Monday, December 13, 2010

Mercury pollution major concern

Local and international experts seek solutions to eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) when they convene a three-day global forum which will begin today at the Sofitel Plaza Hotel in Manila. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with the Philippine government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Ban Toxics, a Southeast Asian non-profit environmental non-governmental organization, organized the ASGM Global Forum to dig deeper into the challenges and opportunities surrounding ASGM, an industry that accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the world’s gold supply but at the same time is responsible for the annual emission of 1000 tonnes of toxic mercury.

“The Philippines is honored to be hosting such an important global environmental event,” says Ramon J.P. Paje, Secretary of the DENR. “This is an acknowledgement of the progressive steps our country has taken against mercury.”

“The United Nations Environment Programme is mandated to take on the global fight against mercury by creating a intergovernmental negotiating committee that will develop a treaty that controls mercury from the time that it is mined to its final storage,” said David Piper, Deputy, UNEP Chemicals. “UNEP can not win this battle alone, and we look to countries such as the Philippines to be champions for the environment.”

This event will help us mainstream the issue about the impacts of mercury use in ASGM to human health and environment, and elicit the necessary support we need from all sectors to address this toxin, explained Atty. Juan Miguel Cuna, Director of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau.”

Mercury is a poisonous persistent pollutant capable of long-range transport and bio-accumulation. Mercury attacks the nervous system and brings complications such as loss of cognitive capacity and memory, and impaired neuro-muscular coordination, among others. Fetuses, children and women of child-bearing age are particularly sensitive to mercury’s toxic threats. The most popular case of methylmercury poisoning occurred more than 50 years ago in Minamata, Japan, where 70 to 150 tonnes of mercury was dumped by a local industry into Minamata Bay resulting in the death of hundreds of people and affecting generations of Japanese.

“The volume of mercury discarded into the Minamata bay pales in comparison with the amount of mercury discharged in the Philippines,” says Atty. Richard Gutierrez, Executive Director of Ban Toxics. Gutierrez cautions that if the trend remains unchecked, the Philippines could very well have its own Minamata incident. According to a 2008 inventory of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Philippines emits close to 235 tons of mercury annually. ASGM, which occurs in more than 30 provinces of the country accounts for more than 30 percent of this annual mercury emission. Mercury use in the sector is said to have been taking place for more than 30 years.

“Despite their often illegal and informal nature, ASGM contributes to the growth of rural economies, a fact which cannot be ignored especially in a country where more than 30 percent of its population live below the poverty line,” says Susan Egan-Keane, of the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the leads of the UNEP ASGM Partnership. The ASGM industry in the Philippines employs about 300,000 miners and supports the livelihood of about two million. It is also responsible for at least 80 percent of the country’s annual gold production.

“With the spiraling gold price and lack of livelihood opportunities in the countryside, these figures will continue to increase,” says Gutierrez.

The complexities of the issues faced by ASGM would however reveal that mercury is only the tip of the big iceberg. The industry has been blamed for aggravation of forest denudation, landscape destruction, contamination of water bodies, land tenure and resource use conflicts, exposure of miners to occupational health and safety hazards, exploitation of workers especially minors, absence of social security benefits, among others.

“The economic contributions of the industry have been undermined by mounting pressure to improve its social and environmental performance,” says Cuna. “We hope to address these concerns as we head towards solutions to improve the quality of life of small-scale gold miners and their families.”


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