Returning hair samples to a Yanomami community after testing for lead content. Photo: © Marcos Wesley / ISA
Illegal gold mining in the Amazon has a devastating effect on indigenous peoples, writes Sarina Kidd. First the miners bring disease, deforestation and even murder. Then long after they have gone, communities are left to suffer deadly mercury poisoning. Now the UN has been called on to intervene.
In Brazil, new statistics reveal alarming rates of mercury poisoning amongst the Yanomami and Yekuana. 90% of Indians in one community are severely affected, with levels far above that recommended by the WHO.
Mercury poisoning is devastating tribal peoples across Amazonia, Survival International has warned.
In a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur for Health, Survival International highlighted the failure of South American governments to address the contamination.
Exposure to mercury is highly dangerous and can be fatal. Its effects include kidney malfunction, respiratory failure and acute anemia.
Tribal peoples are especially susceptible to mercury poisoning due to the large amount of illegal gold mining taking place on their lands. Mercury is used to coalesce fine alluvial gold particles into an amalgam and separate it from sand and pebbles.
The biggest problem is that miners ‘burn off’ the mercury on open fires to leave pure gold behind. But that vaporised mercury quickly condenses from the air to contaminate the environment.
As Amazonian tribes eat a lot of fish, they are particularly at risk of mercury poisoning due to the high concentrations of mercury often found in this food source. Furthermore, discriminatory attitudes towards tribal peoples mean that little to no action is taken to control the contamination.
In Peru, 80% of a Nahua community have tested positive for high levels of mercury poisoning. 63% of those affected are children and one child has already died displaying symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning.
The Peruvian government has known about the mercury contamination since 2014 but has done little to identify the source. Studies were carried out in the spring of 2015 but the results have not yet been published. All that is known is that the contamination is occurring through the consumption of fish.
It is possible that other tribal peoples in the area have been affected, including uncontacted peoples, but further tests will have to be carried out.
In Brazil, new statistics reveal alarming rates of mercury poisoning amongst the Yanomami and Yekuana. 90% of Indians in one community are severely affected, with levels far above that recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Although the Brazilian government has demarcated the territory of the Yanomami, the land has been overrun by illegal goldminers for decades. These miners pollute the rivers and forests with mercury and bring diseases and violent conflicts. In 1993, 22 gold miners invaded a Yanomami community and murdered 16 people including babies, children and the elderly. Five miners were later convicted of genocide.
The Brazilian authorities have known about the mercury contamination since at least the 1980s, yet have failed to put a permanent stop to the illegal gold mining. Little has also been done to treat the affected Indians. Uncontacted Yanomami are particularly in danger as many miners work near where they live.
Indigenous spokesman Reinaldo Rocha Yekuana said: “We are worried about the results of this research. This pollution affects plants, animals, and future generations.”
A problem across the continent
In Venezuela, several tribes including the Yekuana, Yanomami, Piaroa, Hoti and Pemon are also being devastated.
A recent report found that 92% of Yekuana women in one region have levels of contamination far exceeding accepted limits. The report further found that 36.8% of the female population studied had levels of contamination that posed a significant risk of causing neurological disorders in unborn babies.
In May 2010, the Venezuelan government launched the ‘Plan Caura’ to stamp out artisanal mining in the region. However, despite this, mining is still rampant. According to reports by various indigenous organisations, the military and the National Guard collude with miners and share in the profits in return for turning a blind eye to their activities.
As mining has not been stopped in the area, these levels of mercury contamination will continue to increase and harm the health of indigenous peoples.
A global call to action
Indigenous people have also called upon the UN to end the rampant spread of mercury on their land. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, met in February with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to discuss the issue and handed her a letter detailing their concerns.
Furthermore, Venezuelan Coordinating body of Indigenous Organizations of Amazonas state – COIAM – has stated that illegal mining has “polluted the rivers with mercury and other toxic substances” and caused “serious harm to indigenous peoples.”
Survival’s Director, Stephen Corry said: “These governments are sitting on a ticking time bomb. Every week that they fail to act, more and more indigenous people are being harmed. When mercury poisoning is identified, the source must be halted immediately and those affected must be treated. The effects will be catastrophic if indigenous peoples’ lands aren’t protected.”