Helping Burkina Faso eliminate mercury use in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector

March 6, 2017

Children pan for gold against an arid backdrop in Burkina Faso.
Artisanal gold miners use mercury to extract gold from ore. This practice poses significant threats to their health and the environment.

In 2016 the Global Environment Facility (GEF) approved the Global Opportunities for Long-term Development (GOLD) of the Artisanal Small-scale Gold Mining sector programme to help artisanal gold miners eliminate the use of mercury in gold mining, and reduce harmful risks to their health and the environment. As part of the GOLD programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has launched the preparatory phase of a five-year project in Burkina Faso.

The project will officially begin in early 2018 and will focus on strengthening policy to support formalization of the sector, introduce a gold-buying scheme, build the capacity of national specialists on mercury-free technologies and formalization, and raise awareness and share knowledge in Burkina Faso’s artisanal small-scale gold mining sector.

Artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a major source of income for a large part of the population in Burkina Faso.  It is estimated that between 600,000 and one million people are directly and/or indirectly involved in the sector, producing approximately 27 tonnes of gold per year in more than 200 legal mine sites (and several hundred informal sites), making Burkina Faso the fourth largest gold producer in Africa.

As is the case in many other countries where ASGM takes place, the vast majority of artisanal miners in Burkina Faso use mercury to extract gold from ore. While there are cleaner and safer alternative practices and technologies, artisanal miners often ignore the threats that mercury poses to human health and lack the capacity, funds, and incentives to adopt good mining practices. Mercury releases in Burkina Faso are some of the highest levels in Africa. It is estimated that small-scale miners use approximately 35 tons of mercury each year.

Project preparatory phase launch event in Ouagadougou on 24 February 2017.

The project preparatory phase launch event in Ouagadougou on 24 February 2017 was attended by more than 40 people, including representatives of Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Environment, Green Economy and Climate Change, and Ministry of Mines and Quarries, the United States Department of State, and the US embassies in Ghana and Burkina Faso, as well as representatives of women’s and miners associations, and of the Artisanal Gold Council.

Jerome Stucki, the UNIDO project manager, led a consultative and interactive session during the launch. He emphasized that ‘’the Burkinabe project is innovative in taking an integrated, whole value chain approach to eliminate mercury use in the ASGM sector. The intervention strategy aims to introduce enforceable policies, regulations, formalization and training in Burkina Faso. For long-term environmental, health and social benefits, the establishment of financing mechanism for the ASGM sector will facilitate future investment in mercury-free technologies.’’

UNIDO has been working on the reduction of mercury use in the Burkina Faso ASGM sector since 2011.  Other projects include the Minamata Convention Initial Assessment (MIA) and the development of a National Action Plan for the ASGM sector.  (The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.)

Through the GOLD programme, the GEF will provide funds in eight countries with a sizable gold mining sector and where many artisanal miners still rely on mercury for gold extraction (Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guyana, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Mongolia and the Philippines). GEF funding for the GOLD initiative amounts to US$45.2 million, and is expected to attract co-financing of more than US$135 million from government budgets, international financing institutions and private companies.

With these funds, governments can support the artisanal and small-scale sector by creating policies and market incentives, and connecting them to international markets and supply chains that favour gold which uses less (or no) mercury in its extraction processes.

UNIDO will collaborate closely with the other GEF implementing agencies in the GOLD programme - Conservation International, the United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Environment - to ensure synergy and strong coordination.

This story was originally published on UNIDO