- People living in the regions of Madre de Dios, Huancavelica, Puno, and Cusco have mercury levels higher than those considered safe.
- It is estimated that in the last 20 years, more than 3,000 tons of mercury have been dumped into rivers in the Peruvian Amazon.
A recent publication confirmed that inhabitants of the indigenous Nahua population, located in the Santa Rosa de Serjali community in the Ucayali Region of Peru, have high levels of mercury in their blood. This information has raised fears about mercury usage impacts on the health of the most vulnerable populations, in addition to the harm it could cause to the land and biodiversity.
The report was published by Peru’s Ministry of Health of and is entitled “Analysis of the health situation of the Nahua community of Santa Rosa de Serjali in the territorial reserve of the Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti, and other groups.” According to a story published in The Guardian about the leaked report, of the 150 members of the Nahua community whose data were analyzed, 78 percent had high levels of mercury in their blood.
The Nahua community is not the only group affected by mercury in Peru. High concentrations of mercury have been detected in the regions of Madre de Dios, Huancavelica, Cusco, and Puno. The contamination began with the exploitation of mercury mines in past decades, and continues today in the form of illegal and informal mining. Another source of mercury contamination in Peru today is the Camisea Gas Project.
Mercury on Peruvian land
According to another report, this time from the Ministry of Environment in January 2017, “it is estimated that in the last 20 years, more than 3,000 tons of mercury have been tossed into Amazonian rivers, contaminating the water, the aquatic organisms, and the human populations who consume the water and fish.” The report is entitled “Conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems for the provision of ecosystemic services.”
The same study indicates that, “In the past 18 years, gold operations in the Madre de Dios Region have deforested approximately 30,000 hectares of tropical forest, mainly in the Huepetuhe and Caychive basins.”
Traditional mining in Peru is not a recent phenomenon, according to the study, but rather an ancestral activity that has been gaining momentum since the late 1970s. The report adds that the high price of gold has led to the exploitation of gold deposits.
Initially, informal gold mining in Peru was concentrated in Madre de Dios, Puno, Sur Medio, and La Libertad as a means of subsistence in abandoned mines, says the report. However, as of the middle of the last decade, informal and illegal mining expanded throughout all of Peru. In 2013, according to the Ministry of Environment’s study, this activity was present in 25 regions of the country.
Madre de Dios: A grave case
Francisco Román is the scientific director of the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), which was created by Wake Forest University and is based in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Román says that currently, the cases with the highest levels of mercury contamination are located in various districts in Madre de Dios and in La Rinconada, in Puno Region. “They are emblematic places that report high levels of mercury in ecosystems as well as in human beings,” Román said.
In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Román explained that the CINCIA is conducting a study on the presence of mercury in Madre de Dios. “We are analyzing the contamination levels using a comprehensive study that includes the land, water, plants, fish, [and] air. But we are also developing remediation and reforestation projects in the degraded areas. This is a very important milestone in this field of research because, in addition to covering various bases, it has a wider geographic range than any other study conducted up to this point,” Román said.
Román also said that the study includes monitoring stations in every district that has mining activity in the region. These districts are Tambopata, Laberinto, Inambari, Huepetuhe, Madre de Dios, and Camanti, which is part of the Cusco Region but shares a border with the Madre de Dios Region. “We are in the six districts in the Madre de Dios Basin where mining occurs,” said Román.
One of the objectives of the investigation, according to Román, is to identify where the mercury contamination began and then determine how the mercury passes through the food chain. “It is presumed that there is mercury that evaporates and, as a gas, returns to fall onto plants, the land, or bodies of water,” said Román.
Román also said that in some cases, mercury is poured directly into the rivers. It then cycles through the food chain via fish that are later eaten by humans. “The consumption of fish is a source of mercury contamination,” he added.
On the other hand, Román said that the investigation will also allow the researchers to understand the current distribution of mercury in Madre de Dios. Using scientific databases, they will also discover which areas are the most dangerously contaminated.
Previous studies demonstrate the effects of mercury in indigenous communities and cities in Madre de Dios. The study “Mercury concentrations in fish and humans in Puerto Maldonado,” conducted by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project (CAMEP) in 2013, found elevated levels of mercury in all the communities analyzed in Madre de Dios. More than 75 percent of the people evaluated had mercury levels higher than those permitted.
According to the study, mercury levels were highest in rural and indigenous communities. In these cases, 95 percent of the people evaluated said that they consumed fish that was captured in local aquatic ecosystems. The study also revealed that 78 percent of the 226 adults analyzed in Puerto Maldonado presented triple the permitted value of mercury (one ppm), and one person even reached 27 times that. Of the 15 species of fish analyzed, nine had levels of mercury higher than the national standard.
The situation is so critical in Madre de Dios that the administration of former President Ollanta Humala was forced to declare a of emergency in 11 districts in the region. This came after the National Institute of Civil Defense presented a report that revealed the high blood mercury levels in the area’s population.
