Earlier this year, Pure Earth launched an ambitious project in Peru, supported by Brilliant Earth, the global leader in ethically sourced fine jewelry. The goal: to transform the Chichiqueros artisanal gold mining community into a mercury-free model. The Chichiqueros work in an area in Peru’s rainforest that was placed under a state of emergency in 2016 due to uncontrolled mercury contamination. The project is now at the half-way point. Here is an update.
Meet the Maqque family, part of the Chichiquero gold mining community in Madre de Dios, Peru. We recently held a workshop to teach this clan of gold miners how to go mercury free, so they can work together safely.
Thanks to funding from Brilliant Earth, about 40 Chichiqueros were successfully trained in the mercury-free technique in January. Following this, Maqque family approached the Chichiquero Mining Association to request a workshop for their family of miners. So in May, when the Pure Earth team returned to the region to do more trainings, we scheduled a special session for the family in remote La Isla, where they live and work
Two local miner-trainers (seen in the photo above, on the left) from our partner organization CREEH, who had themselves undergone a mercury-free workshop in Lima, led the training.
After a five-hour journey by land and river, the team reached La Isla.
Located in Madre de Dios, La Isla has suffered so much deforestation due to gold mining that it looks like an island in the middle of the rainforest, hence the name.
The area has been scrapped bare by larger mining operations. Now, artisanal and small-scale gold miners like the Maqque family make a living by finding the small bits of gold left behind.
In fact, the word Chichiqueros comes from the word “chiquito,” meaning tiny. It has been said that these miners are known as Chichiqueros because they are forced to make a big sacrifice for a small reward: they unwittingly poison their families and contaminate their communities with mercury just to extract a minute return of gold.
The problem facing artisanal gold mining communities is not confined to Peru. The Maqques are like millions of other artisanal and small-scale miners all over the world, who use mercury to help them extract small traces of gold. In fact, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the leading source of global mercury emissions.
Over the past few years, Pure Earth has been testing and teaching mercury-free methods in a number of countries and we have found that most miners are very excited when they find out that there is a mercury-free alternative.
In Mongolia, for example, our workshops have successfully trained over 1000 artisanal and small-scale miners to date, and we have a long waiting list of many more miners eager to learn how to go mercury free.
The Maqque family of seven, including a baby, has been growing increasingly concerned about how mercury was affecting their health, especially with the baby nearby. They told us about headaches and other symptoms they suffered, they believed, because of exposure to toxic mercury.
The younger members of the family were most eager to learn the mercury-free method and were the first to get their hands dirty with our two instructors, who began by teaching effective panning techniques to concentrate the small bits of gold.
The family is excited at the idea that they can finally all work together safely without using mercury.
The señora of the family had previously not worked as a miner but now she is learning the method since she can now do work closer to the family’s living area.
Below, the instructors are showing the family the final step in the process, where the concentrated gold mixture obtained from panning is mixed with non-toxic borax, instead of mercury, and then burned off, leaving behind the gold.
This is the other big motivation for the family – the economic incentive. The mercury-free technique has been shown to extract more gold at less cost.
The results speak for themselves. Here, the delighted family shows off the fruits of their labor. After one training workshop, the family is ready for a better way to work and live.