Mercury Miners in Mexico: Racing Against Time for a New Beginningmercuryminers,Mexico,racingagainsttime,newbeginning
Mercury Miners in Mexico: Racing Against Time for a New Beginning

Mercury Miners in Mexico: Racing Against Time for a New Beginning

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The Minamata Convention on Mercury and the Transition of Mexican Miners


As the sun rises over Mexico‘s Sierra Gorda nature reserve, it illuminates the vast wilderness that stretches across nearly 400,000 hectares of mountains, gorges, and valleys. In the heart of this wilderness lies the Bucareli mercury mine, where miners like Jose Vigil toil every day, extracting mercury, a highly toxic substance. However, their time in this profession is quickly running out. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a Multilateral Environmental Agreement, is set to make mercury mining illegal in Mexico and the rest of the world by 2032. This development has left many miners worried about their future and how they will support their families.

Currently, unemployment in Bucareli stands at over 70 per cent, making the lack of job opportunities a grave concern for the miners. Mexico is the world’s second largest producer of mercury, after China, producing approximately 200 tonnes of the toxic material each year. The Mexican government, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), has initiated a project to help the 19 communities in the Sierra Gorda region transition towards alternative, mercury-free livelihoods.

Health and Environmental Risks

Mercury is a neurotoxin that poses serious health risks. Even at low levels of exposure, it can cause damage to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, as mercury can lead to miscarriage. Furthermore, mercury does not break down in the environment and instead accumulates in food chains, posing a threat to wildlife and humans who consume contaminated food.

Mercury has been used for centuries due to its versatility, with various applications in cosmetics, alchemy, medical devices, electronics, and gold and silver mining. While most large mercury mines have closed globally, the increased demand for gold and higher gold prices have driven the growth of small-scale gold mining, resulting in the construction of new informal mines. This means that even though large-scale mining operations have declined, the dangers associated with mercury remain a significant concern.

The Process of Mercury Mining

In Bucareli, miners extract mercury from cinnabar, a dark rock that is ground and heated in a furnace. As the cinnabar evaporates, mercury vapor rises and condenses in cooling tubes, collecting in a container. The remaining burnt cinnabar is discarded into the environment, leading to pollution in the region.

Miners like Jose Vigil are repeatedly exposed to toxic fumes during this process, often suffering from a range of health problems. The dangers of mercury mining are evident, and miners are desperate for alternative employment opportunities.

Transitioning to Alternative Livelihoods

Recognizing the need to protect human health and the environment, the Mexican government, in collaboration with UNEP and GEF, has launched a project to facilitate the transition of miners in the Sierra Gorda region to new occupations. This project provides job training to miners to acquire new skills and supports them in starting their own businesses. Additionally, the project advocates for the closure of mercury mines and the prevention of new mining operations through legislation.

While the isolated location of Bucareli has presented challenges for establishing alternative businesses, there are promising opportunities in ecotourism, agriculture, and forest management. The Sierra Gorda region has seen a steady growth in tourism over the past decade, attracting approximately 218,000 visitors annually. Miners can potentially contribute to this sector by providing various services and creating new businesses.

Other employment opportunities include harvesting oregano and pine nuts, as well as participating in forest management to prevent future wildfires. The funding from GEF aims to kickstart these activities and enable miners to dedicate themselves fully to new occupations, leaving behind primary mercury mining.

Editorial and Philosophical Discussion

The phasing out of mercury mining in Mexico and the rest of the world is a significant step towards protecting both human health and the environment. The Minamata Convention on Mercury recognizes the grave dangers associated with mercury exposure and aims to find sustainable alternatives to this toxic substance.

While the transition away from mercury mining presents challenges for miners, it also presents an opportunity to create safer and more environmentally friendly livelihoods. The support provided by the Mexican government, UNEP, and GEF is crucial in facilitating this transition and ensuring that miners have the necessary training and resources to pursue alternative occupations.

The shift towards ecotourism, agriculture, and forest management not only promotes sustainable practices but also highlights the rich natural resources and beauty of regions like the Sierra Gorda. It is essential to recognize that protecting the environment and creating economic opportunities are not mutually exclusive goals. By harnessing the natural resources in a responsible and sustainable manner, communities can thrive while preserving the integrity of their surroundings.

This situation also raises broader questions about the impact of industrial activities on the environment and human health. The story of mercury mining in Mexico serves as a reminder of the need to critically evaluate the costs and benefits of certain industries. While economic development is vital for communities, it should not come at the expense of the environment and human wellbeing.

Advice and Conclusion

To effectively transition away from mercury mining, it is crucial to provide adequate support to miners and their communities. Job training programs, access to capital for starting new businesses, and legislation to close mercury mines and prevent new ones are all important components of this transition.

It is essential for the Mexican government and its partners to continue working closely with miners and community leaders to identify viable alternative livelihoods. The potential in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, and forest management should be explored, providing opportunities for both employment and sustainable economic growth.

Furthermore, it is important to invest in education and awareness programs to educate the public about the dangers of mercury and the importance of transitioning to safer alternatives. By raising awareness and supporting environmentally responsible practices, it is possible to create a pollution-free future.

The transition of Mexican miners away from mercury mining is a complex process that requires commitment, collaboration, and long-term planning. However, with the right support and investment, it is possible to create a future where both miners and the environment can thrive.


Mercury Miners in Mexico: Racing Against Time for a New Beginning
<< photo by cottonbro studio >>
The image is for illustrative purposes only and does not depict the actual situation.

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G'day, mates! I'm Greg Buckley, and I've been reporting here in the land Down Under for the last 15 years. I'm all about sports and culture, so if there's a footy match or an art exhibit, you'll likely see me there. Let's give it a burl together, Australia!

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