London, Feb 19 : At least 1,000 tonnes of mercury is released into the atmosphere and millions of men, women and children worldwide are exposed to its toxic emissions due to gold production every year.
A new (Dollar) 180-million five-year programme to reform the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, which accounts for 20 per cent of the world's annual gold production, was launched in London on Monday.
The Global Environment Facility-backed Global Opportunities for the Long-term Development of the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Sector (GEF GOLD) programme aims to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining and introduce and facilitate access to mercury-free extraction methods.
Spanning eight countries, the programme is a partnership among the Global Environment Facility, the UN Development Programme, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Industrial Development Organisation, Conservation International and the governments of Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Kenya, Mongolia, the Philippines and Peru.
"By phasing out mercury use and connecting miners to markets for responsibly produced and sourced minerals, GEF GOLD will help to ensure the gold value chain both supports miners and provides consumers with access to ethically produced, environmentally sustainable gold," UN Environment Chemicals and Health branch head Jacob Duer said.
"Promoting and facilitating access to non-mercury processing techniques for artisanal and small-scale miners is vital - not only to reduce mercury emissions, but to protect the health of vulnerable communities."
Studies indicate that mercury exposure in artisanal and small-scale miners is a major and largely neglected global health concern - putting miners and their communities at the risk of seizures, vision and hearing loss and delayed childhood development due to permanent brain damage.
As many as 15 million people work in the artisanal and small-scale mining sector globally, including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children.
While this sector represents a development opportunity for rural populations, who often have few livelihood alternatives, miners operate on the edges of legality in many countries, with artisanal and small-scale mining either banned outright or limited by legislation and licensing procedures designed primarily for large-scale operations.
By supporting the regulatory and policy reforms needed to formalise the work of artisanal and small-scale miners across the eight programme countries, GEF GOLD aims to secure miners' livelihoods through access to markets and finance, and enabling the uptake of mercury-free technology.
By phasing out mercury use, the programme aims to achieve eventual mercury emission reductions of 369 tonnes, supporting countries' commitments under the Minamata Convention on Mercury to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate mercury use in the sector.