Suriname has just ratified the Minamata Convention and Colombia is about to do so. The Convention is an international agreement to eliminate the use of this metal in activities such as mining
In Colombia, buying mercury was as easy as ordering a book online: choose the amount, pay and wait for the delivery at home, without any control. And that’s how the country ended up releasing around 41 tons of this metal annually, coming mainly from gold mining activities in different regions, including the Amazon. In Suriname, mercury had also become a huge challenge due to the increase of small-scale mining: approximately 40,000 people participate directly and indirectly in this activity and use the metal without any major controls.
Both countries have just taken a key step forward to face this threat. In March, both advanced the legislative procedures to ratify the Minamata Agreement, the global agreement through which the imports of this metal are prohibited and actions for its elimination and decontamination are boosted. The good news arrive five years after several countries signed the Minamata Convention as a joint solution to this global challenge.
Paula Rodríguez, Sectoral Impacts Specialist for WWF-Colombia, explains that this is a very positive development for several reasons. “On one hand, it will allow countries to access international cooperation resources to invest in projects to decontaminate rivers and restore watersheds. On the other hand, with the ratification the imports of this metal are prohibited, which greatly reduces its use.”
In Colombia, the situation is alarming. With 75 tons per year on average, it is the country that releases the most mercury per capita in the world, in proportion to its population, after China and Indonesia. In the case of Suriname, it is estimated that for every kilogram of gold recovered, one kilogram of mercury is released, and the figures for annual gold production in the country are between 30 and 40 thousand kg. In addition, according to Suriname’s forest service, 72% of the deforestation in the country is related to gold mining.
In both countries, WWF has played a key role. Colombia has taken several actions for political advocacy that have made it possible to demonstrate to decision makers the seriousness of the situation and the need to implement urgent actions. In Suriname, ratification joins to a series of achievements in the regulation of the use of this metal. At this moment, the creation of pilot sites in the country for mercury-free mining is progressing thanks to a proposal presented by WWF, the French Global Environment Facility FFEM and UNDP, with the technical support of the Alliance for Responsible Mining ( ARM). Likewise, WWF in Suriname supported the creation of a document that describes the framework for the responsibilities and actions that are necessary to promote the ratification, and led a campaign to promote ratification.
According to Farzia Hausil, in Suriname, “ratification marks the beginning of a process of national awareness and willingness to phase out the use of mercury, and government support to NGOs, businesses and civil society will be necessary. It will take a joint effort to do this, but there is a general disposition to act.”
What implications does this advance have for the Amazon?
Although one of the greatest challenges in the fight against the use of mercury is the lack of information in some regions such as the Amazon, according to Joaquín Carrizosa, Amazonas North Program Coordinator for WWF, “there is enough information to know that the situation is critical and that mercury is affecting the water, the fish and Amazonian communities.”
With the ratification of the agreement in both Amazonian countries, there will be more opportunities for research and to formulate projects for the decontamination of mercury and restoration of degraded ecosystems in areas where illegal mining is still being done. Additionally, the ratification encourages the commitment of the institutions that work in the Amazon and that until now have not had the technical and financial capacities to regulate the use of this metal.
According to Paula Rodríguez, “with more countries that ratify the agreement, there will be more options to establish limits for the illegal trade of mercury at the borders, and this is an opportunity for the countries of the biome to act together to prevent mercury from entering their territory.”
- The Minamata Convention was adopted in Japan on October 10, 2013, and it is named after a Japanese bay where thousands of people were intoxicated with methyl mercury, the organic form of the metal that is absorbed by the human body. It was there where the Minamata’s disease was evidenced for the first time: a disorder that generates severe neurological impacts, manifested with symptoms such as deterioration of sight and hearing, body incoordination and paralysis, among others.
- Mercury (Hg) is widely recognized as a global pollutant and constitutes a public and environmental health problem. This metal has no beneficial physiological function for the human body and in any of its forms it is toxic to living organisms and the environment. The World Health Organization lists mercury as one of the 10 most problematic chemicals for public health.
Mercury can reach the human body in different ways: through contact with the skin, through ingestion or through inhalation. This implies that we can contaminate ourselves with mercury by interacting directly with the metal, by consuming contaminated food, or by breathing the air near places where mercury evaporates. This is the case with the gold – mercury amalgam used in mining. The magnitude of the toxic effects of mercury depends on several factors, among them, the received dose, the chemical form of the metal and the route and the type of exposure: if it is acute (only once) or chronic (prolonged).
Photo: © Camilo Diaz / WWF