Women of Gold

Women of Gold
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The True Cost of Artisanal Gold

The mention of gold is appealing to the ear and always brings anxious feeling of value. One of the world’s most valuable metals is mainly associated with a classy lifestyle and wealth. But here is the big question; do you ever wonder who some of the faces behind all this beauty are? I am talking about the brave women who put their lives on the line to bring this awesome beauty to the world. I choose to call them women of gold not just because of the metal, but their golden spirit and determination.

An active artisanal gold recovery site in Migori

This is the reality that meets you when you pass around the active artisanal gold fields of Migori County in Kenya and by extension all the gold producing areas. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); artisanal gold mining contributes to about 20% of the global gold output and employs roughly 15-20 million active miners globally. Interestingly, about a third of the active artisanal gold miners are women and children. As young men pursue the ore in deep pits, women on the ground do the actual gold recovery. As they roll their sleeves and spread the mudlike rock fines, only one thing is in their mind; GOLD which equates to money. This is their only source of livelihood.

The danger and extent of mercury use in gold extraction

What is disturbing is the health and ecological risks associated with constant exposure to high mercury levels. Mercury is a neurotoxin whose exposure leads to toxic effects on the nervous system (e.g. psychotic reactions, hallucinations, suicidal tendencies and delirium), digestive and immune systems, on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes to both human and wildlife. Part of the reason why mercury is extremely toxic is because it can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption. Continuous exposure can lead to severe muscular spasm and can be fatal. Mercury exposure in children, pregnant and breastfeeding women is extremely dangerous since it’s most harmful in the early stages of development.

Holding mercury on bare hands

Release of mercury wastes to the atmosphere or waterways has lead to increased environmental damage especially marine pollution. Fish and vegetation in affected areas show significantly high mercury levels. Statistics show that more than 1,400 tons of toxic mercury is released into the environment every year in developing nations. This means that close to 4000kgs of mercury is dumped into our biosphere every day. It is estimated that about half of the mercury produced in human history was used in mining operations, making mercury one of the greatest threats our society is facing today.

The Paradox

An amalgamated pellet

Here is the puzzle; one of the world’s most dangerous metals easily traps gold from the concentrate into amalgamated pellets. The pellets are later heated, vaporizing the potent neuro-toxin mercury into the atmosphere and leaving behind the concentrated gold. Unconcerning to the hardworking women is that the joy for the metal and the few coins from its sale is only a lotion on a major underlying health hazard. The process exposes them to the toxic mercury fumes leave alone the unsafe handling of mercury with bare hands.

What is more disturbing is that the wages from this hard and risky labor barely meet their daily needs. This is because use of mercury only achieves about 20-30% efficiency in recovery of gold. Despite numerous campaigns by different organizations and governments on use of alternative methods that are both safe and more efficient, many miners don’t understand them and lack enough capital to invest in them.

It’s Time to Act

A miner at work

The world owes our brave mothers and sons a reward; which can only be a more environmentally safe, cost efficient substitute to mercury in gold recovery. The method should be readily available and acceptable to artisanal miners.  We must provide avenues and facilitation to switch from mercury-based extraction techniques to cleaner and more efficient ones. Coming up with regulations and policies that encourage mercury free recovery will go a long way in realizing a safer world. Different organizations and agencies lead by the Artisanal Gold Council and World Bank have been on the forefront in the fight towards elimination of mercury with projects and partnerships that have positively impacted many miners globally. Such efforts should be supported and broadened to every corner of the globe.

Zero usage of mercury is not an option anymore. The long term effects to the miners, future generations and the environment are devastating. Together we have a responsibility and capability of solving one of the most deadly health challenges the planet has ever faced.

Read more about artisanal gold mining: https://www.mininghubafrica.com/2019/02/02/sustainable-artisanal-mining/



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