The Illegal Trade in Chemicals

Annex 5: Mercury trafficking for illegal gold mining in Colombia

Scope of the problem

irregular gold mining were undertaken, which led to 870 arrests. The police and military, often through joint task forces, carried out most of these operations. Depending on the operation, personnel from the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation, the Technical Investigation Team, the Regional Autonomous Corporations and others, like the National Army of Peru, also participated. 9 For many years large quantities of mercury have come into Colombia, both legally and illegally, mostly for use in the growing number of small-scale gold mining projects. The sources and routes of imported mercury have adapted to the changing international environment. Between 2004 and 2011, Spain, The Netherlands, the United States and Germany were the main sources or trading hubs for mercury imported by Colombia. Spain sold mercury from domestic mining until 2011. The Netherlands was a key international trading hub for mercury. And German and American industry sold mercury that originated largely from process changes in chlor-alkali production facilities. A 2011 regulation banning the export of mercury from the European Union effectively ended the European exports. 10 In 2012 and 2013, most of Colombia’s 216 tonnes of legal mercury imports came from Mexico, with a smaller part coming from the US, which implemented its own export ban in 2013. From 2014 to 2016, according to data submitted by both Colombian and Mexican authorities to the Comtrade database, 75 per cent of Colombia’s 379 tonnes of documented mercury imports continued to come from Mexico. 11 One anomaly in the Comtrade data for this period (2014– 2016) is that Colombia reported importing 43 tonnes of mercury from Spain and none from Switzerland, the UAE or Panama. Conversely, during the same period Spain reported zero exports of mercury to Colombia, while Switzerland, the UAE and Panama together reported exports of 37 tonnes of mercury to Colombia. The two most likely explanations, assuming the mercury was not exported directly from Spain in contravention of the EU mercury export ban (under the 2008 EU Mercury Regulation), would appear to be: • Spanish mercury held in Switzerland, the UAE or Panama was exported to Colombia with shipping documents showing its original origin as Spain • Mercury was exported to Colombia by an Internet company falsely claiming to be based in Spain, and falsely claiming that Spain was the origin of the mercury in order to give the appearance of a higher quality product Mercury sources and routes

The use of mercury in Colombian illegal gold mining projects 1 has become a common practice: up to 180 tonnes of mercury per year have been used, according to a recent assessment of the Artisanal Gold Council. 2 In 2011, widespread artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) inColombiawas identifiedas the sourceof significant per capita mercury pollution. A scientific study within the Antioquia department identified Segovia and Zaragoza as the world’s most mercury-contaminated municipalities. 3 Researchers found mercury concentrations in the air of up to 1,000 times the WHO limit, and an investigationby theUniversity of Antioquia revealed many cases of acute mercury poisoning and chronic toxicity in persons working in ASGM activities. 4 Since the late2000s, revenues from illicitmininghavegradually managed to exceed Colombia’s infamous cocaine economy (J. Wyss and K. Gurney, “Dirty gold is the new cocaine in Colombia—and it’s just as bloody,”Miami Herald, 16 Jan 2018, updated 23 Jan 2018). In the mining region of Barbacoas, for example, the Commander of the National Police Force’s Illegal Mining Unit said that various armed groups are all seeking control of the gold trade and the riches that go with it. 5 Recent estimates suggest that illicit mining operations have become a $2.4 billion industry in Colombia. 6 In this informal sector, about 200,000 subsistence miners provide for their families, 7 but they represent only a fraction of those whose health is at risk because of mercury contamination. A recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that 14 of the 32 departments in Colombia were affected by illegal mining projects in 2016, accounting for 80 per cent of the country’s gold production. 8 In line with its recent ratification of the Minamata Convention, Colombia prohibited the use of mercury in all mining operations as of 16 July 2018. This measure is part of a more comprehensive plan to combat mercury trafficking and illegal use, which will require some years to fully implement. According to the plan, all industrial applications of mercury will be banned by 2023, and the current mercury import quota of 100 tonnes per year will be reduced to 5 tonnes per year, destined primarily for the health sector (e.g., thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, laboratory chemicals, etc.). Official responses to illegal mining and mercury trafficking

In parallel there have been other efforts to combat the use of mercury. In 2016, more than 1,700 operations against

The Illegal Trade in Chemicals


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