One Ananea, multiple realities
The district of Ananea is 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 4,610 metres above sea level, with a climate that easily reaches -5 °C at night.
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 of gold extraction. Issues that communities are trying to solve without using mercury.
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 six 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.”
“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. 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.”
Dangers of mercury
Small-scale gold mining is 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 as one of the ten chemical substances of greatest concern to public health, is in one or more of the processes that require the extraction of gold.
In Puno, the practice of outdoors refogueo is still common. The amalgam is heated so that the mercury evaporates and the gold remains; when this is done without using a mercury-trapping mechanism vapors are released and is inhaled by miners. Mercury can travel long distances, generating a cycle of contamination that extends to surrounding communities.
New mercury-free technologies
Exposure to mercury by both miners and communities can be reduced and avoided with simple and effective mercury-free technologies. To bring these technologies closer to miners, the planetGOLD Perú and GIRH-TDPS projects organized equipment and technology tests in December .
Both projects are financed by the Global Environment Fund (GEF), implemented in Peru by the Ministry of the Environment, in partnership with the Ministry of Energy and Mines and with technical support from UNDP. The work in Puno is carried out in close coordination with the Regional Directorate of Energy and Mines.
About 70 people attended the initial meeting and were able to see and test the equipment, and ask suppliers questions.
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, allowing optimization of its production process and reducing the environmental impact that mining work generates.
Road to a responsible gold mining
“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.”
The acceptance from the miners who attended the mercury-free technology tests is a good sign. 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; Photos by: UNDP Peru/Heidi Haeberle