Environmental - Featured - Mining - Top Stories - February 25, 2021

Artisanal mining an ecological timebomb

Artisanal small scale gold mining (ASGM) has proven to be the most destructive industry because of the rudimentary methods and processes used to extract the mineral.

Gold extraction is the most detrimental industry to the environment because it encompasses small, medium, informal, legal and illegal miners who use undeveloped practices that pollute air, contaminate resident water bodies, use of harmful chemicals like mercury and deforestation.

In an interview with BusinessMail, Environmental Management Agency’s (EMA) Environmental Education and Publicity Manager Amkela Sidange evaluated the overbearingly negative environmental impacts of artisanal small scale mining and how they outweigh the socio economic benefits.

“Artisanal Small Scale Gold Mining is associated with both positive and negative impacts on both the socio-economic sphere and the environment.

We cannot put the impacts on a balance and say this side outweighs the other because of the distribution of adverse impacts and benefits. The miner enjoys the benefits while other society members face the negative effects of the practice,” Sidange said.

The practice normally opens pits which are often left un-rehabilitated thus making the sites a danger to humans and animals as well as breading site for disease spreading pathogens and vectors.

“The pits will be a cost to landowners or developers to rehabilitate to make it useful and or ultimately reducing value of the land and also taking away space that could be used for other economic activities,” Sidange said.

Despite a significant number of gold miners who use mercury in trapping gold, Zimbabwe endorsed the Minamata Convention banning the use of mercury because it has many toxic effects on humans and animals, even at very low exposures.

“Mercury is currently the cheapest way to trap minute gold quantities from little amounts of ore concentrate. Unfortunately, the mercury is released or emitted into the environment in the process creating a serious health risk and is associated with an array of public health implications.

When mercury reacts with organic molecules to form methyl- mercury, it becomes very mobile, very toxic and can be passed from one organism to another through the food chain, hence bio magnification. As such mercury must be managed to avoid any anthropogenic release into the environment,” she said.

EMA is playing a fundamental role in designing programs to raise awareness on the dangers of artisanal mining on the environment for instance, as part of preparations for the ratification of the convention it coordinates a multi-stakeholder steering committee to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate the use of mercury in the Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining sector.

“The 3 year plan focuses on awareness raising targeting both the ASGM sector and non-sector players, research on mercury free technologies and safe uses of mercury.

The planning period was 2020-2021 and included sensitisation of policy makers that led to the ratification by parliament, and now the focus is on sensitising the players (Miners and the public) on mercury in an effort to reduce its use and discharge into the environment,” Sidange said.

Artisanal small scale miners account for 63% of gold production in Zimbabwe.

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