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Delegates from more than 120 countries have converged in Nairobi to negotiate a global mercury treaty. Discussions focussed on small-scale mining since it is the largest deliberate use of mercury.

31 Oct 2011

NAIROBI,KENYA (Commodity Online): A global mercury treated has been mooted to save the child labourers wokring in small-scale gold mines in Africa from contamination and brain damage due to exposure to the hard metal.

Delegates from more than 120 countries have converted here to negotiate a global mercury treaty. Discussions focused on small-scale mining since it is the largest deliberate use of mercury.

While delegates debated mercury control and economic benefits of the activity, civil society  representatives and Indigenous Peoples distributed postcards with chocolate gold coins asking, "What is the true price of gold?" The card cited data from the International Labour Organisation stating that in Africa, children under the age of 18 may constitute up to 30%-50% of the entire small-scale gold mining workforce.

"Gold mining in poor communities is sweet for gold traders but bitter for children," said Yuyun Ismawati, Indonesia Toxics Free Network and IPEN. "The price of gold will never equal the cost of brain damage, contaminated communities, and the impacts of child labor."

ILO recently released a report which identified about 115 million of children working in hazardous works and mining considered as one of the hazardous workplaces for children. More than half of the working children were clinically diagnosed with severe mercury intoxication.

Mercury can permanently damage the brain and kid­neys and has been shown to affect a developing fetus, even months after the mother's exposure. The large use of mercury in small scale gold mining coupled with the involvement of women and children raise serious health concerns.

"The treaty needs a public health strategy to address the harms in mining communities, particularly for women and children," said Manny Calonzo, IPEN co-chair. "This includes cleaning up the toxic mess that mining leaves behind."

Small-scale gold mining also raises concerns about violations of other UN treaties concerning human rights, including the Convention on Rights of the Child which enshrines the right of the child to the highest attainable standard of health and recognizes the right to be protected from economic exploitation and from work that is likely to be hazardous.

"Delegates must find the heart to ensure the mercury treaty protects children from economic slavery and ensures their right to a healthy future," said Tom BK Goldtooth, a member of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus and director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Indigenous Peoples at the Nairobi meeting are lifting the need for strong treaty language recognizing the human rights dimensions of anthropogenic mercury contamination.

The meeting this week marks the third intergovernmental negotiating meeting in a series of five meetings which will culminate in a diplomatic conference in 2013 to sign the treaty. The negotiation is being coordinated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)


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