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Faces of change: Fighting for a mercury-free future

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Charito Elcano turned 60 this year, a milestone in a life fraught with ups and downs, challenges and opportunities and – in her case – tragedy. A tragedy that took the life of her brother and son and made her a fierce advocate for non-mercury small-scale gold mining.

Charito yearns for the old days when they used a traditional method using local grass to extract gold and is keen to have a mercury-free gold processing facility in or near her community of Luklukan Sur, in the lush seaside province of Camarines Norte in the Philippines. While some miners remain sceptical of the dangers of mercury use, Charito says awareness is building.

“It is changing slowly”, she says, “thanks to the work of BAN Toxics in raising awareness among miners here.”

BAN Toxics is UN Environment’s partner in the Philippines for the Global Environment Facility-backed Global Opportunities for Long-Term Development of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Sector programme – or GEF GOLD. The programme aims to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining and introduce and facilitate access to mercury-free extraction methods, while also working with governments to formalize the sector, promoting miners rights, safety and their access to markets.

The artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s annual gold production – but it is also the single largest source of man-made mercury emissions globally. Around the world, some 12-15 million people work in the sector – including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children. In the Philippines, artisanal mining takes place in more than half of the country’s provinces, supporting more than 2 million people and producing 80 per cent of the nation’s gold supply each year.

Mercury is often used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining to separate gold from sediments or ore using rudimentary processing methods. The use of mercury can lead to serious neurological and health issues for miners – especially for pregnant women and children. A 2006 UN study found mercury levels as high as 50 times the World Health Organization level for safe exposure among surveyed gold miners in the Philippines.

A native of Luklukan Sur, where mining has been a mainstay for generations, Charito left her village for a career in the textile industry when she was young. But after years of regularly uprooting her family to follow work, in 1989 she decided it was time to return home. And – as for so many of her neighbours – for Charito and her family, returning home meant mining.

The heavy price of riches

Charito was one of the lucky ones, and after funding a dig on her family’s land, in 1990 she struck gold – a full 8 kgs of it [$320,000 at current market rates]. Afraid that word would get out and they would be robbed or extorted out of their find, Charito and her team decided to process the gold at home. Her memory of that evening is vivid.

“The team leader told me to get 10 kilos of mercury and we worked from morning till dawn the next day. Around 5 pm my son started coughing and I told him to take a break while everyone stopped to eat. Later, I went up to the room where my son slept, and on my way up, I noticed that the room was covered with ash.”

“I looked down at my foot and saw traces of mercury droplets from my shoes on the stairs,” she recounts. “I went to my son who was coughing. On my way, I stepped on my brother’s foot, his body was taut and tense. On my way back, I nudged him, and his body was rigid.”

Charito rushed her then nine-year-old son and her brother to the hospital, where they were hospitalized for three days. Her brother died on the second day. Her son passed on 15 years later from complications related to his mercury poisoning.

Her family tragedy drove Charito away from mining, but with few other opportunities in the province, within a few years she financed a new dig – although this time, she knew the dangers the lure of quick riches brought with them.

Risks and rights

Today, Charito is a peer educator on mercury risks, as well as the President of the Women Miners Association in Luklukan Sur. With 28 members, the Association was registered in October 2017 and aims to help women and family members of ‘players’ – parties who have a share in a mine – to understand and manage the risks of their trade.

“Women in mining suffer. They have to budget what their husbands give them and find other sources of income. Our members mostly work as cooks at mine sites. They also gather waste in mining sites and look for gold from among the waste,” she says.

With the bulk of mineral exploration rights in Camarines Norte held by just a handful of companies, even miners who own their own land still struggle for the right to exploit the riches that lie underneath it. Without permits, they operate outside the law, risking heavy fines and even jail time as they struggle to feed their families by pursuing the only the business they know. Charito says that when the authorities do crack down on miners, the cost of release is often as high as 25,000 pesos (more than $1,300) per head – a hefty sum for most miners, who often subsist on as little as $3-$7 a day.

