Driving through the rolling hills and farming villages of western Kenya’s Kakamega County, it’s apparent why the region is known as the country’s green jewel. Agriculture is the most visible industry, and the primary source of jobs. But off the main roads, hidden out of sight, is a growing industry: small-scale, informal gold mining.
Problems abound with these unregulated worksites which release toxins such as mercury and cyanide into the environment.
But jobs are scarce in Kakamega, a county where over 800,000 people live below the poverty line. When it comes to making a living, the mine workers – many of whom risk their lives underground or handle mercury every day – have few other options.
This conflict, between health, environmental protection and economic opportunity is not just limited to Kenya, but playing out on a broader scale in countries around the world.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining, or ASGM, is a controversial but important global industry and vital source of livelihoods which is often overlooked, or overshadowed, by large-scale projects. While these mines are small, they are significant contributors to local development and the global gold market.
Of all the gold extracted around the world each year, 15 per cent comes from small-scale mines. Ninety per cent of the global gold mining workforce, around 10 to 15 million people, work in ASGM. In turn, these workers indirectly support over 100 million people, by injecting cash into rural economies.
But poor practices at these mines create numerous health and environmental problems and of particular importance are those related to mercury.
Mercury use, and its effects, has in recent years received more attention from the global community. In August 2017, the Minamata Convention which aims to protect humans and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury, entered into force.
This international treaty, the result of years of cooperation and negotiation between almost 140 countries, encourages country-specific plans that phase out unsafe practices while allowing people to benefit from responsible mining.
Back at the informal mine in Kakamega, inefficient and dangerous practices are seen at every stage of the mining process. The area bears more semblance to a village rather than a worksite. Tin-roof houses and businesses that cater to the workers are clustered around the mine while children run around everywhere. One can’t escape the deafening noises from rock crushers and a pump that is emptying the flooded mine.
But besides this handful of machines most of the work is done by hand. The ground ore is brought into contact with mercury in large mud pits, where miners work without gloves to extract the gold. The mercury is then separated from the gold using wood fires, a technique known as open burning in which the mercury vapourizes, leaving the gold in a crucible.
Jacob Ochungo, a mechanic at the mine, acknowledges there are issues with how they extract gold, but counters that people have few options and not enough help from the government. “We think about the problems. But earning a living becomes more important than taking care of the environment,” he says.
“It would be good if the government could regulate sales so we could receive a fair price and also ensure that people do not live and mine in the same place. But employment is scarce, so this is the only way these people can earn a living.”
These ineffective and outdated techniques for extracting gold, described in the Minamata Convention as “worst practices”, have a range of negative impacts on people and the environment. At many small-scale sites, practices such as whole ore amalgamation and open burning are the norm. Compared with more refined techniques, these methods recover much less gold, damage worker health and release large amounts of toxins into the environment. Consequently, ASGM is the world's largest source of mercury pollution.
In some instances, workers add cyanide to the amalgamation tailings to extract more gold, which combines with mercury to create toxic compounds. While mining as a whole always impacts the environment, lack of regulation at small-scale and informal mines means that the effects can be exacerbated, directly harming those involved in the industry.
Less than a year after the Minamata Convention came into force, 32 countries have already begun work on their national action plans to counter mercury pollution. The most tangible benefit so far has been engagement in field research, which is helping governments understand the situation on the ground. Historically, lack of data on the often-informal sector has prevented countries from keeping tabs on the industry.
In Kenya, the UN is also financing projects to improve the small-scale mining sector. Over $4 million from the Global Environment Facility is being used to teach best practices, help miners access financing and to move towards mercury-free mining.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining will no doubt continue to be an important source of livelihoods in the developing world. But while some environmental degradation is inevitable, it’s important to find a balance and minimize harm to people and the planet.
Learn more about UN Environment’s work in the extractive sector.