Stopping the illegal trafficking of mercury and gold to the west of Africa

In August 2017 the Minamata Convention came into effect related to the use of mercury, an element that has a great impact on a world scale and more specifically on 15 states in the west of Africa. In the convention, the states agreed to reduce, and if possible to eliminate, the use of mercury and its by-products, and also the emissions of this caused particularly by mining activity. During the process of extraction of gold in the region, very simple techniques involving little economic investment are used. Mercury is often used to separate the metal from the mineral and generally those people who treat this element are exposed to health problems such as intoxications and burns. The west of Africa is one of the richest areas in gold deposits, and mercury plays an essential part in this activity, as 2-3 million skilled miners use it to extract gold, and the sale of this means great revenue for the country’s economy. Most of the countries that make up the region of the west of Africa have signed and ratified this convention.

Curbing Illicit Mercury and Gold Flows in West AfricaA study published by Global Initiative against transnational organized crime stresses that the use of mercury and its by-products and their emissions have negative consequences for the African countries involved. Almost all the mercury is exported from the west of Africa. Although great amounts are imported illegally, there is a lot of informal trade, undercover and not recorded, which is on the increase. To give an example, nationals from Burkina Faso are considered to be responsible for most of the illegal trade and countries like the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ghana are the main consumers. Data related to mercury imports are included in the data estimations of mercury consumption, meaning that most mercury flows are illegal. Hence, if quantities of mercury are supplied, the flow of gold is also ensured. In this way, the supply chains both of gold and mercury create a strong circle that is very difficult to break.

The ECOWAS(Economic Community of Western African Countries stresses the need to include different institutions and government actors in order to discuss measures to coordinate mercury flows and combat illegal flows. Togo, for example, stresses the need for cooperation between countries. The Global Initiative study proposes the following recommendations:

  • Improve knowledge of mercury flows.
  • Standardise specific mercury regulating frameworks.
  • Provide an incentive for miners to extract gold without the use of mercury.
  • Focus regional efforts on the hubs of supply lines.
  • Harmonise the regimes of gold exports.
  • Strengthen regulating supervision of gold imports in end-of-destination hubs.

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