sharing in governance of extractive industries
Historically, Myanmar’s mining sector has been defined by opaque governance and rich but unknown treasures of ruby, gold and jade. Transition to civilian rule and updates to mineral law have done little to change this perception. While the sector’s growth remains limited and social challenges remain high, with numerous allegations of human rights abuses, the mining sector remains a significant contributor to Myanmar’s economy.
Each year, more than $1.2 billion in mineral revenues are extracted. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) provides direct employment for more than 500,000 people in the sector, and indirect support for 3 million more—nearly 5% of the population. Despite these benefits, sector-related health challenges are well-documented in the country. Occupational health and safety incidents are pervasive due to dangerous gold mining techniques, often with unguarded motors spinning that can injure or even kill miners.
Given the significance of ASM to the country and its related challenges, Pact and the Trafigura Foundation, the philanthropic arm of one of the world’s largest commodity traders, partnered to assess the sector and better understand potential leverage points and areas for social impact.
Following an initial landscape analysis, we selected the local gold supply chain in Sagaing Region for in-depth study, which was experiencing recent growth and intensity in the region. We focused on two distinct insights from our analysis:
A preliminary scoping trip to gold mines in Homalin, Sagaing Region, revealed that women and their children were at a serious and disproportionately high risk of mercury poisoning. While women in Myanmar participate in gold supply chains, they’re relegated to roles of panning and cooking mercury-gold amalgam, most often in their small, poorly ventilated family homes. The use and inhalation of mercury constitutes two of the UN Environment Programme’s worst-case practices—open-air burning and burning in residential areas.
Given the severity of the health risk, the team grappled with how to incentivize safer practices and mercury-use reduction. Ultimately, we identified a human-centered design (HCD) methodology as the most appropriate. HCD is a problem-solving process that seeks to accelerate the identification and prototyping of solutions based on rapid ethnographic research, focusing on empathy to understand needs, perspectives and behaviors directly from communities. By testing solutions with communities at the start, teams mitigate the risk of failed investment and technical inefficiencies. The results are solutions that are not just feasible and context-appropriate, but are desirable to the community, creating a sense of ownership and sustainability.
Our initial assumption was that local communities would experience or recognize effects of mercury poisoning given pervasive and improper mercury handling. We approached this question in a variety of ways, in one instance asking participants to visually map symptoms and key issues they are experiencing in the village, then providing prompts of mercury poisoning effects to see if residents could link the two.
However, after days of field interviews and observation, we had not met anyone who recognized mercury outright as a problem. Even local health providers dismissed mercury poisoning as an issue, listing drug usage, TB and HIV as more pressing concerns.
We reframed the question, focusing on forming a deeper health profile of local villages and ecosystem mapping to understand what health interventions may and may not work, specifically for local women in mining villages.
After reframing, we discovered a broad lack of education and awareness, even among health providers and the mining ministry, on mercury toxicity, risks, exposure pathways and symptoms of poisoning. Some earlier mercury toxicity assessments had been conducted, but data was never reported to the community, perpetuating disbelief. Despite the lack of mercury poisoning evidence, the conversations around health sparked some residents to reconsider mercury poisoning as the cause of many of their health symptoms. In a moment of breakthrough, we found that local primary students were experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning, such as severe concentration problems and head pains, but attributing them to “dirty home environments” and water and sanitation-related practices.
Compounding awareness issues, the regional health system suffers from fragmentation, under-resourcing and a breakdown in information between health providers, both formal and informal. By mapping the existing health system with residents, the team found that there is a lack of coordination and accountability between health providers. Traditional birth attendants are very influential in the community, delivering most new infants. In the health system, however, they are often siloed and ill-informed of updated health practices. Hierarchical health systems further create information gaps, reducing an individual’s ability to bring issues to the forefront. For example, community health agendas are determined by the Township Medical Officer, leaving limited flexibility for community members to escalate health concerns.
Based on our findings and community insights, we ultimately tested the use of two low-cost mercury reduction interventions—fume hoods and magnets—that would improve gold concentration. Both demonstrated marginal gains, though community members voiced key challenges around cost and perceived effectiveness. Due to high theft risks, many community members also opposed “shared” equipment and preferred to own individual retorts closer to home. Analysis of the higher cost technological interventions is ongoing, along with the design of a formalization system and responsible gold sourcing platform supporting women-led small and medium enterprises. However, a broader set of interventions will be needed to expand knowledge and awareness of the health effects of mercury use, a critical component of any successful change.
Moving Forward: A Sector Poised to Deliver Safe, Clean Artisanal Gold Exports
We believe this targeted investigation is the first of its kind in Myanmar and reveals actionable findings to improve the health and safety of these and similar mining communities in the country. Engaging with miners using an HCD approach revealed a nuanced view of mercury-usage behaviors, including local beliefs and assumptions. Pact’s hope is that other actors in the sector will employ a similar approach, tempering technical expertise with the desirability of interventions for the community, resulting in improved outcomes and sustainable, community-owned solutions.
The important health injustice discovered in relation to gender roles in the gold ASM sector and the disproportionate risks faced by women and children can be addressed through health systems strengthening and capacity development, introduction of mercury-free technology, and formalization of artisanal mining. The Government of Myanmar has been revising ASM policy to encourage formalization, recently lifting the ban on international gold exports, and is poised to support the development of a clean and safe artisanal gold supply chain. It’s an opportune time to develop a better, responsible ASM gold supply chain in Myanmar because ultimately, sector growth must be balanced with the needs of safe and responsible supply chains.
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