Jakarta. A group representing Indonesia’s unregulated small-scale gold miners has pledged to phase out the use of mercury over the next three years.
Indonesian mining companies have since 2013 been required to halt the use of the heavy metal in industries such as gold mining, cosmetics production and power generation, under the Minamoto Convention on Mercury, which the government signed along with 93 other countries in Kumamoto, Japan.
While small-scale miners are unregulated, the government in 2014 announced a plan to phase out their use of mercury by 2018, making Indonesia the first country to do so.
Now the miners themselves have finally committed to the move, with the Indonesian Artisanal Miners Association (APRI) saying on Friday that its members would cease using mercury in their operations by 2018.
“We fully realize the dangerous potential of mercury on our environment and health now and in the future,” Gatot Sugiharto, the APRI chairman, said at an event in Jakarta on Friday to announce the commitment.
While mercury is no longer used in regulated, large-scale gold mining, small-scale miners who typically operate illegally in existing concessions or forests continue to use the metal to bind gold flakes. They then burn off the mercury from the resulting amalgam, releasing toxins into the air and ground that then make their way into the groundwater.
The United Nations Environment Program has identified small-scale gold mining as the single biggest source of mercury emissions globally. In Indonesia, this kind of mining accounts for 57.5 percent of mercury emissions, equivalent to 195 tons per year.
Friday’s declaration was made before officials from the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, and the Finance Ministry, who welcomed and praised the APRI’s commitment.
“The declaration will be a historic moment for Indonesia’s efforts in environmental management,” said Tuti Hendrawati Mintarsih, the Environment Ministry’s director general for toxics material and waste management.
Mercury is typically imported into Indonesia through legal channels for use in light industrial and medical applications, but a thriving black market exists for the illegal gold trade.
Heru Pambudi, the Finance Ministry’s director general of customs and excise, said that this year alone his office had confiscated 14 containers of illegal mercury, worth an estimated Rp 47.8 billion ($3.47 million) and destined largely for the illegal gold mining industry.
“The customs and excise office is ready to work together with everyone from the downstream to the upstream sectors to monitor illegal sales of mercury,” he said.
To get small-scale miners to stop using mercury, the government is promising regulatory incentives such as clearly marked-out concessions, said Bambang Gatot Suriyono, the Energy Ministry’s director general for minerals and coal.
“The central government can help with establishing gold mining sites for small-scale miners, but we also urge the local authorities to provide them with operating permits and to conduct feasibility studies,” he said.
Tuti said her office would undertake studies to find eco-friendly and harmless alternatives for mercury that the miners could use.
Tari Tritarayati, a senior adviser to the health minister on regulatory affairs, warned that substituting mercury with other metals, such as cyanide, could be just as dangerous or worse.
“We need to be very careful in finding the best alternatives for mercury,” she said.