Minamata and Responsible Jewellery Convention in Tokyo

Minamata and Responsible Jewellery Convention in Tokyo

Written by Tim Alban on 19 May 2017

Harriet and I have just returned from an amazing trip to Japan. Harriet was invited by Dr Satoshi Murao, Chief Senior Researcher at the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, to take part in a conference about the Minamata Convention and mercury in Small-scale gold mining. For those, like me, who hadn’t heard about this – the Minamata Convention is a legally binding international agreement between countries that seeks to reduce the use of mercury in, among other things, the process of mining gold.

I expect you didn’t realise that mercury was used to mine gold – I certainly didn’t. Distressingly artisanal small scale miners (that is basically individuals and families with holes in the ground in developing countries) use mercury in the bear hands to “leach” the gold from the rock – and they burn the mercury, breathing in the fumes and polluting their environment. Sadly its the women and children who often do this, and the poorest people, who are often unaware of the risks to their health.

So the Japanese Ministry of the Environment put together this convention to highlight the issue that, although the Minamata Convention is a giant step forward, mercury is still being used. Speakers were invited from Japan, Mongolia, Canada and the UK.

Kazuaki Takahashi, Director of the Office of Mercury Management, introduced the first speaker - Dr Satoshi Murao who explained the mining processes and how mercury is used. He went on to share research that shows, for example, the amount of mercury found in miner’s hair and some rather terrifying graphs showing exponential rises in mercury levels in these areas. He then graphically explained the risk to human health.

Narantsogt Belkhuu – the General Director of the Artisanal and Small Scale Mining National Federation of Mongolia – spoke next. Since 2002 he has done incredible work bringing together small scale miners from across the vast landscape of Mongolia into a single organisation that works to protect their rights and the environment. He explained the problems facing the Mongolian miners and outlined his objectives such has having more specific laws governing this industry.

Next Richard Gutierrez from Canada spoke. He is the founder of “BanToxins” – an NGA (non-government organisation) that works “on the ground” in developing countries in South East Asia to try to improve environmental justice, prevent the toxic trade of products, wastes and technologies and improve human rights. He explained that, although miners are told about the risks to their health, because the effects aren’t immediate and they often have no alternative, it is difficult to change habits. Despite these problems he has made amazing progress in changing processes to a safer gravity fed method as well as finding ways to safely dispose of existing mercury. A truly inspirational figure.

Finally Harriet spoke about her business – heralded as a truly exceptional example of a “responsible business”. She explained how businesses can be more successful and profitable by acting responsibly and caring about their supply chain because this is how a great proportion of the population in developed countries expect businesses to behave. She told her story of always asking her suppliers about their supply chain and highlighted how powerful these little questions can be in slowly changing the world.

The convention finished with a panel discussion facilitated by Harriet with the speakers plus Jamiyansuren Togoobat – a well known Mongolian artist and Mari Hoshi – a Japanese ethical jeweller. Jamiyansuren gave a passionate speech on his experiences trying to train Mongolian miners to make jewellery and Mari Hoshi – a pioneering jeweller in Japan and the only one selling Fairtrade gold – expressed her hope that more Japanese consumers will be aware and ask the questions to their jewellers about responsible mining.

Harriet and I are proud to have played a part in this event and perhaps played a small part in helping to move this problem towards a solution. I was struck by the complexity of the problem but encouraged to see how it is being tackled from different angles - the scientific angle by Dr Satoshi Murao, by the miners themselves, by feet on the ground NGA’s such as “BanToxins” and by responsible retailers and designers such as Harriet and Mari.  I was moved by the tireless efforts of Narantsogt Belknuu from Mongolia and Richard Gutierrez in particular, who aren’t put off by this seemingly complex mountain to climb.

I hope this convention is the first of many as I believe, as Harriet does, that the public cares about this issue once they realise what’s going on. I would encourage people to ask for Fairtrade gold whenever they can as this really is the best way to ensure that gold used in your jewellery is free from the harmful and poisonous effects of mercury.