Turning up the heat on hazardous mercury in Africa & Caribbean

Photo by Rina Guadagnini

The EEB and the Zero Mercury Working Group contribute to the global efforts to reduce people’s exposure to one of the most toxic elements on Earth. In recent years, NGOs have been working with partner organisations and governments in Africa and the Caribbean to phase out the mercury used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, as well as the manufacture and trade of products containing mercury.    

A tragic industrial accident in Minamata in the 1950s – featured in the deeply moving film Minamata starring Johnny Depp – shed light on the devastation that mercury can cause people and the environment. In 2013, global leaders redeemed the tragic name association by signing the Minamata Convention. This global, legally binding environmental agreement singled out mercury as highly toxic, and was designed to protect human health and the environment from ‘man-made’ emissions and releases of mercury worldwide.   

According to UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment Report 2018, human activities have increased the total atmospheric mercury concentrations by about 450 percent above natural levels. The mercury emissions into the atmosphere rose 20 percent between 2010 and 2015, despite additional regulatory actions. 

Currently, many countries around the world are engaged in reducing mercury emissions and implementing the Convention. But this is a long and assiduous journey requiring the concerted efforts of a vast array of partners, from experts on the topic to decision makers at all levels and across countries.  

The EEB and the Zero Mercury Working Group, with its 110 health, environmental, women’s and indigenous rights member NGOs from over 55 countries, play their part.  

Partnership initiative and the EEB/ZMWG role 

Since the entry into force of the Convention in 2017, the EEB/ZMWG have been working with governments and partnering with civil society organisations around the world to contribute to the adoption and successful implementation of the Minamata Convention in national contexts.  

The groups currently support NGOs and governments in Africa and the Caribbean, to remove the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), the manufacture and trade of mercury added products, and encourage the use of viable alternatives.  

This initiative is part of the Africa, Caribbean Pacific, Multilateral Environmental Agreements project (ACP MEAs), a partnership between the European Union, the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Over the years, the ZMWG has cooperated with the United Nations Environmental Programme and global partners, helping identify projects that reduce the use of and exposure to mercury. As recognition of the global mercury crisis has grown, through fundraising the ZMWG has channelled more resources to relevant NGOs or government projects in many countries. 

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) 

The EEB/ZWMG are assisting the implementation and enforcement of the Minamata Convention in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Nigeria.  

In Uganda, the focus of the work has been the ASGM which uses mercury to extract gold from ore. The projects ended earlier this year and Rina Guadagnini, Policy Officer at EEB who visited the project in Uganda recently, had this to say:  

We have created opportunities for NGOs to develop new and complement existing projects, channelling funding in the countries. In Uganda we collaborated with doctors who did a wonderful job at raising awareness on the health issue. Our partner NGO, Uganda National Association of Community Occupational Health/UNACOH, also set up demonstration sites and trained miners to work with safe mercury free alternatives.  

In Sierra Leone the EEB/ZMWG liaised with and supported Women on Mining and Extractives/WoME, an NGO that raises awareness about mercury-related health issues and women empowerment. The organisation reached and trained 90 women miners on occupational health hazards of mercury use in artisanal gold mining, and supported women in developing entrepreneurship skills in three different regions.  

Photo by Rina Guadagnini/EEB

Mercury-added skin-lightening products 

Mercury has been added to skin lighteners because it blocks the production of melanin, a substance in our body that produces hair, eye and skin pigmentation. However, this practice can profoundly affect our health, provoking skin rashes and discoloration, reducing the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, entering the bloodstream and affecting our brain. Mercury can also penetrate the placenta and enter mothers’ breastmilk, affecting the healthy development of babies. 

In Nigeria and Kenya, the EEB/ZMWG help tackle the use of mercury and the illegal trade of mercury-added cosmetics who are used by millions of people around the world in their desire to lighten their complexion. Governments and partner NGOs in these countries are involved in the ongoing EEB/ZMWG investigation of skin products with a high mercury content.

To help raise awareness in national contexts, the EEB/ZMWG facilitated partner NGOs’ access to funding for conducting investigations into the illegal trade of beauty products that may contain mercury. In addition, the group is working with relevant governments to strengthen the enforcement of existing regulations banning the manufacture and trade of mercury added cosmetics.  

EEB/ZMWG activities include facilitating exchanges between relevant authorities and other stakeholders on the topic, training customs officers to use analytical instruments that can detect mercury, and assisting cooperation between authorities and online platforms to develop voluntary agreements aimed at protecting consumers from these harmful products.  

NGOs from Uganda and South Africa are also participating in the sampling exercise under this project. 

The Caribbean 

In the Caribbean, the EEB/ZMWG are collaborating with the governments of Trinidad and Tobago, St Kitts and Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda to assist the phase out of mercury added products and their eventual replacement with safer alternatives, as required by Article 4 of the Minamata Convention.  

The EEB/ZMWG supports all three governments in the development of a stakeholder involvement strategy, a phase-out roadmap and national action plan, in addition to mercury-free procurement policies for lamps, medical measuring devices and dental amalgam.  

The EEB/ZMWG hired a consultant to investigate the capacity of the local markets to transition to mercury-free products, and assisted her in conducting interviews with importers and sellers, large retailers, distributors, local medical facilities, hospitals and pharmacies as well as hotels in the respective countries.  

EEB/ZMWG consultant introduces alternatives to mercury products at March stakeholder meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis

The EEB/ZMWG support the governments in the Caribbean to adapt and implement the requirements of the Convention at national level. While we are onboard with the assistance, the national governments have the lead on the implementation of the Convention. Their commitment to this process and the collaboration with relevant ministries and partners is key,

says Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, EEB’s Policy Manager for the ‘Zero Mercury’ campaign, who leads the work of the ZMWG on behalf of the EEB. 


Increasing scientific evidence as well as a new, environmentally conscious generation protesting pollution and environmental damage point to the need for change and the desire to live in a toxic-free nevironment. The Minamata Convention plays a key role in achieving the toxic-free aspiration. However, only deep, rapid and sustained worldwide emissions cuts could meaningfully prevent future mercury pollution.  

As the projects in Africa and the Caribbean illustrate, civil society has a great role to play in supporting the implementation of the Convention at national level. With many experts advocating for change at local, national and international levels, NGOs are well-placed to provide governments with technical assistance that supports policy design, raise public awareness, also amongst political leaders responsible for the protection of their citizens from chemical pollution.  

Networks such as the EEB/ZMWG act as information, expertise, coordination and advocacy hubs. If supported, they are able to leverage the strength of their members. In turn, the support of civil society could significantly contribute to realising the vision of a toxic-free future and achieve the change we want to see.