Environmental group Ban Toxics (BT) has enabled small-scale miners in a town in Kalinga to adopt a less toxic method of extracting gold from the ore without having to use mercury, a toxic chemical that is harmful both to humans and the environment.
BT said that following a three-year intervention program, it helped 95 percent of small-scale gold miners in the town of Ga’ang, Kalinga Province to use mercury-free methods.
Under the program, called “Kayang kaya ng maliliit na minerong Pilipino,” BT executive director Richard Gutierrez said they have successfully prevented at least two metric tons of mercury, a toxic chemical widely used in small-scale mining operations, from being released to the environment.
Key to this success, Gutierrez said, was the transition of the Banao Tribe to mercury-free mining methods.
“Our efforts would not be possible without the Ga’ang miners’ openness to change and the local government’s support, and the wisdom of the elders of the Banao-Bodong Association (BBA) to understand the problem and act on it,” Gutierrez said in a forum in Quezon City recently.
Evelyn Cubelo, BT’s Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Program manager, said that Ga’ang miners are now using an indigenous mining technique called the “Benguet method,” which utilizes gravity and borax predominantly.
“Our Kalinga experience is proof that Pinoy small-scale miners will go away from mercury if they are given the proper knowledge, tools, training and support,” Cubelo said.
In addition to providing technical training to miners, BT also assisted the BBA in amending their rules that now explicitly ban the use of mercury in Ga’ang. For its part, the Kalinga provincial government also passed a resolution in 2013 that prohibits the use of mercury in all mining activities.
According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB), the primary source of mercury emission in the Philippines comes from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).
Despite the risk to health and the environment, small-scale miners all over the country have used mercury indiscriminately without precautionary measures to protect themselves and their communities.
“Used by gold miners to capture gold ore, the use of mercury in small-scale mining activities poses a threat to the miner, their families and the community at large.”
She noted that for every kilogram of gold produced by small-scale miners, about 200 grams of mercury is used to extract the gold from the ore.
In 2011, a test conducted by the Research and Development and Laboratory Services Section of the DENR-EMB estimates that the annual mercury discharge in the country was about 70 metric tons.
Cubelo said not only does the use of mercury pollutes rivers and other tributaries, it is also more expensive and therefore reduces the profit of miners.
“But with the use of the Benguet method, miners are about to produce a higher quality of gold with less expenses and no health risks for the miners,” she said.
Despite being more laborious, the environmentalist said that the native method ensures miners of 70 percent recovery of the gold from the ore compared with 50 percent recovery with the use of mercury.
Besides Kalinga province, Ban Toxics is also implementing this alternative method of mining in the gold rich provinces of Compostella Valley, South Cotabato, and Camarines Norte.
Founded in 2006, Ban Toxics is a non-government organization dedicated to the advancement of social and environmental justice. Working closely with government agencies, partner communities and other NGOs, BT endeavours to reduce and eliminate the use of harmful toxins through its programs that are backed by education campaigns, awareness raising and policy building.