Better Approaches Needed to Tackle Informal Gold Mining


NUS ecologists found that current approaches involving enforcement and provision of alternative livelihoods are unlikely to succeed in deterring informal gold mining in Myanmar.

Gold symbolises power, wealth, and beauty all over the world, but it comes at a price. Gold mining in the tropics is a contributor to environmental damage such as deforestation and mercury emissions, as well as a range of social outcomes including migration, increased health risks and even human rights abuses. Much of the world’s gold is mined by individuals and small businesses that operate without legal permits. These miners, known as informal gold miners, were estimated in 2011 to number around 16 million and to have produced 380 to 450 tonnes of gold. The informal gold mining sector is economically significant but detrimental to biodiversity conservation and global health, as it is the largest source of mercury emissions caused by human activities.

The country of Myanmar is increasingly integrated into regional and global markets, and it has a rapidly expanding informal gold mining industry that has profound environmental impacts. Two widely espoused policies to mitigate the negative effects of informal gold mining are: (1) increasing enforcement to make it unprofitable, and (2) offering alternative livelihoods that can provide similar or better economic benefits. A research team led by Prof Edward WEBB, Department of Biological Sciences, NUS conducted the first-ever study of the costs imposed by enforcement, the level of enforcement required to make informal gold mining unprofitable, and the potential benefits associated with alternative agriculture-based livelihoods. They found that neither increasing enforcement nor improving agriculture-based livelihoods were likely to stop informal mining because it was simply too profitable.

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