Research: Responsible Mining, Resilient Communities

Background and Objectives:

Contributing 12-15% of the world’s gold supply, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is an important sector of the mining industry characterized by informality, lower production rates than large-scale mining, and little to no mechanization of the mining process. ASGM is an influential occupation that monopolizes entire communities in remote parts of the world by directly employing 10 to 15 million people worldwide, with countless more indirectly depending on it for survival (UNEP, 2013). Since the 1980s, research on this sector has focused on the use, contamination, and human health implications due to mercury, a critical element utilized in a gold processing technique called amalgamation. The global use of amalgamation among ASGM communities has caused this sector to become the largest anthropogenic source of mercury in the world (“Mercury” 2017). In addition to mercury, more recent processing techniques have added or substituted cyanide for the purpose of gold extraction. Continued academic research over the past four decades has uncovered a myriad of environmental impacts within the physical boundaries of ASGM communities. Yet, little has been done to truly address the environmental damage from the sector.

The Minería Responsable, Comunidades Resilientes project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE). As part of a multidisciplinary team of graduate students, undergraduate researchers, and faculty members, our contribution to the project aims to fill the existing knowledge gaps within the nexus of the environment and ASGM by co-designing sociotechnical solutions with ASGM communities in Peru and Colombia.


Altered framework for early integration of local stakeholders into remediation projects. From O’Brien et al. Manuscript, 2020.

Project Efforts:

Historically, remediation experts make decisions using technical, quantitative information, largely excluding efforts and knowledge of local stakeholders. Our current research explores greater integration of local communities into remediation projects through a range of different projects.

    1. We identify gaps in stakeholder engagement and participation in remediation projects in developing countries, understanding a breadth of challenges facing remediation. We also draw from water treatment projects in developing countries to inform our knowledge of behavior change and create frameworks to guide case study research.
    2. We redefine the remediation process by leveraging social science methods to create community-based conceptual site models. These conceptual site models can inform more sustainable site assessments and ensure that community needs and knowledge are integrated throughout the remediation process. This concept has been applied to mercury-contaminated sites in Andes, Colombia.
    3. We research community-led environmental initiatives in Colombia to understand how local knowledge translates into self-sustaining endeavors and document key behavior mechanisms that drive pro-environmental behavior.
    4. We identify ways that site-assessments of contaminated sites can leverage local knowledge and be driven by bottom-up frameworks, rather than strict technical knowledge driving remediation outcomes. We test this theory at mercury-contaminated sites in Colombia and Peru.
    5. Our research further explores sustainable end-uses for contaminated sites by investigating local capacity to remediate and reuse mercury-contaminated tailings for construction applications.

mountain viewEnvironmental conditions in the Puno region, Peru before and after small-scale gold mining.

processing soil
A formal ASGM site near Ananea, Peru.
processing soil
A formal ASGM site near Ananea, Peru.

Works Cited

“Mercury Emissions: The Global Context | US EPA.” US EPA, 2017,

UNEP. Artisanal And Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) Partnership Area. UNEP, 2013,