Inside The World's Most Dangerous Black Market

The black market for Mercury has been on the up and up, due to the illegal mining and extraction of Gold in places like Indonesia, by way of small, localized illegal mining activities through ASGMs

Whenever we first hear of the black market, our first impression is that somewhere, people have set up tents where they openly sell various dangerous weapons and ammunition. Of course, we can’t blame this particular perception, since we’ve been introduced to this concept by Hollywood movies wherein the good guys are out to hunt someone who does black marketing in the first place (read: Expendables). However, the black market is not always only limited to weapons and ammo, but also to chemicals that are extremely toxic; which in this case, is Mercury.

Take a look back to your 9th grade science class. Mercury is that thing that was used in thermometers, and is popularly known as the ‘liquid metal’. So, why is there a huge demand for Mercury in the black market, and especially in such a country like Indonesia?

Well, Indonesia is widely known for its outlawed gold mining. This refers to the illegal mining of gold which is then sold in the black market itself. However, this gold is not just gold, since this comes under the “conflict” or “blood” category. These two terms mean that any metal or precious stone (in this case, gold and Mercury) are being mined in war-torn areas, and/or in an illegal manner.

Over the past few years, the occurrence of “Blood Mercury” has been on the rise, since Mercury is used to extract Gold from its ore. This process is extremely toxic, since its fumes if inhaled, can seep into the bloodstreams of people, and thereby essentially poisoning them with the radiation.

So, what is exactly is the issue of Mercury in Indonesia, and why is it a matter of concern?

Mercury dependent Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) is the leading source of Mercury pollution on the planet. The process revolves around the extraction of Gold from its ore by the preparation of an amalgamation with Mercury. This amalgamation is usually isolated by hand, which is then heated to finally extract Gold from its ore. However, in this process, Mercury fumes are produced, which are extremely toxic and harmful to the people who are engaged in this activity.

To say the obvious, the health of these miners is dire, with many of them developing neurological ailments and other issues. Furthermore, since a large quantity of water is used up in the process, the disposal of Mercury affects the local system by routinely poisoning the streams and rivers, along with the fish in them. And since fish is the staple diet of people belonging to the Indonesian region, the consumption of fish from such streams further leads to the poisoning of people.

These mining activities majorly take part in the informal economy, wherein the participants are engaged in such operations without the proper licensing and legal authorization. This is the main reason behind why effective regulation of Mercury emissions is extremely difficult to curtail. However, such mines continue to function, since they contribute around 15%-25% of the world’s Gold production.

Since Mercury is abundant and inexpensive, it has always been used to extract Gold from its ores, with no advancements being made in the extraction technology, which means that across hundreds of years, the process has more or less remained the same. As a result, it is estimated that between 500 to 1400 tonnes of fumes are produced through ASGM. Furthermore, ASGM is extremely prevalent, with approximately 19 million workers spanning across Asia, Africa and South America, with the prevalence of such only increasing since they are fueled by the rising Gold prices across the world. The picture below shows the prevalence of ASGM across the world:

As a result, there has been a boom in the procurement of Mercury from the black markets around the world, since all of this Mercury is used for the production of Gold anyway. However, these practices of ASGM are quite limited, but the problem lies in the prevalence, which is extremely high, with such small, localised operations spanning across the country.

In order to combat this issue, the Minamata Convention on Mercury was established, which was adopted in 2013, with the goal to reduce Mercury poisoning and to protect human health and the environment from the fumes given off by Mercury and Mercury related compounds. It is a treaty formed by the UN, which is ratified by 89 parties across the world.

However, ASGM and the use of Mercury for the extraction of Gold still remains an issue, since as I said earlier, the ability to curtail harmful toxic fumes generated by Mercury amalgamations are extremely difficult to curtail. And since most of these industries are located in impoverished regions of the world, the chance of a brutal crackdown on them is tough, since they do provide a sort of employment to the people of such regions, albeit a hazardous one.

To sum up, it is extremely difficult to reduce the prevalence of ASGMs across the world, since they are located in impoverished regions with almost non-functioning governments and the lack of proper regulations in place. Mercury will continue to be used for the extraction of Gold anyway, and therefore the need is to enforce proper legal authorizations over its procurement and distribution, and to reduce dependency of the Mercury procured from black markets in order to allow the industry to come under regulations, so that safeguards can be introduced and initiated.