'Mercury doesn’t bite': contesting the mercury ban and navigating formalization of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Colombia

Authors: Christoph Kaufmann*, University of Zurich
Topics: Political Geography, Resources, Latin America
Keywords: contamination governance, toxicity, post-conflict, gold, Colombia
Session Type: Paper
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The mercury-ban from 2018 is an especially powerful trope that legitimizes the necessity to formalization of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASM) in Colombia. Yet, it is this mercury ban that is particularly contested in Segovia and Remedios, two major gold production sites in the Antioquia department. There are different understandings between the ‘local’ and ‘institutional’ views on contamination, on what is dangerous, and on what toxic substances need to be governed. There seems to be a differential politics of (in-)visibilization where mercury pollution from artisanal and small-scale mining is made much more visible to the formal sphere and where the dangers of mercury to the environment and health are used to legitimize state interventions, whereas cyanide or other toxic substances from industrial mining are either ignored or remedied through fines. The main strategy from state institutions to implement the mercury ban is to formalize ASM mining and gold processing, but increasingly also to judicialize mercury users even though the local institutional arrangements to territorialize formalization are not in place yet. The paper analyzes the strategies that actors of artisanal and small-scale gold production networks have developed to find a living despite, or maybe through, the incoherencies and instabilities that characterize ASM formalization and uses the contestation of the 2018 mercury-ban as the empirical starting point.

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