Researchers Study the «Political Ecology» of Mercury Contamination From Artisanal Gold Mining

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Researchers Study the «Political Ecology» of Mercury Contamination From Artisanal Gold Mining

Although the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining is restricted by law in Colombia, it continues to circulate in para-legal markets, impacting the health of vulnerable communities. This is the conclusion of a new scientific publication out in May by researchers from La Universidad del Valle (Univalle) and an international university.

Irene Vélez-Torres, a titular professor at the Natural Resources and Environment Engineering School (EIDENAR) at Univalle and lead author of the paper called “Contentious environmental governance in polluted gold mining geographies: The case of La Toma, Colombia”, said she has been studying gold mining disputes in the Upper Cauca region of southern Colombia for more than a decade, particularly in La Toma, a community in the municipality of Suárez.

«During the last decade, the use of mercury has been more visible, which has alerted especially women and young people in the territory, who since 2016 have perceived drastic changes in the environment and local health», Professor Vélez-Torres said, adding that since then she was seeking funding for this research, together with Diana Vanegas, a graduate of the Universidad del Valle and now an assistant professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, USA.

Colombia finished 2020 with a production of 47.6 metric tons of gold (according to the National Mining Agency, ANM), however, only 13% of the national gold production comes from the formal sector, with the use of mercury is very prevalent in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM). 

Atmospheric mercury emissions from ASGM account for almost one-third of the total mercury emissions from ASGM.  38% of the world’s total, and in 2011 a study found that Colombia has record  emisións per cápita de mercurio a una escale global.

According to the Vélez-Torres and Vanegas study, despite the prohibitions legislated in Colombia, mercury continues to circulate in para-legal gold mining markets; government agencies have produced pollution reports that are biased, incomplete and fragmented, creating ignorance that complicates environmental governance. In addition, the lack of consensus among local miners to eliminate mercury allows the expansion of the polluting frontier of gold mining and puts the health of the local population at risk.  

Graphic: The location of La Toma within Colombia. Credit: Irene Velez/Diana Vanegas.

Origins and objectives

Professor Vélez-Torres’ study contributes in three significant ways to the field of environmental research in developing country contexts of the Global South.

«First, by raising the profoundly political character of the processes of environmental degradation and pollution, which implies that it is necessary to understand them from the trajectories of colonial, capitalist and patriarchal domination,» Professor Vélez-Torres said. She added that they also questioned the ways in which public institutions generate incomplete, obsolete, fragmented reports and, in this way, create (intentionally or not) systems of ignorance in the face of environmental problems.

«Thirdly, by thinking that in the territories of expansive frontier of extractivisms, particularly in the Global South, they create sacrifice zones and marginalized populations, relationships that reproduce environmental structural racism in Colombia,» Professor Vélez-Torres said.

Professor Vélez-Torres explained that in order to understand the possible origins of this environmental change, they were initially going through a very exploratory research with low-cost sensors, then they gradually strengthened the transdisciplinary methodology to understand the problem.

Working With The Community

Professor Vélez-Torres said that the research team has made a great effort to work with communities, in part because of its philosophy of «research is activist,» that is, it is necessary to develop scientific knowledge hand in hand with local communities and serving a social mission of transforming relations of social and environmental injustice.

«We start from recognizing that the communities have important knowledge about their bodies-territories, being the first to perceive the socio-environmental changes that can originate from intoxicating processes,» Professor Vélez-Torres said, adding that the community of La Toma and Alto Cauca has been very active in seeking solutions to the environmental and social problems generated by large-scale mining and polluting mining.

Professor Vélez-Torres stated that working with communities «is never easy» because the times of the projects are not the same as the times of the people.

«Our effort consisted, precisely, in permanently seeking to adapt to local rhythms, to local knowledge needs and to the political agendas of the communities through a dialogue of knowledge, which in the methodological rationale we have characterized as transdisciplinary,» Professor Vélez-Torres said.

Professor Vanegas indicated that Univalle is a public institution and as such has a missionary vocation of service to the public. «Research with/for vulnerable communities has great potential for social impact, and therefore should be prioritized in the research portfolios of public universities,» Professor Vanegas said.

Read more from EIDENAR: How Engineers from Cali, Colombia are helping comunities

The Spirit of International Collaboration

Professor Vélez-Torres indicated that international collaboration was key to the success of the project.

«The main collaboration that I have fostered for this work has been with Dr. Vanegas, as well as with Professor Eric McLamor  (also from Clemson University), who from the beginning was interested in our work and has not stopped supporting us at every step,» Professor Vélez-Torres said, adding that they were able to involve Clemson students as well as students and teachers from EIDENAR of Univalle.

Professor Vanegas explained that in order to access some of the funding sources such as the National Science Foundation, researchers have to show a strong relationship of academic collaboration, for example like the relationship that exists between Clemson University and Univalle.

«Don’t be like a makeshift team, but there is a history of joint publications among the collaborators, exchange of students, something that is documented,» Professor Vanegas said, adding that it cannot be a relationship where only one side is benefiting.

Professor Velez-Torres expressed that international funding was essential to the project.

«This project was only possible thanks to funding for three years from IHE in the Netherlands, and the writing of this article was achieved thanks to the Fulbright Visiting Scholar grant that I was a recipient of in 2021,» Professor Vélez-Torres said.

If you would like to contact the researchers or learn more about the projects, write to the Communications Office of the Faculty of Engineering: comunicaingenieria(at)

Cover photo: Irene Vélez-Torres (right hand side) Credit: Irene Vélez-Torres

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