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Faces of change: Fighting for a mercury-free future

MD Staff

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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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Green Planet

Reducing Carbon Emissions, Let Soil and Trees Do the Dirty Work

MD Staff

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By now, most of us are familiar with the role forests play in absorbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change around the world. But forests are just one part of a broader landscape that often includes water resources and farming that can also play an important role in climate change mitigation.

Climate-smart approaches to reducing emissions from forestry, agriculture and energy, among other sectors, have the greatest potential to improve sustainable livelihoods while limiting the impacts of climate change. The challenge, however, is how to systematically measure emission reductions across a landscape, in order to unlock results-based payments. And how can this be done in a straightforward way?

That’s where the BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL) comes in. In addition to the country programs it supports, the Initiative has pioneered a way to report and account for emission reductions across a diverse landscape. ISFL’s Emission Reductions Program Requirements show countries what they must have in place to receive payments from the ISFL for emission reductions generated by a range of sustainable activities across a landscape. The requirements are part of the BioCarbon Fund’s broader support to countries rewarding them for smarter land use planning, policies and practices.

In recent years, tropical forest countries have significantly improved their reporting and accounting methods for measuring emission reductions in the forestry sector, but many countries find it difficult to accurately report emissions data in other sectors. To respond to this challenge, ISFL built into its requirements a phased approach to emission reductions accounting. This approach allows a country to begin accounting, and receiving payments, for emission reductions from a limited set of land use categories that meet ISFL requirements. Countries can then add data from other sectors into their ISFL accounting, and receive payments for emission reductions from these sectors, as they become available.

These ISFL requirements are a significant new tool not only for countries, but also for the broader climate change community, as they will help test approaches to comprehensive landscape emissions reporting and accounting that could be expected of future emission reductions programs. It is hoped they will form the basis for countries to pilot innovative approaches to emissions accounting at the landscape level, and foster programs that change the trajectory of land use across jurisdictions over the long term. More than 100 countries included forests and land use in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which spell out how they commit to reducing their emissions.

World Bank

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Building a Climate-Resilient South Asia

MD Staff

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Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group

Last summer’s monsoon hit South Asia particularly hard and left nearly 1,400 people dead and displaced millions of others.

In the last sixty years, such weather extremes have become more common in the subcontinent and, without urgent action to limit carbon emissions, their impact on communities will likely get worse.

In addition to these extremes, average weather patterns are also changing with each year turning out to be warmer than the previous year and monsoon rainfall patterns are getting more and more erratic.

Eight hundred million South Asians to be exact – or half the region’s population—are at risk to see their standards of living and incomes decline as rising temperatures and more erratic rainfalls will cut down crop yields, make water more scare, and push more people away from their homes to seek safer places.

This worst-case scenario and relevant adaptation strategies underpin the upcoming report South Asia’s Hotspots, whose main findings were presented yesterday at a panel on building climate change resilience in South Asia at the World Bank Spring Meetings.

Its main author, World Bank Lead Economist Muthukumara Mani detailed how specific geographic areas across South Asia or “hotspots” which –until now—were relatively immune to climate change threats could be badly affected by 2050.

Most hotspots, Mani remarked, are located inland, already poor, have fewer roads and are isolated from main economic centers. And with many residents subsisting on farming, higher incidences of droughts or floods combined with extreme heat could further drive down their fragile wellbeing and force more people into poverty.

And while other manifestations of climate change such as sea level rise or natural disasters and their impact on economies have been well documented, less is known of the long-term effects of higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfalls on local communities.

It’s urgent to develop this understanding as most countries in South Asia have already passed their optimal temperature tipping points, beyond which standards of living and consumption are only expected to drop irreversibly.

To build resilience, the report recommends that South Asian countries better prioritize their financial resources where they’re most needed and target the most vulnerable individuals and families.

Mani noted that diversifying jobs beyond agriculture, investing in education and skills, and improving access to electricity can ease the expected decline in living standards caused by long-term climate impacts. Such actions, he argued, must be tailored to address the specific climate impacts and local conditions found in South Asia’s hotspots.