While Charito has applied for permits for her mining site, the complicated processes involved and a lack of national-level support for the rights of artisanal miners mean the outcome is far from certain.

“Our mayor is very supportive of small-scale miners like us and also some international agencies,” she says. “I had a hard time because there was so much to prepare. I will also have to have meetings with right holders, miners and financers.”

Charito says she tries not to use mercury in her operations, but looks forward to mercury-free facilities and alternatives that she and her community can use. She is adamant that while they wait and even if she meets with resistance, she will continue to educate her peers on the dangers of mercury use and champion stopping its use. She knows the harm it can do. She has first hand experience of it.

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WhatsApp-ening with Forests and Climate in Togo?

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After years of working in environmental protection in Togo, Brigitte Acakpo-Addra identified a problem in need of an innovative solution. While the country was making encouraging strides to reduce its emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), women weren’t adequately integrated into REDD+ activities and decision making. They didn’t feel that they had proper access to capacity-building to help them deal with climate change, land tenure and the negative impacts of deforestation.

Given Togolese women’s significant role in forestry and natural resource management, and their dependence on forest resources for food, fuel and medicines, Acakpo-Addra knew something had to change. In 2016, she founded Le Consortium Femmes REDD+ Togo (CF-REDD+) – a national platform that brings together members from women’s organizations in forest governance. CF-REDD+ is composed of 62 members, ranging in age from 30 to 60 years old, who come from the five administrative regions of the country.

Acakpo-Addra soon realized it would be difficult to bring this geographically-dispersed group together on a regular basis. That’s when she got the idea to start using the mobile application WhatsApp. CF-REDD+ now uses the social media tool to host weekly meetings on activities, capacity-building trainings, and urgent information related to forest conservation in Togo. These remote meetings are guided via text by either Acakpo-Addra or CF-REDD+’s support staff, and are now well-attended, with an average of 64% of the group’s participants engaging in each meeting.

The weekly WhatsApp meetings have helped improve CF-REDD+ member’s knowledge of climate change and the status of forest emission reductions in Togo. This communications solution has increased women’s involvement, enabling them to integrate forest conservation activities into their grassroots women’s organizations.

“My participation in the WhatsApp group meetings allow me to better understand climate change and the validity of the REDD+ process in Togo. And I can share this knowledge in other community meetings and with my organization,” says Kokoe Mawulolo Logosu-Teko, CF-REDD+ member.

The weekly WhatsApp meetings have also helped to coordinate CF-REDD+ initiatives over the past year. In May of 2017, the consortium went on a national awareness tour in 60 communities (reaching close to 7,000 women and 300 men) to promote forest-friendly practices, including improved cookstoves, to limit charcoal use.

“These events gave women confidence to believe they are change-makers who have the power to help reduce greenhouse gases, and increase women’s representation in REDD+ efforts,” says Acakpo-Addra.

Acakpo-Addra was recently appointed to represent women in Togo’s National REDD+ Committee, which is the highest decision-making body for REDD+ in the country. Moving forward, she hopes to continue forest-friendly demonstrations in more communities, as well as setting up monitoring committees in villages, and assist countries, including Burkina Faso and Madagascar, in developing women’s platforms for sustainable forest management.

World Bank’s work on gender and forest conservation

CF-REDD+ should be proud for taking steps to fight deforestation in Togo, and recognize women’s socioeconomic role in the process. The experience of CF-REDD+ provides a great example for other countries seeking to further engage women in forest conservation.

The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) continues to align its work with the Bank’s Gender Equality Strategy (FY16–23), to ensure women are treated as partners in the design and implementation of forest conservation initiatives. The Bank’s Gender Strategy and its associated Action Plan are helping the FCPF work with participating countries to find new entry points to mainstream and track gender considerations in REDD+ and larger emission reductions programs.

This initiative in Togo is providing good lessons for the FCPF’s future gender work. It’s a real-world example of how REDD+ is not just a commitment to reduce the carbon footprint from forests, but also a gateway to embed social inclusion and gender equality in sustainable development.

