Dolores Barrientos
Mexico Representative
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UNEP Promotes Sustainable Mining in Mexico

By Alejandro Ehrenberg | Fri, 06/04/2021 - 11:22

Q: What is the role of the mining industry in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how important is dialogue with governments in achieving these goals?

A: We believe the mining industry plays an important role in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Mining is at the base of the economy, with the generation of jobs and the sustainable management of natural resources, and is therefore highly-related to the three pillars of the sustainable development– economic, social and environmental.

One entry point to improve the environmental sustainability of extractive industries, including industrial or artisan and small-scale mining, would be related to data, transparency and regulatory framework. This could help governments to implement international commitments related to multilateral environmental agreements, economic development and public policies and programs. Another area we are working on is related to public and private financial flows. If we want to have a more sustainable mining industry then public and private partnerships will be essential in moving toward the mobilization of resources. Technology and innovation are also vital to this conversation.

Q: How can UNEP help improve mining governance in Mexico?

A: Governance is related to the public policy frameworks built around mining, as well as the institutional frameworks surrounding it. In Mexico, we are undertaking important work related to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. This is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury that came into force in 2017. Mexico has been one of the most important global producers and exporters of mercury for the past eight years. It exports mainly to Central and South America and to countries that develop activities in artisanal mining for gold. They use mercury to extract small gold particles from rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. One of the most important places for mercury mining in Mexico is the Sierra Gorda region in Queretaro. It is a natural protected area but at the same time, around 80 percent of mercury produced in Mexico is extracted there. UNEP’s role is to mobilize national and international resources to identify the impact mercury and artisanal mining in Queretaro is having on human health and the region’s soil. We are conducting a comprehensive assessment on these impacts and are identifying other potential economic alternatives the Sierra Gorda communities can participate in to avoid these highly dangerous activities. These mercury emissions end up in nearby cities, like Queretaro, which presents other risks.

We are implementing this initiative with the federal government through SEMARNAT and the Queretaro state government, via the state’s Ministry of Sustainable Development. We have the opportunity to take Mexico’s commitment to the Minamata Convention and support the country in meeting those commitments through implementation. This also involves stakeholder participation with the municipalities around the Sierra Gorda. This project, which will start in 2021, is a large governance challenge but one that will be extremely beneficial to the region.

UNEP is also working with SEMARNAT and the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change to identify sites where gold mining is taking place and decide the needs that must be addressed. We do not have statistics on the number of people involved in artisanal gold mining, the production rates, its use of mercury or the impact of the activity on communities. This information will be delivered once our analysis is completed.

Q: What is UNEP doing to reduce the negative impact of mining operations?

A:  UNEP has a global presence and it is clear to us that mining is important in world´s environment and sustainability agendas. We have been organizing interesting meetings within the organization where people abroad have been able to partake in improving the sustainability of extractive industries. Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are the planetary emergencies that must be resolved. Mining is linked to these challenges.

By promoting a “Circular Economy”, we have also been talking about reducing the current levels of resource extraction because these levels contribute to the global challenges we see today. Global extraction levels are high and reducing them will result in a more sustainable sector. Another challenge is related to the use of fossil fuels and the promotion of a decarbonized pathway.

Q: How can UNEP reconcile the need for mined materials in green technologies with high extraction rates?

A: This is a vital question and one that is central to our progress. This will require a dramatic change in the linear economy model toward the circular economy model that UNEP is promoting. A move toward the circular economy could be realized in the next decades. This might require the full recycling of precious minerals and metals.

The question is how to convert the linear economy to a circular economy. Not only must recycling be reconsidered but an extension of producer responsibility programs is also necessary. Other industries that rely on mined materials for their technologies, like the automotive industry, solar photovoltaic panels, electric transport, among others, also need to recycle components. Another aspect of this is the global food system, which requires extracted resources for nutrients and chemicals. It is another major industry that would require a sound transformation.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the UN system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment

Alejandro Ehrenberg Alejandro Ehrenberg Journalist and Industry Analyst