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Struggles loom as Bolivia prepares new plan to clean up its mercury problem

  • Bolivia’s failure to combat illegal gold mining led to international outcry last year, as deforestation and mercury pollution continued to run rampant.
  • Earlier this month, the government announced two plans to formalize small-scale and illegal gold mining operations and introduce technology that could help replace mercury.
  • However, some critics say the government has a bad track record for implementing sweeping industry regulations, which might look good on paper but fall flat in practice.
  • Major road investments in mining areas could also increase illegal activity at the same time the government is implementing regulations, as it will be easier for heavy machinery to access rural areas.

Bolivia’s failure to combat illegal gold mining generated a heated national debate last year. Numerous news sites published investigations into deforestation, pollution and corruption tied to the mining industry, while leading officials in congress and the UN made public calls for action by the central government, which had largely been silent on the issue.

The biggest concern was that mining operations make free use of mercury — a chemical that separates gold particles from soil — despite the country having signed onto an international convention to ban the toxic chemical a decade ago. There were also concerns that mining was happening on land that hadn’t been legally approved by regulators, allowing operations to dredge rivers, cut down trees and delegate work to foreign companies without proper oversight.

“In Bolivia, small-scale gold mining is the source of mercury emissions. Hundreds of tons of mercury are released into Indigenous territories every year, posing risks to people’s health and the environment and generating serious environmental injustices,” Marcos Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights, said last year.

President Luis Arce’s government responded to the criticism this January by announcing plans to improve regulations on gold mining and mercury, at a cost of over $6.5 million. But conservationists and officials alike are concerned the plans won’t be enough.

Miners at a January press conference on mercury regulations. (Photo courtesy of the Bolivia Information Agency)

One of the projects is a national action plan on mining, which still needs two years to be developed. Officials haven’t commented in detail on what the plan will include beyond that it transitions the country away from mercury, likely by banning imports. The plan is being developed by the MEDMIN Foundation, a Bolivian group developing sustainable practices for extractive industries.

The second project, called “Planet Gold,” aims to formalize small-scale and illegal mining in the next five years, improve transparency in gold supply chains and introduce mining technology to replace mercury. It will also provide training to miners.

Formalizing small-scale and illegal mining should, in theory, lead to greater regulation of those operations, which right now work largely under the radar. It will also increase revenue for the government by keeping more of the gold off the black market.

The projects are being carried out by the Ministry of Mining and Metallurgy, the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Ministry of Health and Sport, and have the backing of the Industrial Development Organization, a UN agency that helps nations with industrial development.

“The national government is committed to seeking the well-being and health of our population and that’s why we have to continue working in a coordinated manner with different institutions,” Juan Santos Cruz, the Minister of Environment and Water, said during a January press conference.

Many countries in Latin America have already banned the import of mercury and restricted its industrial use in accordance with the Minamata Convention, an international treaty regulating the mercury trade. Although Bolivia was a signer during the 2013 convention and congress ratified it two years later, the country did almost nothing to implement mercury regulations. The import and export of mercury is still legal, bolstering a black market for the rest of the region.

Observers are concerned there’s too much at stake financially to make such sweeping changes to the mining sector, which has enough social and political influence to halt policy changes if it isn’t feeling the economic benefits.

“[Mercury] alternatives exist,” Oscar Campanini Gonzales, Executive Director of the Bolivia Documentation and Information Center, an NGO, told Mongabay. “They have existed for a long time. But they have a certain complexity that requires some knowledge, some minimal investment, that I don’t believe the government is in a position to support.”

Officials announce development of a national action plan and Planet Gold. (Photo courtesy of the Bolivia Information Agency)

Another concern is that the country’s economic development in other sectors could lead to an increase in gold mining that will overwhelm government regulators.

A series of road and bridge projects in the north of the department of La Paz, where some of the worst illegal mining takes place, are currently in the tendering and pre-investment stage. One project would connect rural areas with the prominent mining town of Apolo only a few miles outside of Madidi National Park, which protects nearly 19,000-square-kilometers (7,300 square miles) of forest. The town has become a hub for cooperatives, who not only carry out unregulated mining with mercury but also control who can and cannot enter to enforce their activities — government officials included.

Other road projects in La Paz will connect it with the departments of Beni and Pando. The roads are poised to facilitate mining (as well as other extractive industries like timber) because they allow more people to enter with heavy machinery, according to Federico Magueño, a consultant on illicit activities in Bolivia.

“Because Bolivia is an underdeveloped country, illegal activities like the movement of contraband, drug trafficking and informal work are some of the biggest sources of employment,” Magueño said. “Especially young people. These new routes will enable more of them to work in wood and gold.”

He added, “Bureaucracy in Bolivia being what it is, the regulations imposed by the government will likely fall short.”

Banner image: Officials announce development of a national action plan and Planet Gold. (Photo courtesy of the Bolivia Information Agency)

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