Mercury, Mining and Mongolian Ninjas

Mongolia old man

This week’s post comes from Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who was recently in Mongolia.


There is no preparing for the Mongolian winter. When I stepped onto the tarmac in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the early morning of February 10th, the cold shot straight through my two winter jackets as if to mock them.

It was -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35C). I was in Mongolia to kickoff a two-year project to support healthy, sustainable livelihoods in rural Mongolian mining communities and to introduce mercury-free gold mining methods.

Size of Western Europe, Population of Brooklyn

Mongolia is approximately the size of Western Europe, but with the population of Brooklyn. So if you’re picturing a sweeping, beautiful and little-inhabited landscape, you’ve got it. In fact, much of Mongolia looks like the old default Microsoft Windows background with the rolling green hills and cloud dotted sky.

At its height, the Mongolian empire was the largest contiguous empire in history, spanning from Korea to Hungary. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the economy was in disarray and many Mongolians returned to the traditional nomadic lifestyle of herding livestock.

20% of Rural Mongolian Workforce are Gold “Ninjas”

Between 1999 and 2002, Mongolia experienced three consecutive dry summers followed by extraordinarily harsh winters (apparently worse than the balmy -31F I was experiencing). During this period, 11 million livestock animals perished, wiping out the income source for much of the rural population.

Photos: Garrie Pixerten and Enkhbold Sumiya

These events, combined with a surge in the price of gold, enticed more than 100,000 Mongolians (20% of the rural workforce) into the small-scale gold mining business by 2007.

Throughout the country, these miners are referred to as “ninjas.” The etymology of the term ninja seems to stem from the green panning bowls that the miners carry on their back, resembling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yes, really).

This sudden and dramatic increase in informal mining activity threatened both the environment and public health. The primary risk was the widespread use of mercury to separate gold from mined dirt and rock. Mercury is a potentially deadly neurotoxicant. Once released into the environment, it can quickly enter the food chain and poison people and animals.

In 2008, the Mongolian government banned the use of mercury in mining. Without a suitable alternative, many miners were immediately faced with the choice of either losing their livelihood or continuing their work illegally. With the generous support of the European Union, Blacksmith Institute is now working to provide such an alternative.

From Philippines to Mongolia: Testing a Mercury-Free Alternative 

MongoliaFor at least the last thirty years, independent miners in the Philippines have been effectively and efficiently extracting gold without the use of mercury. These miners use a method to separate gold from other material that is commonly referred to as the “borax method” or “direct smelting method.” This method uses a environmentally benign substance, borax, to reduce the melting point of gold, thus allowing miners to smelt (or melt) the gold out of the other material. You can find a more complete description of this process here, or watch a video.

Over the next two years, Blacksmith Institute will work with the Mongolian government, civil society groups and miner’s collectives in Mongolia to conduct environmental monitoring, health education, training in mercury-free mining methods, and other programs to provide mining communities with a safe, legal and sustainable source of income.

After a very positive project inception meeting, I look forward to collaborating with the many public, private and non-profit actors that have already made great progress on this issue. Mongolia is a dramatic and beautiful country, with incredibly warn, hospitable people. I am eager to come back, but never again in February.

Mongolia plains animals



Helping Countries Abide By Minamata

Photo from Revisiting Minamata, and a Storied Mentor, New York Times, Credit: Takeshi Ishikawa

Earlier this month, Blacksmith was with the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) in Minamata, Japan, to witness the landmark signing of the first international treaty to curb mercury pollution, and to help countries abide by the agreement.

To date, Blacksmith has identified 425 sites contaminated by mercury, with about 10.9 million men, women and children at risk from these sites (see table).

Read – The Toxic Toll of Mercury: Facts, Figures and The Future of “Dancing Cat Fever” Disease

As secretariat for the GAHP, Blacksmith hosted an event in Minamata to introduce delegates from 140 countries to GAHP resources, which include technical and financial resources to help low-and middle-income countries reduce mercury emissions and mitigate human health risks from mercury-contaminated sites.

The event also presented examples of successful on-the-ground projects conducted by two GAHP members: UNIDO and Indonesian Ministry of Environment.

“We want low- and middle-income countries to know that they can ask the GAHP for help to abide by the Minamata Convention. They will not have to do this alone,” says Blacksmith president Richard Fuller.

Mercury is one of the top six toxic threats, as identified by Blacksmith’s 2010 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report, and is considered one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern by WHO.

Because of its propensity to travel and linger, mercury, in particular, is a global problem that can only be solved with an approach that is international in scope.  This is why the Minamata Convention is key to a better, mercury-free future.  With GAHP’s help, it can be a reality.

To join GAHP or seek GAHP help, contact the GAHP Secretariat at

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Filipino Gold Miner’s Borax Revolution

Filipino_Goldminer_Blacksmith_InstituteA movement is taking root in the small province of Benguet in the Philippines that might just revolutionize the artisanal gold mining industry and greatly reduce worldwide toxic mercury emissions. Gold miners there are rediscovering a century-old method of gold extraction using non-toxic borax instead of mercury.

If artisanal gold miners around the world can be convinced to switch to borax, it would prevent the release of about 1,000 tons of toxic mercury a year – about 30% of the world’s mercury emissions.

We spoke with Leoncio Na-Oy, a gold miner in Benguet, about the method. Unable to find a job after graduating with a degree in history, Leoncio turned to gold mining and has since been a vocal supporter of a what’s been called “the borax method,” helping to spread the word to fellow miners in the Philippines and beyond.

He told us that elders in Benguet have been using borax to extract gold since the 1900s. But in the 1960s and 70s, large gold mining concerns came into the region and introduced mercury. However, Leoncio told us that many miners in Benguet have since gone back to using borax because it returns much more gold. This is what he told us:

There is a significant difference. For example, the percentage of purity of gold using the borax method is 15.8. If you use mercury, it is 14.8.

If miners see that the borax process is efficient and that they can recover more gold and earn more, they will learn the new process. That is the primary argument to get them to use borax. For instance, we tell them that for 1 kilo of gold we will use only 400 grams of borax, which can be bought at P40/kilo. However, we will need to use P30,000 worth of mercury to get 1 kilo of gold.

Miners in other areas are just not aware of the borax method. There was a group of miners from Compostela Valley Diwalway who came to Benguet to see us use the borax method. When they saw the process they all were amazed that we could recover gold without mercury.

The miners are also unaware of the harmful effects of mercury. It was only brought to our attention in recent years by groups like BAN TOXICS. It was only when Peter Appel* came to the area that our borax method started to be promoted in other areas. We became volunteers to spread the method. 

Now, the Benguet Federation of ASGM (artisanal gold miners) has a 15-year program to totally stop the use of mercury. All 15,000 affiliated members of the federation are now using borax. However, there are few rogue miners that still use mercury and we are trying to convince them to switch.

Update: Leoncio has been working with Blacksmith to test the method in artisanal gold mining communities in Bolivia and Mongolia.

Watch a video of the Borax method.

* Peter Appel is a scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland in Copenhagen (GEUS), part of Dialogos, a Danish consortium, working with Ban Toxics, their local partner in the Philippines.