Promoting Health and Safety in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining: Experience from the Asia-Pacific Region
By Asia-Pacific AGC Communications Team with support from Tegan Holmes and Mareike Kroll. - April 28, 2021
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is an important source of livelihood for millions of people in the developing world. In Indonesia, some estimates consider around 300,000-1,000,000 artisanal miners to be working at around 1,000 locations across 27 provinces, churning out gold valued at US$5 billion annually, or up to 7% of total global gold production. In Mongolia, artisanal mining is said to be thriving in 14 of the country’s 21 provinces, with artisanal miners estimated to number up to a high of 60,000 people or 20% of Mongolia’s rural labor force. Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea 60,000 to 100,000+ small-scale gold miners work either as individuals, family/community units, or small enterprises to produce more than four tonnes of gold annually according to the most recent research undertaken by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) in close collaboration with PNG’s Mineral Resources Authority (MRA). In the Philippines, 300-500,000 miners work in small-scale operations in roughly 40 of the country’s 81 provinces supporting the livelihoods of 2 million people and contributing 70% to the country’s total gold production.
While artisanal mining provides a much-needed income source for the rural poor in these countries, artisanal mining itself can expose miners to numerous health and safety hazards as many groups operate informally and do not comply with occupational health and safety protocols.
In support of World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) is highlighting five of its country projects in the Asia-Pacific region and their initiatives that actively address occupational health and safety hazards in the ASGM sector.
The planetGOLD projects in Mongolia and the Philippines are supported by the Global Environment Facility. planetGOLD is led by the United Nations Environment Programme and implemented in partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, United Nations Development Programme, and Conservation International. AGC is the executing agency for bi-country project planetGOLD Mongolia-Philippines. The project aims to improve the ASGM sectors of both countries from miners to refiners towards a more responsible and sustainable artisanal mining sector.
The Indonesian project, Program Emas Rakyat Sejahtera (PERS – meaning Prosperous People Gold Program in English) is funded by Global Affairs Canada, supported by the Government of Indonesia, and executed nationally by AGC’s local partners Yayasan Emas Artisanal Indonesia (YEAI) and Lentera Kartini (LK). PERS aims to help formalize and professionalize ASGM operations in Indonesia and facilitate their transition towards mercury-free artisanal gold production.
The Global Environment Facility funded project, “Development of Minamata Initial Assessment and National Action Plan for Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining in Myanmar”, which is implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme, and executed by the AGC, is assisting in the development of its National Action Plan (NAP) which includes the development of a public health strategy on the exposure of artisanal and small-scale gold miners and their communities to mercury, and strategies for the gathering of health data, training for health-care workers and awareness-raising through health facilities.
Lastly, the project in Papua New Guinea is funded by the US Department of State and executed by the AGC in collaboration with the Mineral Resources Authority (MRA). The objective of the project is to address key knowledge gaps in the sector and to build the capacity of national key stakeholders to control and reduce mercury use. Together, these five projects are working towards a common goal – a mercury-free, formalized, and professionalized ASGM sector. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) is a major component when it comes to achieving this goal.
OHS Risks in a Mostly Unregulated Sector
The rudimentary processing practices and unregulated activities, often performed at informal mine sites, make artisanal mining a magnet for occupational health and safety risks. In addition, the common use of mercury to extract gold from the ore poses a toxicity risk for miners and surrounding communities. The informal nature of ASGM makes it difficult for government authorities to track and monitor compliance to basic safety standards or use of mercury. Often lacking proper technical training and access to finance for safety equipment, it is common to find artisanal miners foregoing basic safety measures while working in poor conditions to obtain gold. The ASGM sector is very heterogeneous and OHS risks usually differ between countries and even from mine site to mine site, depending on the level of formalization, the knowledge and experience of miners, and the extraction and processing techniques applied.
In late February, a mining shaft collapsed and buried 26 artisanal miners at an unlicensed site in a remote village in Parigi Moutong regency in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. The accident underscored both the precarious nature of this largely informal sector and the need to professionalize and integrate artisanal mining into the regulatory structures of the formal economy. In the alluvial sector in Papua New Guinea, landslides at destabilized slopes are a major hazard and do cause fatalities.
