New technology for responsible mining

Communities in Puno are making use of new technology to have mercury-free, artisanal and small-scale, gold mining, responsible for their health and the environment.

Photo: Heidi Haeberle /GIRH-TDPS / UNDP

The district of Ananea is located in the south of Peru, in the region of Puno, famous for Lake Titicaca; its name derives from the Quechua “Ananay” which means What beauty! How nice! In the middle of the Andes mountain range, at more than 4610 meters above sea level, with a climate that easily reaches -5 °C at night, the landscape mixes between the Puna grassland and the brown of the soil removed by the mining activity in the zone.

Probably the most emblematic and internationally known place in this district is La Rinconada. Located in the Ananea snow-capped mountain, this town has been visited by journalists from different parts of the world, whose publications show the complex environmental and social problems around the extraction of gold. Issues that now the communities are trying to solve with the use of mercury-free technologies.

A strong community characterizes gold-mining in Puno, there is a heavy presence of cooperatives and associations. According to the data of the latest Comprehensive Mining Formalization Registry (REINFO) of the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Peru (MINEM), the Puno region registers more than 12,500 artisanal and small-scale mining organizations in the process of formalization.

Among them is the Oro Sur Mining Cooperative, where Elvis Macedo has worked as Occupational Health, Safety & Environmental Manager for 6 years. He is from Puno, was born in Azángaro, and points out that “the great positive impact that mining leaves in Puno are the profits and economic gains that help the development and progress of the region.”

According to the 2017 census of the National Institute of Statistics and Information of Peru (INEI), Ananea is a district inhabited by 12,615 people, who are mainly dedicated to mining and camelid breeding, with artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) as the largest source of local work, either directly or indirectly.

Data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicate that in 2019 Ananea presented a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.6184, this in numerical terms should reflect better quality of life in the town; however, the contrast of life expectancy at birth with per capita family income invites us to reflect. Ananea registered a life expectancy at birth of 61.62 years in 2019, well below the national average of 75.42 years; likewise, their per capita family income was S/ 1,672.7 nuevos soles (450 USD), an amount above the S/ 950 nuevos soles (250 USD) of the minimum wage in Peru.

“Mining’s most positive impact at this moment is the development of the region, but the negative that mining leaves us in Puno is the pollution caused by the use of mercury,” says Juana Quea, president of the Polar Bear Mining Society, also registered in the REINFO. Juana is one of the few women who raises her voice in a predominantly male mining sector and is aware of the problems that afflict the district and the need for a change that artisanal and small-scale gold mining should carry out in the region.

Elvis agrees with Juana, considering mercury as a toxic substance that can generate a “serious impact on the occupational health of the workers who handle it and on the environment”, and also adds that its use occurs “because so far mercury has not been replaced with another more effective substance that helps in the recovery of gold in mining ”.

Photo: Heidi Haeberle /GIRH-TDPS / UNDP

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is currently the largest source of mercury emission and release in the world. Mercury has the property of forming an amalgam with gold, which is why it is frequently used to separate and extract gold from rock, sand, or other material in which it is found.

This metal, cataloged by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the ten chemical substances of greatest concern to public health, is used in ASGM in one or more of the processes that require the extraction of gold, either grinding, washing, and/or works; each one releases different amounts of mercury.

Although in Puno, the use of retorts has spread among mining cooperatives, the practice of outdoors refogueo is still common. Through this process the amalgam is heated so that the mercury evaporates and the gold remains; when this is done without using a mercury-trapping mechanism, such as the retort, a large number of vapors are released into the environment, which is inhaled by miners and bystanders. Mercury can travel long distances, generating a cycle of contamination that extends to surrounding communities.

Photo: Heidi Haeberle /GIRH-TDPS / UNDP

Exposure to mercury by both miners and communities can be reduced and avoided with alternative mercury-free technologies, which can be simple and effective. To bring these technologies closer to miners, the planetGOLD Perú and GIRH-TDPS projects organized equipment and technology tests in December 2020 in the Ananea district.

Both projects are financed by the Global Environment Fund (GEF), implemented in Peru by the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM), in partnership with the Ministry of Energy and Mines and with technical support from the United Nations Program for the Development (UNDP). Likewise, the work in Puno is carried out in close coordination with the Regional Directorate of Energy and Mines.

On December 9th to 11th, the meeting was held at San Antonio, Santiago, and Limata mining cooperatives, with the attendance of about 70 people among cooperative associates, mining workers, and public officials of the region, who were able to see the equipment on-site, test them and answer doubts directly with the suppliers about the operation, investment and technical assistance.

During the event, gravimetric technologies such as the vibrating screen, gravimetric tables, and centrifugal concentrators were tested. These do not require mercury; their operation is based on gravity and the difference in weight between gold and the other minerals that accompany it during its separation.

These metallurgical tests are important for the determination of the most appropriate equipment and technologies for the characteristics of each deposit, thus allowing optimization of its production process and reducing the environmental impacts that mining work may generate in the region. In the same way, they will be used for the pilot plants that both planetGOLD Peru and the GIRH-TDPS plan to start up in Puno.

Photo: Heidi Haeberle /GIRH-TDPS / UNDP

“The implementation of clean technologies can be delayed due to its costs and the economic investment it requires”, Juana tells us, during the technology tests in Ananea, “but it is best to abandon the use of mercury” she emphasizes.

Elvis, for his part, indicates that “some mining companies have already gradually implemented clean technologies, also a few small artisanal miners”. This in view of realizing that these new technologies allow greater recovery of the mineral, which can be even more than 95%.

The acceptance from the miners who attended the mercury-free technology tests is a good sign of ASGM’s interest in Ananea to improve its practices. A change that can generate not only greater profitability for the mining company, but also allows a safer and cleaner source of work to be provided to the thousands of local people whose daily sustenance for their families depends on this activity. A small change that promotes environmental care and that can generate major positive changes in the socio-economic development of the region.

Story by: Jane Lazarte — planetGOLD Perú (UNDP) / Edition by: Sally Jabiel

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