Uganda on course to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury

If all goes according to plan, by the end of this year Uganda should have ratified the Minamata Convention on mercury. This will bring us to the world stage, joining 70 other countries that have already taken the bold leap forward to regulate and in some aspects eliminate the use mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic substance that possesses some unique chemical properties that are hard to find anywhere else in nature.

In Uganda, the most prevalent use of mercury is in the Artisanal and Small scale Gold Mining (ASGM) sector. Other common uses are in dental amalgam, thermometers, barometers, manometers, skin lightning creams, soaps and lotions, some types of paints, among others. Although it is being slowly phased out in some of these sectors, its use still remains highly popular and highly unregulated in the ASGM industry.

A freshly burnt lump of Gold/Mercury amalgam in the hands of an artisanal gold miner in Busia, Eastern Uganda. (Photo: Rukundo Joshua, EWAD Fairtrade Gold project)

The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has recently concluded compilation of the national mercury inventory as required by the Minamata Convention on mercury. EWAD, among other stakeholders from government agencies and civil society, was actively involved in the data collection and subsequent reviews of the data and the generated reports. The inventory shows the current estimated levels of mercury in the air, land and water, with Artisanal and Small scale Gold mining being the largest contributor to mercury pollution of all the sources of pollution.
Mercury, despite its uses, poses many health risks including;

  • loss of peripheral vision
  • “pins and needles” feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth
  • lack of coordination of movements
  • impairment of speech, hearing, walking
  • muscle weakness

and a rather dangerous characteristic of bio-accumulation up the food chain, especially in fish that is eventually consumed by human beings. Having a detailed inventory of mercury, citing sources and levels of pollution provides stakeholders with a guiding framework to enable them tackle the spread of mercury into the environment and lives of people that have not yet been affected.

In a quest to curb the spread of mercury use, EWAD is championing Africa’s first certified Fairtrade Gold producer, a mining group in Busia called Syanyonja Artisan Miners’ Alliance to produce gold using¬† an entirely mercury free process.

Syanyonja Artisan Miners’ Alliance processing plant which aims to help them produce mercury free gold. (Photo: Rukundo Joshua, EWAD Fairtrade Gold project)

Specks of gold from SAMA’s mercury free process in the course of smelting with Borax (Photo: Rukundo Joshua, EWAD Fairtrade Gold project)