Sustainable Development Success Stories

Eliminating mercury pollution

Location Bolivar, Venezuela.
Responsible Organisations United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
Description More than one million people in Latin America are involved in artisanal gold mining. High percentage of small scale miners, including women, use the mercury-based amalgamation process in order to extract gold, a process that causes catastrophic damages to the environment and their health. Hundreds of tons of mercury are released every year into the environment, contaminating the air, drinking water and food. Mercury poisoning causes damages to the central nervous system. Communities whose diet depends on local farm produce and fish caught around gold-mining areas are particularly vulnerable.

The project focused on Bolivar s Caroni river, a major mining site since the end of the last century. UNIDO and a local NGO established a unit of gold extraction and controlled amalgamation (UNECA) whose task was to improve gold extraction techniques in small-scale gold mining. The technology introduced by the UNIDO project uses less mercury and reduces mercury emissions by extracting gold from gravity concentrate. Heating of amalgam is carried out in isolated areas using proper recycling equipment and safety precautions.

Issues Addressed Water and air pollution, Health and safety.
Results Achieved Artisanal miners can continue mining and processing gold ore without using mercury at river sites. Gold miners participating in the programme extract gold only from gold concentrate, which is an alternative to amalgamating the entire ore which releases greater quantities of the toxic metal. The new method increased gold recovery. UNECA provides gold miners with information on cleaner gold extraction and on the dangers of mercury pollution. Medical advice on occupational and public health issues is now widely available.
Lessons Learned Partnerships agreements plays an important role in educating miners and the public about mercury poisoning and the dangers of consuming contaminated food. The model tested in Venezuela is replicable in other gold mining regions with predominance of small scale miners.
Contacts Mr. Christian Beinhoff
UNIDO, Vienna International Centre
P.O. Box 300, A-1400 Vienna, Austria
Tel: (43 1) 21131 3738; Fax (43 1) 21131 5119
E-mail: cbeinhoff@unido.org
Home page: http://www.unido.org