Gold Mining and Mercury Pollution in Colombia: Policy Recommendations to Reduce the Tradeoff between Economic Growth and Sustainability

  • Hernando Grueso


Colombia is the top mercury polluter per capita in the world and the main cause of this pollution is artisanal gold mining. Even though the current government has restricted the use of mercury in mining, the problem goes beyond regulations: eighty-seven percent of the country’s gold production comes from small-scale, informal (unlicensed) mining. Furthermore, market restrictions on mercury for mining activities have created a window of opportunity for organized crime. Illegal armed groups control the illicit trafficking of mercury into the country and its commercialization among small-scale miners.
This article discusses different policies aimed at mitigating the externalities of gold mining in Colombia and considers the tradeoff between the economic benefits and external costs to human health. The main conclusion is that heavy regulations on mining activities have not been helpful in reducing mercury pollution, and that alternative policies based on lessons from behavioral economics can be more useful tools for reducing the environmental hazards associated with gold mining.