Colombia is the fourth-largest gold producer in Latin America by volume, and gold mining remains the heart and soul of many communities throughout the country. While Colombia produced 68 tons of gold in 2016, only 14 tons were produced by a handful of licit operations. The remaining 80 percent, or 54 tons, were mined and sold illegally, either by transnational criminal organizations or artisanal and small-scale gold miners. Almost all of this gold was exported to the United States.
Mercury use is rampant within artisanal and small gold mining operations and results in air and water pollution in municipalities across Colombia. Working to address these systemic challenges, and with an eye towards eventually joining the Minamata Convention, the government passed a law in 2013 which gave five years to transition to the total elimination of mercury use in mining by July 2018; yet significant technical, human, and cultural impediments stand in the way of meeting the ban on mercury.
Recognizing the enormous challenges posed by illicit mining and mercury use, Embassy Bogota joined with the embassies of Canada, Switzerland, and the European Union in a unique partnership to coordinate donor activities and collaborate with the Colombian government in the lead-up to the July 2018 total ban on mercury use in mining. While there are always challenges to coordinating major public campaigns and conferences among four diplomatic missions – each with their own objectives and ideas – the message of solidarity and cooperation that the embassies conveyed to Colombia was powerful and spurred key groups to work together.
The Embassies launched a media campaign, entitled Mejor Sin Mercurio (Better Without Mercury) in key mining communities across Colombia to raise awareness of the harmful impact of mercury on human health and the environment. Traditional outreach was coupled with innovative messaging techniques such as a graffiti contest which allowed local artists to creatively highlight the harmful impacts of the element. Building on the media campaign, the diplomatic missions launched three regional workshops, again in key municipalities, to bring community stakeholders together to discuss gold mining and highlight technological alternatives to mercury use.
The months-long effort culminated on March 13, 2018, with a conference that brought together local and national policymakers, international experts, the private sector, artisanal miners, NGOs, academics and media to discuss enforcement of the mercury ban, changing cultural norms to encourage miners to give up mercury use, alternative technologies for gold extraction, and international best practices for small-scale miners. Ambassadors from the four partner countries opened the conference, with U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker sharing a personal account of his first encounter with the environmental damage wrought by illicit mining and mercury use in Colombia’s biodiverse pacific region. The Colombian Minister of Environment and Vice Minister of Mines, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, non-governmental organizations, gold refiners, local governments, and of course miners themselves, shared experiences, highlighted methods for reducing mercury use and employing alternative technologies, and debated how not only the government, but all stakeholders, can join together to tackle the challenge.
More than 250 people attended the event, and media coverage was widespread. One Colombian government interlocutor commented that the event “finally sparked a conversation that we should have been having for years.” All involved are determined to keep the collaboration going, seeking new ways to partner with each other and Colombia to address illicit mining and mercury use.
About the Author: Nathaniel Rettenmayer is an Environment, Science, Technology and Health Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.