Many miners feel they have no choice but to go on using mercury. As one artisanal gold-miner in the Congo told me: "I will die of starvation before I die of mercury poisoning."
The challenge is clear. Over the 20 odd years that I have worked as an ethical jeweller, I can honestly say that the most disturbing practice I have continually witnessed has been the use of liquid mercury by small-scale miners to extract the tiny particles of gold that can be found in crushed rock.
To imagine the horror that is mercury and gold, is to travel to a world driven by poverty, exploitation, desperation, ecological trauma and depressingly, political corruption and un-transparent business practice.
Readers of The Ecologist may already know of some of the impacts on animal, vegetable and human life, when ingested in regular quantities. Yet its relationship with gold jewellery is often overlooked.
Unregulated mining a huge source of mercury pollution
Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining (ASM) is the biggest source of mercury air and water pollution in the world, contaminating soils and water supplies leading to degradation of agricultural land and also entering the human food chain through soil-grown foods and fish.
Impacts can also include deforestation, pollution from dust and mud, and the elimination of local wildlife by habitat destruction, toxic overload and hunting for food.
However ASM is not significantly dirtier per unit of output than large-scale mining (LSM) activities, and since ASM processes use much less ore than large-scale mining per ounce of gold, the magnitude of its impact on the land is much smaller.
The environmental issues associated with ASM stem from the fact that unlike large-scale mining, it is largely unregulated and therefore harder to manage responsibly.
In the vast majority of cases, mineral deposits are found underground in hard rock called ore. Hard rock mining requires miners to process the ore above ground in order to extract gold deposits.
Mercury - one of the most toxic substances known to man
Most commonly in ASM the ore is mixed with mercury, which is cheap, readily available to miners and effective at extracting gold from the ore. Mercury is mixed with ore and water to form a mixture known as an amalgam, which is then heated causing the mercury to evaporate, leaving residual gold and other metals.
It is an effective method, however mercury is a highly toxic neuro-chemical, which causes long-term damage to human health and the environment.
There are severe risks to health from daily contact with toxic chemicals used to process gold, such as mercury, cyanide and nitric acid. Exposure to mercury vapours and ingestion from contaminated water and food can lead to colic, vomiting, gastroenteritis, kidney complaints, muscular tremors and ulceration of gums.
Chronic mercury poisoning can result in speech disturbances, lack of concentration, depression, muscular atrophy and seizures. In simple terms it destroys life.
But many miners feel they have no choice but to go on using mercury. As one artisanal gold-miner in the Congo told me: "I will die of starvation before I die of mercury poisoning."
The change is starting to happen
Yet this simply need not be the case and over thge last ten years we have begun to see a number of encouraging steps towards providing alternatives to this toxic ecological turbulence.
And the International Fairtrade Movement has been at the forefront of driving this change through its mining partners in South America and East Africa.
By enabling them to met the criteria of the Fairtrade standard for gold and precious metals, ASM miners are seeing tangible transformation on the ground in health & safety; handling of chemicals; child labour issues; organisational strengthening; and improvements to workers rights.
And central to this Fairtrade standard are both the responsible management of mercury, and progress towards it eradication.
'Responsible management' means using personal protective equipment (gloves, masks etc.) when amalgamating the mercury with gold, and using retorts, a simple piece of equipment which captures mercury vapour when burning the amalgam and not discharging mercury into the water system and the wider environment.
If managed responsibly, small scale mining will provide a significant opportunity for poverty reduction and sustainable development for millions of people.
Genuine economic incentives are driving the transformation
Yet what is clear from experience, is that without genuine economic incentives for ASM miners, any chance of reducing or eradicating mercury from gold mining is drastically reduced and ultimately can be eliminated.
Miners need to eat and it is this politics of daily bread that keep miners wedded to the muddy pit of gold extraction. And this is where the 'best in class' Fairtrade development standards - linked to a guaranteed minimum price (95% of gold fix) and a Fairtrade premium of $2,000 per kilo - are so critical.
Additionally the Fairtrade Standard for Gold includes an incentive for mining organizations that do not use chemicals when mining and promotes environmental conservation.
The gold produced by such groups is known as 'Fairtrade Ecological Gold' and provides a higher Fairtrade Premium to the mining organization of 15% on top of the purchase price, compared to $2,000 per kilo for certified gold produced using chemicals.
For many miners' organizations, the Fairtrade Premium can provide a unique opportunity to obtain the funds needed to invest in more environmentally friendly and safer processing technologies and work towards eliminating mercury, in line with the Minamata Convention.
Consumer power and supply chain transparency
Yet the key to this change rests in the hands of consumers and the availability to purchase Fairtrade certified gold, and on this count the UK market leads the way.
Here we have the greatest number of Fairtrade gold license holders, with over 50 jewellery companies and brands dedicated to creating collections with FT gold, and over 100 individual goldsmiths signed up to the innovative goldsmiths registration scheme.
And now we are seeing the systemic adoption of FT gold by the manufacturers and casting houses as well. This is of enormous strategic importance to realising the Fairtrade vision of the systemic integration of the Fairtrade principles into the mainstream jewellery trade.
As a jeweller I know how un-transparent and traceable the jewellery supply chain is and how consumers really will not have a clue when they buy jeweller of the real costs of this purchase. It is strange to think that jewellery is one of the very last areas of our society to open up to ethical business practices.
Join Fairtrade's 'I DO' campaign
Yet the dark conservative forces of 'no change' are now becoming more marginalised and will hopefully die out, once the Fairtrade 'I DO' campaign launches early next year.
The 'I DO' campaign aims to revolutionising the way consumer see their gold jewellery purchases, and will focus specifically on wedding rings. Every jeweller knows that a good portion of their annual income comes from the bridal sector, and every wedding needs two gold rings.
It is a very achievable objective to get the wedding ring market in the UK a default Fairtrade gold purchase. In doing so the transformational change on the ground with ASM miners and the impact this will have on will be phenomenal.
Imagine 50,000 weddings exchanging 100,000 wedding rings. This would mean an average annual demand of 500 kilo's of FT Gold from certified sources, and around $1 million USD of FT premium that could be ploughed back into mercury eradication projects by the local communities.
We need consumers to drive the change and to make the stand and so 2015 will be focussed on driving consumer awareness.
I trust that Ecologist readers will get behind the Fairtrade I DO campaign and help us all to make the difference!
Greg Valerio is an award winning ethical jeweller, pioneer of Fairtrade Gold and currently acts as an industry advisor to Fairtrade International.
More information on Fairtrade Gold.
Campaign: the 'I DO' campaign will go live in January 2014. To pre-register your support please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To locate a jeweller using Fairtrade certified gold jewellery please visit www.fairgold.org.