Source: World Bank

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Flagship Afghan Rural Program Lays Strong Foundation for the Future

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Photo Credit: Rumi Consultancy/ World Bank

The azan sounds from the village mosque as people gather for the noontime prayer. Shir Khan, 39, leaves off working on his crops and walks past fields of ripening wheat, across the flowing waters of the irrigation canal, toward the village mosque.

It has been more than 15 years since Shir Khan returned from Pakistan to his native village, Melani Kalay, more than 15 kilometers west of Khost city in southeastern Afghanistan. Nestled in a broad sweeping valley, and surrounded by bare brown hills, the inhabitants of the village have long endured both floods and water shortages. In recent years, however, they have seen a great deal of improvement in their lives with the help of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP).

Some 15 years ago the village had no irrigation canal nor enough water for its people. The farmlands in the village were dry, especially in summer, the peak growing season, and locals had to work as day laborers in neighboring villages or venture out to the provincial capital of Khost city to earn a bare living.

“We had no water to irrigate our lands,” remembers Shir Khan, who farms a tiny patch of land (2 jeribs or 0.4 hectare) in the village. “As all the male villagers worked as unskilled agricultural laborers and there was never enough labor, we never had enough money to look after our families.” The irrigation canal, he says, has greatly improved the situation.

“The irrigation canal is a lifeline for us,” says Besmillah, 40, a farmer and another CDC member. “Our financial situation has steadily improved since the canal was built. Now most people work on their own farms and some even take their produce to sell in the market.”

Today, the canal irrigates large tracts of village farmland (56 hectares) with pomegranates and walnuts accounting for the largest share of horticultural production. The villagers also grow wheat, maize, alfalfa, and clover, and crop yields have risen. All told, more than 290 families have benefitted from the canal.

The five-kilometer long canal was one of the results of the NSP. The NSP not only brought village communities together but also empowered them to identify, plan, manage, and monitor their own projects through their local Community Development Council (CDC).

Apart from the much-needed canal — built at a cost of about 1.5 million afghanis ($22,000) — the NSP also enabled the villagers to construct a series of walls to protect their lands from flooding in the winter, spending 1.9 million afghanis ($28,000) on the effort. Each time, the villagers contributed 10 percent to the project costs. Following this, the NSP gave the village a grant of 640,000 afghanis ($9,600) for the repair maintenance of the canal, under its Maintenance Cash Grants (MCG) sub-program.

Importantly, the NSP helped village communities resolve any conflicts or problems that arose amongst them. “The NSP was our project and we had a deep respect for it,” says Besmillah.  “It not only gave us many things like roads and schools, it also established CDCs and unified us.”

“Melani Kalay inhabitants now gather in the mosque to make decisions, solve conflicts, and resolve other matters related to the village,” adds Haji Pir Salimuddin, another member of the local CDC. “This has now become normal for them.”

Building on the NSP

The NSP, which ran for thirteen years and closed in March 2017, helped communities across Afghanistan build roads and schools, and bring drinking water, irrigation, and electricity to their villages. “We can say that a significant number of the basic needs of the people in the communities covered by NSP in the province have been met though the NSP,” says Engineer Sayed Ghaffar, monitoring and evaluation officer in Khost province.

The NSP has now been succeeded by the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP). The CCAP seeks to strengthen the CDCs and aims to bring infrastructure and social services for 10 million people in all the country’s 34 provinces and four large municipalities over the next four years.

The Citizens Charter is an inter-ministerial, multi-sectorial NPP, where Ministries have collaborated to provide basic services to rural communities. The key service delivery ministries involved are: Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), Ministry of Education (MoE), Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), with oversight by Ministry of Finance (MoF). MRRD has a key role and will be responsible for infrastructural development and strengthening CDCs and Cluster CDCs.

