The Minamata Convention on Mercury: A Beginner’s Guide

Sebastian Normandin, Ph.D.
Director of Communications, Artisanal Gold Council (AGC)

First a little history. In 2001 the United Nations Environment Programme undertook a global assessment of mercury levels and their impacts. By 2003 it was decided that those impacts were significant enough to merit international action on reducing the risk of mercury exposure in the global environment. By 2009 it was decided that voluntary action in regards to these reductions was insufficient and that further action was required, mainly the production of a globally legally binding instrument to push towards mercury reduction and elimination.

The Minamata Convention is born of these concerns and objectives. It is the culmination of five meetings of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee of UNEP over a period stretching from 2010 to late 2012. As a result of these discussions, Minamata became focused on the most significant source of anthropogenic mercury — artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM). And so for the purposes of the interests of the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) and other many other governments and agencies one of the key aspects of Minamata was its focus on the reduction and eventual elimination of the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining (AGM) sector. The Convention was enacted and implemented in earnest in January 2013.

In general, the Minamata convention is a broad document that concerns itself with many aspects of the problem of mercury in the global environment. It recognizes that mercury is a “chemical of global concern owing to its long-range atmospheric transport, its persistence once it is anthropogenically introduced,” and its ability to bio-accumulate in environments and have significant health impacts. Of particular health concern is the impact of mercury on vulnerable populations, and especially on a developing nervous system; at high risk are children, pregnant women and unborn children. Overall, Minamata seeks “to protect human health and environment from anthropogenic release of mercury” using the “best available techniques”. The latter definition focuses on what is practicable given the underdeveloped context of many of the anthropogenic sources of mercury release into the environment. There are articles in the Convention devoted to emissions, technology transfer, health, information exchange, public information, research, etc…

From the specific point of view of the AGM sector, the two most important parts of the document are Article 7 and Annex C, both of which are focused specifically on ASGM. Article 7 states that countries with artisanal gold mining that uses mercury will take steps to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate the use of mercury and mercury com-pounds in the process. These countries must develop and undertake a national action plan (NAP) no later than three (3) years after convention ratification. The NAP must be prepared in accordance with the convention’s annexes (mainly Annex C). Aspects in which countries are expected to cooperate in general include development strategies, education and outreach, research into sustainable non-mercury alternatives, technical and financial assistance, information exchange, and partnerships designed to assist in the implementation of these objectives.

Annex C specifies the aspects of a NAP. A NAP is expected to cover baseline estimates of mercury use, reductions targets and strategies, and more holistic considerations such as education, health, and professionalizing the AGM sector. These elements were included in the convention with the recognition that ASGM is a huge rural livelihood provider. It employs 10 million people and supports 100 million people worldwide. Public health and exposure issues are of particular concern in Annex C, and there are provisions for strategies to prevent the exposure of vulnerable populations.

My initial reaction as a beginner is that the Minamata Convention is an environmental and public health document first and foremost. It lays out guidelines, and obligates the development of strategies and procedures for best practices to reduce, and where possible eliminated, mercury in ASGM. What is clear is the ASGM is a main focus of the Convention, and thus the Convention can be used as a powerful tool to guide improvements in the ASGM sector. It is a document of high ideals that has, remarkably, despite its highly streamlined nature, become a key factor in raising awareness of the importance of many aspects of the ASGM sector to governments and other agencies. It is an incentive, tool and invaluable guide to moving towards best practices in ASGM in order to improve the health and well being of ASGM communities, while also obtaining an overall reduction of the impact of mercury on the global environment.

* For the booklet of the Minamata Convention, please visit
http://www.mercuryconvention.org/Convention/tabid/3426/Default.aspx