In the end, the cost of inaction—that is, if carbon emissions continue unabated—could be huge as countries with severe hotspots, Mani concluded, would see income in these areas drop by 14.4 percent in Bangladesh, 9.8 percent in India, and 10 percent in Sri Lanka by 2050.

Following the presentation, government, civil society, and academia elaborated on concrete climate actions and adaptation strategies to build a more resilient South Asia.

The panel included Ms. Mahmuda Begum, additional Secretary in World Bank Wing at Economic Relations Division at the Bangladesh’s Ministry of Finance, Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan,  Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, and Ms. Jaime Madrigano associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, USA. Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group moderated the discussion.

Noting that Pakistan’s soaring population coupled with shrinking arable lands present a challenge to the country’s environment sustainability and food security, Aisha Khan emphasized that building climate resilience should go hand in hand with better –that is, more open and inclusive—governance. Involving civil society, including women-run organizations, will bring greater accountability to climate change policies that will later impact the entire population. And that sense of co-ownership and shared responsibility, Khan added, is critical to civil society.

Such collaborations are key to building strategic climate resilience and, to be successful in the long term, should extend to partnership between countries. Water presents such an opportunity. “We in South Asia are the third pole…with the densest glaciers outside polar regions in the world,” she said. “Water being a common problem for all of us, we need to do more work together.”

When it was his turn to speak, Anand Patwardhan noted that the conversation about climate resilience would have to go beyond risks and be reframed around opportunities to further advance the development agenda. In India, large national programs such as Smart Cities or Swachh Bharat projects are two examples of how climate action can help achieve greater development outcomes. In South Asia, Patwardhan later remarked, a lot of infrastructure still needs to be put into place. There lies an opportunity to invest in natural infrastructure [that benefits both the economy and the environment] and ecosystem adaptation to advance resilience across the region.

World Bank

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Green Planet

New Satellite Animations of Earth Show How Quickly Humans Are Changing the Planet

MD Staff

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A new website that combines dramatic images from space with expert analysis of how humans are changing the planet will launch on World Earth Day (22 April).

EarthTime ties together diverse data layers to show the patterns and connections behind some of the major social and political trends of the past two decades – and how they are inscribed into fast-changing landscapes.

The platform has already been used in public outreach in schools and museums, and to inform world leaders at World Economic Forum events of major environmental and geoeconomic shifts, from air pollution to inequality. It uses images captured by NASA satellites since 1984.

The vision, and long-term goal, is to better inform everyone – including individuals, business heads and policy-makers – about the lives we lead, the decisions we make and the impact we have on the planet.

Nine expert analyses on global challenges will be launched on World Earth Day (22 April): deforestation, city growth, coral bleaching, fires at night, glaciers, renewables, sea-level rise, surface-water gain and loss and urban fragility. Other layers will be added in the months and years ahead. You can see them at www.earthtime.org.

EarthTime was developed by CREATE Lab (the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. It draws on the Forum’s network of experts to give analyses and to tell stories. Users will soon be able to create their own stories.

EarthTime uses more than 300 free, open-source, geospatial datasets – an unprecedented number for visualizations of this kind. Expert opinions make sense of the data and the connections between them allowing a layering of narratives (e.g., how did rise in the global demand for meat trigger deforestation, a major contributor to climate change?). These stories are combined with images from space captured by NASA satellites between 1984 and 2016.

Current datasets come from the World Bank, the UNHCR, NASA, Berkeley Earth, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Climate Central, S&P Global, Kudelski, the International Renewable Energy Agency and WWF, to name a few. New data providers are being added constantly.

“EarthTime tries to build the common ground that we believe is essential to the discourse that we all must have as stewards of our planet and our joint future,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, and Director, CREATE Lab.

“The Earth is changing dramatically. No single discipline can make sense of all that is now happening and no citizen is free from the consequences of what we all do next. We all must be involved in understanding Earth’s changes and how we can work together to bring about our desired sustainable future into reality.”

Nourbakhsh also serves as a Global Future Council member at the World Economic Forum. His research focuses on human-robot collaboration.

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