Based on a recent study conducted by planetGOLD Mongolia, the use of safety equipment and compliance with safety protocols in Mongolia is clearly higher amongst organized miners. For example, over half of the interviewed illegal miners responded that they do not secure miners properly in mine shafts, compared to only 15% of respondents who were organized in unregistered partnerships. Similar patterns were observed for the use of personal protective equipment (total average use across all groups: 57%), the provision of safety instructions to workers at the mine site (total average: 72%) and the presence of an OHS officer (total average: 53%).
Of the various chemical risks, exposure to mercury during the amalgamation of gold and vaporization of the mercury-gold amalgam is a common hazard in all four countries. Mercury, recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern, is highly toxic to human health and a particular threat to the developing fetus, infants and children. In Mongolia, mercury use is illegal and highly prosecuted. In the Philippines, the use of mercury in mining has been prohibited by law since 2015, but little has been done to provide alternatives or implement this regulation so far. Mercury use is legal and widespread in Papua New Guinea. In some countries such as the Philippines, the cyanidation of mercury contaminated tailings to recover the remaining gold is causing another environmental health challenge: cyanide mobilizes elemental mercury and increases its potential to methylate into an even more toxic compound, methylmercury. Since methylmercury – from ASGM but also other various polluting industries – accumulates in fish, frequent consumption of contaminated fish has become a global public health concern.
Similar to other remote rural communities, artisanal miners have a higher vulnerability to communicable diseases such as malaria or COVID-19 due to sometimes poor living conditions, low access to adequate health care, and limited access to disease information. The informal and socially fluid nature of ASGM – its workforce can involve all age groups from both local and in-migrated populations – can also increase transmission risks and exacerbate economic impacts due to lack of social safety nets. At the same time, artisanal miners have a higher risk of chronic elemental mercury intoxication and silicosis which can also increase their susceptibility to a severe COVID-19 illness. The pandemic has significantly affected not just the health but the social and economic well-being of the global ASGM sector.
The AGC’s Approach to Address OHS Hazards in the Sector
In collaboration with national partners, the AGC has been working to enhance the environmental and socio-economic well-being of artisanal gold mining communities in several projects in the Asia-Pacific and other regions. An integral part of AGC’s mission is to support the formalization and professionalisation of ASGM communities in order to build their capacity in eliminating mercury in artisanal gold processing, contributing directly to the promotion of occupational health and safety.
Our teams are conducting occupational health and safety trainings for artisanal miners. In Mongolia and the Philippines, each projects’ team currently assesses the situation and works with local authorities to plan efficient OHS training for miners in collaboration with national training partners. In addition, the AGC conducts different activities to raise awareness on the toxic effects of mercury. The PERS project in Indonesia has launched awareness-raising activities on health issues related to mercury use, contamination and intoxication in three ASGM communities, one in Central Kalimantan and two in North Sulawesi. In Papua New Guinea, AGC’s health expert, Dr. Mareike Kroll conducted two trainings in 2020 on mercury intoxication with health workers and one training with trainers from the Small-Scale Miners Training Center (SSMTC). The government-run SSMTC, located in Wau, is providing training on various topics including OHS for artisanal miners in Papua New Guinea. AGC will conduct additional capacity building activities with the health care sector in collaboration with the Mineral Resources Authority and the SSMTC once COVID-19 travel restrictions allow.
Our Indonesian project also facilitated artisanal miners’ access to public health and education. PERS facilitated the establishment of one occupational health post (OHP) to provide preventive and promotive services with the local community health center (called Puskesmas). The OHP accommodates simple health screening and treatment, basic medicine, and disease prevention done by the health cadre of Puskesmas. The project has also developed modules for health workers and healthcare providers at sub-national levels to improve their knowledge on mercury intoxication and for effective and efficient awareness raising around the control of mercury use in artisanal mining. The infrastructure developed can serve additional health needs.
