“Mercury doesn’t bite”: the politics of toxicity governance in Colombian gold mining

Authors: Christoph Kaufmann*, University of Zurich
Topics: Political Geography, Resources, Latin America
Keywords: contamination governance, toxicity, post-conflict, gold, Colombia
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 4:35 PM
Room: Beverly, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Terrace Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The most recent UNEP Global Mercury Assessment estimates that anthropogenic mercury releases are at approximately 2’220 tons per year and that a significant source of these releases is artisanal and small-scale gold mining (UNEP 2019). The ubiquity of mercury and its negative effects on human and non-human matter have prompted policy-makers on different scales to regulate anthropogenic mercury releases, and Colombia prohibited the use of mercury in mining in 2018. This mercury-ban is depicted to serve a set of greater goods, most prominently the protection of the environment and human health, but it has also been highly contested within artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities. This contribution will show that the contestation of the mercury ban is intrinsically related to the deeply political and representational qualities of mercury for different actors along and beyond the production networks of artisanally mined gold. The combination of materialist and discursive-constructivist approaches thereby promises a more nuanced and politicized understanding on local opposition to mercury governance that moves beyond simplistic assumptions about mercury users and their contaminated bodies, while at the same time taking the hazardous effects of mercury contamination seriously.

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