UN-backed meeting seeks to establish global treaty to reduce use of mercury

The use of mercury to extract gold poses health risks to artisanal miners. Photo: IRIN/Kenneth Odiwuor

2 July 2012 – Over 500 representatives from governments and civil society organizations are taking part in a United Nations-backed meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, which seeks to negotiate a global treaty that would reduce the use of mercury.

The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, said the six-day meeting will help governments work towards a common goal in reducing “the exposure of significant numbers of people across the globe to a highly hazardous substance whose impacts on human health are well known – and in doing so make a serious contribution to sustainable development and a transition to an inclusive green economy in the wake of Rio+20.”

The meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is covering a wide range of areas, from products and processes that contain mercury, to the supply, trade, storage and waste of the element.

UNEP also launched a practical guide at the meeting on methods and techniques to reduce mercury use and non-mercury alternative practices in Artisanal Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM).

Developed in collaboration with the Artisanal Gold Council and other partners, the guide informs policymakers, miners and civil society about available techniques for reducing and ultimately eliminating mercury use in ASGM.

With the value of gold having soared amid the recent financial turmoil, small-scale, artisanal gold mining is booming throughout the world. The Artisanal Gold Council estimates that between 12 and 15 million people in over 70 countries are employed in the sector, producing up to 20 per cent of the total gold supply.

However, the often informal and sometimes illegal status of the sector in many countries has been one of the biggest challenges in addressing the health and environmental issues of the sector. The UNEP guide seeks to also be a useful tool for governments to explain the technical fundamentals that underpin and encourage the formalization of ASGM.

“[ASGM] is an important economic activity, which can contribute directly to poverty alleviation and regional well-being. The global mercury legal instrument under development gives an important opportunity to ensure that a small-scale activity, such as this one, continues in a safe and sustainable way,” Mr. Steiner said.


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