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ASGM Projects: Indonesia

lacksmith Institute and Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta in collaboration with UNEP and funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency

Mitigating Mercury Emissions from Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining in Indonesia 

UNEP implemented a project on reducing mercury use in Artisasnal and Small scale gold mining in Indonesia. The project, led by Blacksmith Institute and Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta in collaboration with UNEP and funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, gathered data on mercury releases from the ASGM sector and brought together representatives from local and national Government, local mining offices, research institutes and mining NGOs to develop a national strategic plan for the sector considering broader sustainable development objectives.

Full project description: 

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining refers to informal or small-batch mining activities that use basic methods to extract gold from ore. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates that artisanal and small scale mining is responsible for nearly 20% of global gold production, and employs between 10 and 15 million people including 4 to 5 million women and children.

Most artisanal and small-scale gold miners come from socially and economically marginalized communities and turn to mining as a primary income activity. They are forced to risk not only persecution by governments (if their activities are unauthorized) but also mine shaft collapses, and toxic poisoning from a variety of chemicals used unsafely in processing the ore. Despite its many dangers, artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations continue to spread because the demand for the metal is increasing and other livelihoods, such as farming, are becoming less and less economically viable. 

Mercury amalgamation is a very common form of gold extraction. Artisanal and small-scale gold miners combine mercury with gold-bearing ore to form a hardened amalgam that contains most of the gold metal from the silt. This amalgam is then heated with blowtorches or over an open flame to evaporate the mercury, leaving gold behind. This burning process releases mercury vapors into the surrounding air. The gaseous mercury is inhaled by the miners, and often by their immediate family as well. Mercury that is not burned settles into the surrounding environment or is washed away with unwanted tailings or sediments into local water bodies. It also circulates globally for future deposition far from the site and is absorbed by a variety of living organisms.

UNIDO estimates that 95 percent of all mercury used in artisanal mining is released into the environment. Miners and their families who inhale mercury vapors can suffer permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, and, in the case of pregnant women, to the development of the fetus. They are also exposed through contact with the skin as they knead mercury into sediments to amalgamate the gold.

Bio-accumulation of mercury in rivers poses an additional health risk. Once mercury enters the food chain, it is transformed from elemental mercury to methyl mercury, a dangerous neuro-toxin. 

The different transmission paths that mercury exposure can take are:

  •   Inhalation of toxic vapors during combustion;

  •   Ingestion of contaminated fish, rice and other foods; 

  •   skin contact , since miners rarely use protective gloves while preparing the amalgam; and

  •   Water contamination due to mercury leaching into rivers and ground water.

    Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining in Indonesia

    Gold mining and processing is a significant source of income for as many as 300,000 small - scale miners in Indonesia1. As the price of gold has steadily increased, gold mining and processing has become more popular both in the artisanal and large-scale sectors. Historically, artisanal and small-scale miners have used basic technology such as panning and sluice-box concentration. In the past 15-20 years, the use of mercury - especially in a process known as “whole-ore amalgamation” has gained in popularity. Capturing gold using mercury amalgamation is preferred among gold processors as the technique is relatively easy and can generate fast cash to cover miners’ daily expenses. Big mining companies do not use mercury, and use the cyanidation process instead, as it is more effective for industrial-scale processing. This technique has been adapted so that artisanal and small-scale gold miners can capture gold using cyanide tanks. However, many obstacles exist to the environmentally sound implementation of this process including: challenges accessing capital; the need to amass large quantities of finely ground ore and a longer timeframe from milling to gold recovery. 

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Relevance: 
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Sustainability: 
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