fundamental difference with Minamata is that it has meant that these unfounded convictions we have of amalgamation have reached the international stage and ultimately wield influence over policy directives implemented at the global level. The point of contention – at least for me – is that this not an environmental problem, as is widely portrayed. It is, rather, a development problem with an environmental dimension. Why is this significant? Because the people inking these agreements rarely see how – or care to understand that – most of the people who use mercury in ASM are, in fact, poor, bonded to someone, and/or are in no position to pursue an alternative, even with all of the education in the world. These people depend on a steady supply of mercury for their survival. Whilst signatories’ pledges to ‘take steps to reduce, and where feasible eliminate, the use of mercury and mercury compounds in, and the emissions and releases to the environment of mercury from, such mining and processing’ (Act 7) are, indeed, commendable from an environmental standpoint, they are also, in many cases, inappropriate, given the dependency of the poor masses on mercury for their livelihoods. What do governments and donors intend on doing with (or for) these people after they remove mercury from the system? The implications of misclassifying this problem, therefore, are quite significant.

A second reason for concern is that, despite efforts to disseminate substitutes for amalgamation and mercury pollution control devices, few, if any, are capable of making much of a difference at this point. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years to develop and pilot viable alternatives to amalgamation alongside efforts to reduce emissions but have yielded mixed results because, well, they have, for the most part, been standalone interventions. Why has this been the case? Although the most important rural nonfarm activity in sub-Saharan Africa, ASM – quite inexplicitly – continues to receive very little attention on the region’s development agenda, a concern which I have discussed extensively, over the years, in this space. The sector is, rather strangely, seen as a threat to development, as opposed to what it truly is: an integral and rooted dimension of rural African society that has inseparable linkages to agriculture. Unless a much-needed ‘space’ for ASM is created in Africa development policy, efforts to, say, disseminate retorts, pilot magnetic sluice boxes and shaking tables, and distribute furnaces, will continue to yield disappointing results.

Why is this so important? Without any development traction, mercury use in ASM will continue to be analyzed in environmental terms. For the technical people signing the Minamata Convention, there is no anthropological or developmental dimension to this equation. The solution is simple: that it would be illogical to continue using a method of gold recovery that is detrimental to the environment and human health. But if development people who are familiar with the realities of African gold mining were brought on board, decision-makers would be provided with timely reminders of how nuanced the situation they are trying to ‘correct’ truly is. Accusations levelled at miners for not considering alternatives to amalgamation would elicit a response such as ‘Most operators do not possess the technical know-how to use, in an efficient and effective way, the majority of these technologies.’; accusations levelled at miners for showing no interest in using retorts would elicit a response such as ‘Time, for poverty-driven operators, is money and expending too much of it on unnecessary things could jeopardize their survival...this includes setting up and waiting for retorting processes’; and those promoting the Minamata Convention strictly on environmental grounds would be shouted at by people who will remind those in the room that a large share of the artisanal gold mining masses are not in any position to abandon mercury at this time because of the personal circumstances they face. In short, having the right development people on board and allowing them to engage in key discussions would recalibrate the debate for the better, in the process, spawning more appropriate solutions to what is clearly a more complex problem than has been diagnosed.

But in the absence of such discussions, a rather strange and highly-inappropriate agenda for ASM has emerged. We have become preoccupied with ‘mechanizing’ the sector or improving the efficiency of operations, to the point where we are putting the cart before the horse without even realizing it. This extends to the Convention itself, which calls for signatories to draft a National Action Plan to combat mercury pollution from and use in ASM, and in Annex C, identifies a number of areas which need to be covered in each. But it is the order that these areas are presented which is a concern – for me at least – because it epitomizes the current policy ‘mindset’ towards ASM. After calling for ‘Each party that is subject to the provisions of paragraph 3 of Article 7’ to identify ‘National objectives and reduction targets’ and ‘Actions to eliminate’, Appendix C calls for signatories to outline ‘Steps to facilitate the formalization or regulation of the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector’. Should this not be the first step? Should we not be first looking for ways to create the necessary ‘space’ for operators – through formalization – to innovate, including thinking about adopting environmental technologies? The entire backward approach prescribed here is ironic: on the one hand, the reason why ASM has failed to gain much currency on the development agenda is because its operators continue to be viewed as entrepreneurs looking to ‘get rich quick’ but on the other hand, governments and donors are unwilling to provide these individuals with the necessary means – specifically, access to technology and microfinance – to succeed as businesspeople.

Is it a case of us expecting informal, unlicensed miners to pay close attention to new technologies, despite facing very difficult circumstances? The bottom line is that miners, whose priorities are, in no particular order, eating, feeding their families, sending their children to school and paying the chiefs, police and soldiers money to ‘allow’ them to continue working, are in no position to consider implementing improved technologies; nor have we done enough to put them in such a position to do so. In short: if someone is struggling to secure a license, or to pay an unscrupulous middleman, or to free himself/herself from the shackles of corrupt army and/or police officers looking for bribes, pursuing more environmentally-benign alternatives is probably the last things on their minds.

We are – rather strangely – in the midst of a continent-wide push to ‘mechanize’ ASM, further evidence of how little in tune some policymakers and donors are with the realities of this very dynamic sector. On the environmental front, in countries such as Tanzania, there are now processing licenses, holders of which are permitted to construct mini cyanidation facilities. These setups, however, cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most of Tanzania’s small-scale miners are in no position, financially, to make this leap. There are now discussions in Ghana about creating a ‘Medium-Scale’ category, largely in response to the mechanization and influx of foreigners its ASM sector has experienced in recent years. With most African governments not receiving any tax from ASM, the establishment of a ‘medium-scale’ category could quite easily be interpreted as a deliberate move to ‘rent-seek’, although in the case of Ghana, it seems that it is being made in direct response to its central government gold buying facility, PMMC, struggling to fulfil its quotas. The rationale behind the move is sound but as is the case in Tanzania, the vast majority of Ghana’s operators do not fall into the category of ‘Medium-Scale Miner’. Once again, we are back to where we started: the need to create adequate ‘space’ in policy to address the concerns of ASM.

Let me sum up by saying that the timing of the Minamata Convention is rather strange. I cannot help but think it is yet another move made to further marginalize ASM, an industry which, the architects of the Convention, along with African governments, sections of the NGO community and donors, seem to know very little about. It appears to be yet another deliberate effort to discredit ASM and to simultaneously ‘sell’ cyanide-using large-scale mining as the viable extractive industries development solution going forward. Many of those who condemn ASM are quick to bring up the more than 30 years of – largely-ineffective – mercury pollution abatement work that has been conducted but as mentioned, these efforts, the most comprehensive of which was the UNIDO Global Mercury Project, have been largely standalone, in no way connected to any international, national or local development agenda.

Perhaps the most curious oversight is the repeated failure to understand why mercury use in ASM has become the problem it has. As mentioned, we are in this situation because we continue to frame the issue in purely environmental terms when, as indicated, it is a development problem with an environmental dimension. Further analysis will show that the widespread mercury contamination that we now see at countless ASM sites across sub-Saharan Africa is simply an ‘expression’ of the sector’s informality. If formalized properly, and monitored and regulated, would this, along with other problems, not be adequately addressed?

These uncertainties bring to mind one question: why, exactly, has the Minamata Convention been drafted?

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