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Nigerian Gold Mining Reform a Blueprint to Reducing Global Lead and Mercury Exposure

January 2015

(Washington)  The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has released a comprehensive assessment of Nigeria’s artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector, designed to improve long-term health and environmental outcomes. The assessment emphasizes how reforming mining practices can lead not only to healthier communities and a safer environment, but also to greater economic prosperity. The report’s recommendations can serve as a blueprint to reducing acute lead and mercury exposure in other countries.

In 2010, Nigeria made international headlines following a major lead poisoning outbreak in Zamfara State linked to artisanal gold mining activities. The outbreak killed hundreds and underscored the chronic exposure to lead—as well as mercury— that was taking place every day throughout much of the country due to unregulated gold mining operations.

Following the lead poisoning outbreak, ELI’s Africa Program Co-Director Lisa Goldman led the Institute’s efforts to analyze how to use the legal framework governing artisanal and small-scale mining to address the environmental and public health impacts of ASGM activities in Nigeria. The resulting assessment, “Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining in Nigeria: Recommendations to Address Mercury and Lead Exposure,” focuses on formalization of the ASGM sector as a key approach for reducing environmental contamination in the West African nation.

Formalization – or the integration of artisanal mining activities into a country’s legal, economic, and institutional framework – “is likely the single best long-term approach for addressing the mercury and lead problems associated with artisanal mining in Zamfara and elsewhere,” says Goldman.

Unlike countries such as Ghana and Burkina Faso, Nigeria currently has no formal gold mining sector. While gold prices vary and are subject to boom-and-bust cycles, high prices have attracted a large wave of informal ASGM miners. The number of miners is further bolstered by a ready supply of mercury to process raw ore and a lack of viable alternative livelihoods. This has led to a resurgence of ASGM activities in Nigeria, accompanied by dire health, environmental, social, and economic consequences.

Globally, the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector is the largest intentional-use source of mercury pollution in the world. Recognizing this threat, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted in January 2013, and has since been signed by both Nigeria and the United States.

The assessment reflects ELI’s approach to designing comprehensive solutions to pervasive environmental problems. It draws on desk research as well as two trips to Nigeria, where Goldman met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, and mining groups and visited mining processing sites in Zamfara State for a firsthand glimpse into the dynamics of lead and mercury exposure in mining operations. Written for both the Nigerian government and other countries confronting ASGM problems, it presents a set of 10 detailed legal, institutional, and financial recommendations that include steps to strengthen access to land, improve the ASGM licensing process, ensure environmental protection, facilitate easier access to markets, and improve coordination among institutions and stakeholders. 

The report also outlines proposals for implementing these objectives. With the global focus turning to implementation of the Minamata Convention, key follow-up activities would include the development, with robust public participation, of a National Action Plan for addressing mercury use in ASGM activities, as required under the Convention.  Other recommended measures include the formation of a national commission, working group, or stakeholder advisory group; efforts to strengthen the capacity of government ministries and agencies; education and outreach on new legal and regulatory requirements for miners, their families, and communities; engagement of the private sector; and clarification of the role that enforcement should play in an improved ASGM legal framework.

According to Goldman, “Reformed mining practices that lead to healthier communities and a safer environment are also more economically efficient. By aligning the incentives for all players, the assessment’s recommendations seek to promote three interrelated objectives: save health and lives, strengthen environmental protection, and generate income for national and community development. This report can serve as a model for other governments confronting challenges with their informal ASGM sectors.”

The report and executive summary are available for free downloads from the ELI website.