Illegal gold mining leads to mercury contamination in Peru

Police take cover from a helicopter's backwash during an operation to destroy illegal gold mining camps in La Pampa, in Peru's Madre de Dios region. Feb. 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Peru’s government has declared a two-month state of emergency across a broad region of Amazonian jungle because of mercury contamination, caused by widespread and illegal gold mining.

The emergency measures – announced in a decree published in the official gazette, El Peruano – target 11 districts in the Madre de Dios region where high levels of the toxic element were detected in people, rivers and fish.

Deputy Health Minister Percy Minaya said as many as 50,000 people could be exposed to high levels of mercury, the Associated Press reported.

“The consequences of mining activity in Madre de Dios will be with us for the next 80 years, and that must be fought at its roots,” said Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal during a news conference, EcoWatch reported. “Declaring the emergency brings action, hospitals, food such as uncontaminated fish, among other things.”

EcoWatch also noted that indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to mercury exposure, since fish from local rivers are their primary source of protein. According to Survival International, up to 80 percent of the recently contacted Nahua tribe have been poisoned with mercury and have since suffered from acute respiratory infections and other health problems since they were contacted.

Gold mining operations around the world commonly use mercury to help separate gold from the soil, and then dump the waste into nearby rivers or pits. Mercury easily spreads to the surrounding region, contaminating wildlife, like fish and birds, as well as the local people and the miners themselves.

Mercury exposure can cause serious damage to vital functions of the nervous, digestive and immune systems and can be fatal.

The Peruvian government has said it will send hospital boats to help treat people living in the contaminated areas, assist local communities find healthier alternatives for food, and set up clean water supplies in the affected districts, according to Peru Reports.

But the declared state of emergency is not without its share of controversy. El Comercio reported that many locals, including the state’s governor, Luis Otsuka, oppose the decree.

Otsuka and other leaders led a two-week protest to demand the repeal of two laws aimed at curbing illegal mining last November. Illegal mining accounts for more than half of the Madre de Dios economy.

In Peru, illegal gold mining has caused as much corruption and danger as other illegal trades. Over the last few years, NGOs, academics and others have reported the destruction of forests and riverbanks; contamination of rivers, fish and people by mercury as well as cyanide; indications of forced labor; 10,000s of child workers, prostitution; sexual exploitation of minors; people trafficking; the razing of indigenous peoples’ land; money laundering and more.

President Ollanta Humala’s government has taken some steps to stop illegal mining, but not much has been done to crack down on the industry. Seeing as illegal gold exports make for an estimated $2.6 billion annually, economic incentives remain an enormous barrier for change.

Peru is Latin America’s biggest producer of gold, and one of the top producers worldwide.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com