On a policy level, the AGC is assisting countries with keeping their commitments to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, as self-prescribed in their National Action Plans (NAP) (see separate blog). As mercury exposure is a rather unique occupational hazard in the ASGM sector, the Minamata Convention as an international treaty is an important driver to control mercury use in the sector.
To aid in the implementation of the NAP, planetGOLD Mongolia is for example raising awareness among various stakeholder groups about the dangers of mercury to human health and the environment. In Papua New Guinea, the AGC is carrying out a national inventory of mercury use in the sector as a preliminary step for PNG to develop a National Action Plan for the sector once PNG has become a party of the Minamata Convention. The AGC also began supporting Myanmar in late 2019 in developing a National Action Plan for the ASGM sector.
Responding to Threats of COVID-19
With the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, all our projects took major steps to manage the uncertainty that COVID-19 brought by adapting project activities in line with evolving national and international guidelines on COVID-19. All project teams have received training on the novel coronavirus, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, modes of transmission, how it can be prevented, and where to access reliable information. Based on the training, the teams developed IEC materials to provide information on COVID-19 to artisanal mining communities. For example, because of the travel restrictions, PERS in Indonesia conducted online socialization on COVID-19 and on clean and healthy lifestyle behaviors with ASGM communities using digital media like simple videos, apps like WhatsApp, or social media platforms like Facebook for small-group discussions within the community.
planetGOLD Philippines has been making strides in the area of COVID-19 education within the team and the communities. The staff and research team has received training on COVID-19 to gain a better understanding of the public health risk posed by it, especially in the ASGM communities where access to health care may be low. The COVID-19 training was also intended to equip the team members with the necessary measures to prevent any risk of virus transmission during fieldwork activities at the two project sites in Sagada, Mt. Province and Paracale, Camarines Norte, and to raise awareness among those communities. During the site assessment activities, the team disseminated posters on COVID-19 facts and prevention which were posted in the offices of the ASGM associations. To further assist communities in stemming the transmission of COVID-19, the project team will be distributing hygiene kits (masks, disinfectant and hand sanitizer) to project sites and stakeholders.
Artisanal mining is a driving force for rural development and actively supports millions of people and national economies in the developing world. As we take part in celebrating World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we want to underscore that mining-related accidents and occupational health hazards can be minimized and mitigated through various strategies. While OHS training and capacity building are at the centerpiece of this endeavour, OHS as a cross-cutting issue can only be addressed in concert with the formalization and professionalization of the sector as well as access to formal markets and finance. These legal, financial, and also technical aspects are important prerequisites for the adoption of safer extraction practices and mercury-free processing systems. Through this concerted effort, promoting health and safety in artisanal and small-scale gold mining is not only possible but attainable.
To learn more about these projects, and to follow their progress check out the links below:
|planetGOLD Mongolia: https://www.planetgold.org/mongolia
|planetGOLD Philippines: https://www.planetgold.org/philippines
|Program Emas Rakyat Sejahtera: https://pers.no-hg.org/welcome/
Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). (2017). Global Trends in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM): A review of key numbers and issues. Winnipeg: IISD https://www.iisd.org/system/files/publications/igf-asm-global-trends.pdf
McGrew, L. (2016). Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining: A Sector of Problems and A Sector of Promise [Online]. https://www.asiapacific.ca/blog/artisanal-and-small-scale-gold-mining-sector-problems-and
planetGOLD Mongolia. (n.d.). Improving practice toward a more responsible ASGM sector. [WWW page]. https://www.planetgold.org/mongolia
planetGOLD Mongolia. (2021). The ASGM Sector in Mongolia: A Contextual Study of the planetGOLD Mongolia Project Sites. Unpublished report.
planetGOLD Philippines. (n.d.). Improving the ASGM sector, from miners to refiners. [WWW page]. https://www.planetgold.org/philippines
World Health Organization. (2021). Exposure to Mercury: A Major Public Health Concern. [Online]. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240023567