“I know that NSP is now being succeeded by the new project – CCAP,” says Besmillah, who is hopeful for the future. “Under the new project, we will implement bigger projects, which would hopefully benefit more people.”

After more than a decade of experience in project implementation and local governance, CDCs will be able to implement projects more efficiently. “We are very happy about the NSP projects and have learned a lot from them, and this will help us to implement the CCAP much better.”

NSP was supported by the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank Group’s fund for the poorest countries, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF), and other bilateral donors.

The CCAP, supported by ARTF and IDA and resources from the Afghan Government, has defined a set of core infrastructure and services that the government will provide to all accessible communities. The Citizens’ Charter will be the first inter-ministerial program where ministries will collaborate on a single program in both rural and urban areas.

  • NSP established more than 35,000 CDCs throughout Afghanistan.
  • In Khost province alone, 1,138 CDCs were established across all the 13 districts.
  • 2,900 NSP projects were implemented in different sectors in this province alone.

Source: World Bank

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Life made simpler and sustainable among vulnerable communities in Colombia

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Fishermen who make their living from the Cauca River in the south of Colombia have had their daily task made easier by adapting their traditional rafts to solar power.

That is just one of the concrete sustainable actions enabled by Pacto Planeta  a civil society organization designing, implementing and tracking high impact social and environmental projects in 12 provinces in Colombia. Its main goal is to help organizations with environmental projects to maximise their impact.

The project works closely with School Laboratories for Sustainable Development (LEDS) and has three main action areas: environment and climate change, designing pedagogical notebooks to learn maths and English with exercises based around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and, training of teachers.

The LEDS scheme helps schools in socially vulnerable populations by teaching students about the six SDGs relating to climate change, food security, gender equality and health. This is done through one-year voluntary programmes that include building educational spaces within schools which act as laboratories for learning about the SDGs, building community gardens, classrooms with low cost ecology construction techniques, solar plants, compost systems and improving communal spaces with murals which are also directed to inspire girls particularly to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Catering for a variety of needs

Project Manager Christhian Verdugo said: ‘We work with a huge variety of different communities, urban and rural, including different ethnic groups, indigenous people, and populations who have suffered violence and displacement.”

‘Everyone’s needs are different. In Bogota, we have many people who have fled guerrilla conflict to restart their lives and need employment. In urban areas, the need might be for sustainable agriculture or we might teach people how to turn garbage into ecobricks for fuel. In particularly arid regions like Cartagena where there is little soil, hydroponic growing can make an enormous difference. Indigenous communities may suffer social issues like food insecurity.’

Since its inception, Pacto Planeta has taken part in more than 350 corporate volunteer activities in 12 provinces of Colombia working with communities, teachers, students from early childhood and their parents. It also participated in two UN Youth Assemblies in New York.

The LEDS project is currently financed by private business and the plan for 2018 is to secure funding from large business foundations. By 2020, Pacto Planeta will be present in 20 % of public schools in Colombia and is already looking to expand.

‘Last year I was in the UN Assembly and shared our work with many Guatemalan friends and colleagues who have the same vision. Many of the problems and social issues they are facing are the same as in Colombia. We plan to spread the work we are doing here to Guatemala where there are already similar projects.’

For Christhian, the greatest challenge remains convincing people whose lives have been scarred by conflict to believe in sustainable development values.

‘The easiest to convince are children and young people who are open and responsive to the work that is needed to be done to reach the targets of the SDGs,” he said.

Children who have taken part in growing their own gardens or managing water wisely easily take up leadership roles in their local environments and become adults who promote sustainable solutions.

‘The remaining challenge is to convince the 30 to 40-year-olds who are poor and living in areas which have suffered from guerrilla conflict. They are suspicious about everything,’ Christhian said.

And there is a need to prepare for the future.

‘The end of the conflict in several regions of Colombia will lead to the creation of new population centres and the development of small economic centres, which is why new generations living in these regions should be made aware of sustainable alternatives for developing their communities in post-conflict scenarios,’ he said.

Source: UNICEF

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