At the time, the districts of Tambopata, Inambari, Las Piedras, and Laberinto (in Tambopata Province), Fitzcarrald, Manú, Madre de Dios, and Huepetuhe (in Manú Province), and Iñapari, Iberia, and Tahuamanu (in Tahuamanu Province) were all in a state of emergency for 60 days. In August of the same year, the state of emergency was extended for another 60 days.
Mongabay Latam initiated communication with the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Health to learn what measures are being taken to help the areas affected by mercury contamination, as well as to learn what is being done with the affected populations. At the time of publication, there had not yet been a response.
Huancavelica: Historic contamination
Alicia Abanto, a deputy for the Environment, Public Service, and Indigenous Communities within the Office of the Public Defender of Peru, said that Huancavelica is another region that has high levels of mercury contamination. “In this region was the largest mercury mine in Peru. Because of that, Huancavelica is one of the largest environmental liabilities for the exploitation of mercury that developed during colonial times. There are still areas in the city of Huancavelica where communities and neighborhoods have been settled on land contaminated by mercury, and those who live in those places breathe the mercury vapors that emanate from the land every day,” Abanto said.
According to a report by the Public Defender for the General Directorate of Environmental Health and Environmental Harmlessness, within Peru’s Ministry of Health, the contamination in the city of Huancavelica is made worse because of housing materials. About half of the homes are made of adobe or mudwall, which are both contaminated because they come from local land.
A study conducted by the Council on Environmental Health (COEH) —an American scientific organization dedicated to identifying, evaluating, and remediating the effects of environmental toxins in affected communities— notes that, “75 percent of evaluated cases have levels of mercury higher than the values permitted for human health, in the walls, in the ground, and in interior air, with an estimated 19,000 people at risk of having adverse health effects though exposure to [mercury].”
The study also revealed that over a period of hundreds of years, the city of Huancavelica and the surrounding areas were contaminated by an estimated 20,000 metric tons of mercury vapor. The majority of the vapor was produced during the colonial period and utilized during the silver refining process.
In another document, the Abanto also said that the General Directorate of Environmental Mining Issues, in the Ministry of Energy and Mines, has identified 160 sites contaminated by mining in the region.
In Huancavelica, it has been confirmed that mercury contamination exists, said Abanto, because of the measurements that have been taken within the population. People are exposed to mercury in their homes and in unpaved public roads. “The families are breathing in mercury vapor, but no measures are being taken to protect them,” said Abanto.
As a remedy for the problem, Abanto proposes that the walls of buildings constructed with adobe or mudwall be covered with cement, and says that the same should be done for the floors of these buildings. Additionally, she suggests paving the streets to reduce the mercury vapors that they emanate.
“There are studies that say that with these measures, exposure to mercury is diminished by 40 percent. However, these are very poor families that often can’t make these investments, so the state’s intervention is needed,” Abanto said. A series of recommendations has already been given to relevant institutions, such as the ministries of Health, of Environment, of Housing, Construction, and Sanitation, of Energy and Mines, and to the regional government of Huancavelica, among others.
Manú National Park and La Rinconada
In a report about the Indigenous People in Isolation and Initial Contact (PIACI), Mongabay Latam said that the inhabitants of the territorial reserve of the Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti, and other groups, in Cusco, have also been exposed to the mercury. These communities are also at risk for diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, chronic malnutrition, syphilis, anemia, acute respiratory infections, and acute diarrheal diseases. In these communities, 61.5 percent of the population evaluated exceeds the allowed limit of mercury, according to a June 2017 report by the Public Defender.
In another story by Mongabay Latam about the Machiguenga community located within Manú National Park in Cusco, a 2014 study by the CAMEP was described. The study revealed that all 65 people evaluated in the Maizal community —an indigenous population in the initial contact stage— tested positive for mercury contamination. Only three children were below the biological tolerance level indicated by the World Health Organization (WHO). These people had high mercury levels despite the fact that the illegal mining is far from Manú; it takes a day’s travel on a fast boat on the Madre de Dios River to arrive there.
The document “Conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems for the provision of ecosystemic services,” by the Ministry of Environment, also discusses the mercury contamination problem in La Rinconada, which is in the Ananea District, and in Lake Titicaca.
“Scientific studies about mercury in fish, superficial waters, and sediments in the Ramis River Basin and Lake Titicaca, developed between 2001 and 2003, demonstrate high concentrations of mercury in various species (Peruvian silverside [Odontesthes regia] and yellow pupfish [Orestias luteus]) that inhabit these waters,” notes the document.
The document also reports on the contamination of lands, superficial waters, and sediments near the La Rinconada mining complex and surrounding areas.
Román, of the CINCIA, says that there are alternative technologies for gold mining that do not involve mercury. He explains that in Madre de Dios, some miners seeking approval are beginning to use gravimetric tables, which are systems that separate the gold through a magnetic vibration process. “This method demands a higher initial investment, and not everyone is ready to do that,” said Román.
Peru’s mercury contamination problem has spanned from colonial times to the present, and has spread to more places in the country in the last few decades. Despite all the studies and worrisome data that have been presented, the experts consulted by Mongabay Latam agree that very little has been done so far to confront the problem.
Banner photo courtesy of Peruvian news agency, Andina.
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