This project helps miners in Colombia replace old mercury
based processing by introducing modern processing equipment
and educating about harmful effects of mercury on local
Columbia: The mountains and jungles of Colombia are rich in gold. Artisanal and small-scale miners, armed with rudimentary tools and varying degrees of mechanization, create wealth in the world's most remote and desperate regions. Unfortunately, sometimes they also devastate landscapes and release staggering amounts of mercury into the environment.
Mercury is chemically the most similar metal to gold, yet in its elemental state at ambient temperature it is a liquid. When mercury is added to ore, it captures the nearly invisible gold particles, and is as easy to separate from the rock as oil from water. Pour this into a bit of cloth and squeeze out the excess liquid, and one is left with a hard amalgam ball that is made of about 50/50 mercury and gold. This is then burned with a blowtorch to evaporate the mercury. It is the original alchemy, the magic of Merlin handed down across the centuries.
That’s why the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, (UNIDO), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Corantioquia and the National University have been working hard to help miners reduce and eventually eliminate mercury use by introducing cleaner technologies. One of the best examples of this effort is the Asoplayon mine in Segovia in North West Colombia. The mine’s operations manager Fernando Robles explains how modern processing equipment has all but replaced the mine’s old mercury based processing, reducing their mercury use from 60 kg down to only 3 kg per month. Soon the mine will be mercury free just two years after starting the transition. According to Fernando, “Mining is central to people’s livelihoods here. Miners just focus on supporting their families, without realizing how harmful mercury is for the whole community. I hope all miners can follow our example. We are more profitable than ever and soon we will be totally mercury free. Not only is modern technology capturing more gold for us, but we are leaving a healthier environment for our children.”
Other miners in Colombia are working hard to protect the environment and the future of their communities by looking to the past. In the Choco region, much of the gold is found as fine dust and nuggets in creeks. The modern extraction solution is to dig up the creek bed and banks with heavy machinery, process the sediment with mercury, and dump the waste sediment randomly such that it creates a landscape of mounds and dangerous pits. Americo and Estel, a husband and wife team, and the pioneers of "Green Gold" mining use only the traditional methods of their ancestors without any industrial chemicals. They use discarded sediment to reshape the creek and banks, and then replant the mined land with vegetation cleared from the next area to be mined. Tropical growth is so rapid that, as you walk down a Green Gold creek, the jungle gets thicker and the trees larger. When you arrive at a site mined five years ago, it is full of native birds and looks like humans have never touched it. Green gold uses no mercury or chemicals of any kind. It is, instead, separated gravimetrically by panning, sluicing, and centrifuges. They sell their gold at a premium to buyers looking to buy gold without the damaging environmental cost. However, to date this market is slow to grow, and Americo’s operation needs solutions to enable them to continue growing.
Just a few miles away from Americo’s operation, there is a completely different situation. There is a mine where large excavators create a three story deep pit tearing through the jungle floor. Here, mercury is used to separate the gold from the earth. The pit swarms with independent miners, most of them women who are allowed to pan for gold around the excavators. Many miners dig into the pit wall, creating a dangerous overhang above, and carry away pans full of dirt that they pan in the knee-deep muddy water. “Women have no access to work here in Choco; no money, no rights, no hope. They have children but no husbands, so they have to find a way to support their family,” said Estel. In an instant, the pit wall can collapse above the miners, and they all need to quickly scatter as it crashes into the water, putting lives at risk on a regular basis. The GEF’s work helping ASGM communities not only addresses an environmental issue, but a development issue, affecting the livelihoods of many.