Mercury is a toxic heavy metal threatening human and environmental health worldwide. In response, the international community is negotiating a multilateral environmental agreement on mercury that will open for signatures in 2013. Its successful implementation will depend on reform in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector (ASGM), the second largest source of mercury emissions globally. These 15 million men, women and children in mainly developing countries use mercury-based gold mining techniques to earn informal subsistence livelihoods in environmentally sensitive contexts where few alternatives exist. In addition to harming these communities, mercury emitted from ASGM bioaccumulates in aquatic food chains, harming consumers of seafood worldwide. This article asks how international efforts focusing on ASGM can ensure that phasing out mercury both protects human health globally and supports livelihoods locally. By drawing on insights from past international efforts, it argues that improved capacity building and technology transfer programs will be critical to reducing mercury’s impact in the immediate and longer-range future. The new fair-trade gold certification process and non-mining livelihood options are explored, as are the broader linkages between global policy and local livelihoods and their implications for continuing sustainability efforts.
Kristin Sippl is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. She conducts research on global environmental politics, development, and local sustainability transitions.
Henrik Selin is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University. He studies international political, scientific and technical efforts to better manage hazardous chemicals and heavy metals.