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Abandoned artisanal gold mines in the Brazilian Amazon: A legacy of mercury pollution

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The modern gold rush in the Brazilian Amazon attracted millions of people to become artisanal miners in order to escape complete social marginalization. The rudimentary nature of artisanal mining activities often generates a legacy of extensive environmental degradation,both during operations and well after mining activities have ceased. One of the most significant environmental impacts is derived from the use of mercury (Hg), which is illegal for use in gold amalgamation in Brazil, but continues to be the preferred method employed by artisanal gold miners. The general population is unaware of the capricious nature of mercury and artisanal mining activities. Moreover, individuals in positions of political or economic infiuence tend to be negatively biased towards artisanal mining and government policies do not effectively address the realities of these activities. Affected communities have consequently been ignored,and mistrust towards outside parties is high. Not surprisingly, miners are suspicious of and unlikely to employ externally derived solutions to reduce mercury emissions. This article reviews the use of mercury in artisanal mining and highlights the role miners, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played in communicating facts, perpetuating myths and deriving solutions for mercury pollution. This article also raises some key concerns that must be addressed to understand the behaviour of mercury in the environment and identifies solutions for problems facing communities where artisanal gold mining operations have been abandoned.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Mining and Mineral Process Engineering, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Publication date: 2002-02-01

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