Indigenous Peoples

Mercury poisoning of indigenous people plagues the Amazon. Illegal mining is the cause

Not only does illegal mining ravish the environment, it leads to mercury poisoning of indigenous people. Survival International has brought the issue to the UN.

Survival International, a global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, has denounced mercury poisoning in Latin America in a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur for Health. The organisation highlights Venezuela, Peru and Brazil as countries that don’t comply with procedures to monitor the effects of mining on the environment. Mercury contamination, which commonly follows illegal natural resource extraction, can be dangerous to human health, leading to kidney malfunction, acute anaemia and respiratory diseases.


Munduruku Brazil
The Munduruku indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon © Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mercury poisoning of indigenous people

Tribal people are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning as most mining activities are concentrated in areas they inhabit: the Amazon rainforest in particular. The alarm over mercury poisoning of Nahua People in the Peruvian Amazon has already been raised by Survival. States have obligations towards indigenous people, not only under domestic but also under international law, according to the tribal rights group. Failing to prevent poisoning and assist contaminated ethnic groups is a violation of several international treaties, including the International Bill of Human Rights and ILO Convention 169.


Mercury gets into the digestive system mainly through the consumption of fish. Up to 60 percent of fish sold in a local market in Puerto Maldonado (the Peruvian gold mining capital, located in the region of Madre de Dios) is contaminated with mercury, according to estimates. This exceeds safety levels such as those defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. 78% of the city’s adult population shows signs of mercury poisoning.



Illegal mining

“It’s relatively easy to get a permit to explore for gold”, Enrique Ortiz, a renowned Peruvian environmental activist, says. The bureaucratic complications start once a good spot for mining is identified. “Then you have to get the actual permits. These require engineering specifications, statements of environmental protection programmes, plans for the protection of indigenous people and environmental remediation”. Miners evade those obstacles by claiming to be in the process of getting permissions. This means that “they have a claim to the land but not much responsibility to it,” according to Ortiz. In fact, over 90% of gold mines in Madre de Dios are illegal.

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