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Mercury poisoning chief among health problems facing Peru’s uncontacted tribes

  • In Peru, about 5,000 indigenous people belonging to 18 different ethnic groups live in isolation, and many more live in a state of initial contact with the outside world.
  • One of the most urgent problems facing these communities is mercury contamination, which affects dozens of members of the Nahua indigenous community.
  • The Nahua live in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Territorial Reserve. They have access to a medical post, but it lacks necessary resources and permanent staff.

This story originally appeared on Mongabay Latam as part of a special series on threats facing isolated indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Other stories in the series available in English:
Ecuador’s isolated indigenous tribes: Stuck between oil and state neglect
Gold, wood, religion: Threats to Colombia’s isolated indigenous peoples
Venezuela’s isolated indigenous groups under siege from miners, disease and guerrillas

“The girl was very sick with pneumonia, and there were no nebulizers,” a resident of the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Territorial Reserve (RTKNN) in southeastern Peru told Mongabay. The person, who preferred to remain anonymous, was referring to a September 2018 incident in Santa Rosa de Serjali, a community of Nahua indigenous people located inside the reserve. The girl, only 4 months old, was facing a serious health challenge.

The baby was brought to Sepahua, a mission founded in 1948 by Dominican monks, for medical attention. Her condition failed to improve, so she was transported to the city of Atalaya, the capital of the eponymous province. Despite efforts to save her life, she died. “The problem is that in Serjali there is a medical post, but it doesn’t have permanent staff,” said the source. “They come, they stay for a short time, and they leave.”

The Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Territorial Reserve is home to several voluntarily isolated indigenous groups living in temporary homes like this one. Image courtesy of Survival International.

Jader Flores, another Nahua community member living in the reserve, agreed. “There are so many sick people … with anemia, tuberculosis, and diabetes,” he said. “There isn’t medicine, and the nurses are not always there.”

The situation is so serious that, in November 2018, a meeting was held in Atalaya between indigenous organizations, Nahua community members, researchers of isolated and rarely contacted tribes, and representatives from the Ministry of Culture. The central issue was the health of the Serjali residents, and in particular the dangerous levels of mercury present in their bodies.

A dangerous metal

The issue of mercury in the area has rarely been discussed by the media and the general public, yet authorities have been aware of it for several years. Between November 2014 and October 2015, the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (CENSOPAS), part of the Ministry of Health, collected urine samples from some Nahua community members on four separate occasions. Investigators discovered high concentrations of mercury in the samples each time, especially in children under 12 years old. Ultimately, 78 percent of the samples contained high mercury levels, according to the ministry’s 2017 report on the investigation, “An Analysis of the Health Situation in the Nahua Community of Santa Rosa de Serjali in the RTKNN.”

Flores, the Nahua community member, attended the 2018 meeting. He said the Nahua present wanted to express their enormous concerns regarding the mercury. “We have no idea what’s happening to us; that’s why we are demanding that the authorities act,” he said. No one has measured the levels of mercury in community members’ hair, a step recommended in the ministry’s report because hair is able to show evidence of contamination over long periods of time.

A Nahua elder. In the 1980s, the community began to make contact with the outside world, with fatal consequences. Even today, the community is vulnerable. Image by Johan Wildhagen for Survival International.

The source of the mercury remains unknown and no studies have been done to pinpoint it. Certain human activities, such as gold mining, coal burning and waste incineration, release mercury into the environment. It generally makes its way into the water, where bacteria convert it to methylmercury, which bioaccumulates up the food chain. People who aren’t industrial workers are typically exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish or shellfish, as has been the case elsewhere in the Peruvian Amazon, largely as a result of illegal gold mining.

Some people blame the company PlusPetrol, owner of the Camisea Gas Project, which has been extracting natural gas from Lot 88 in the RTKNN since 2004. A 2007 report by the Ecuadoran environmental organization Acción Ecológica found that drilling can release cadmium, lead and mercury. However, in January 2018, PlusPetrol said it “rejects any possibility that the gas extraction could generate mercury contamination in the population or in the environment.” The company said none of the processes used to extract natural gas involve mercury, nor does the project generate mercury emissions. The company added that the project is constantly monitored and that government organizations supervise activities at the site. Mongabay contacted PlusPetrol for further comment but did not receive a response by the time of this article’s original publication.

High levels of mercury can be toxic to human health, with serious neurological and behavioral impairment a common outcome. Other symptoms can range from diarrhea and dermatitis to birth defects, according to Carlos Manrique, a doctor in Puerto Maldonado, roughly 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of RTKNN who has seen patients with these symptoms. The Nahua are likewise experiencing these problems because of the mercury contamination.

However, according to Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist specializing in voluntarily isolated populations who has worked with the Ministry of Culture, “it appears that it isn’t understood that this is an emergency.”

A historic tragedy

In fact, in April 2016, the Ministry of Health did declare a health emergency in Serjali. According to people present at the time, an effort was made to improve the situation with the provision of water, medicine and medical personnel. The next month, the Ministry of Culture formed a team “to protect the Nahua population in Ucayali.” The team included representatives from the ministries of health and environment, the National Fisheries Health Agency (SANIPES), the General Directorate of Environmental Health (DIGESA), and the Regional Government of Ucayali, where part of the RTKNN is located.

At least 12 indigenous ethnic groups live in the Peruvian rainforest in voluntary isolation or in a state of initial contact. They prefer self-determination and little to no contact with the outside world. Image courtesy of the National Institute for the Development of the Andean, Amazonian, and Afro-Peruvian Populations (INDEPA).

The team was expected to work for just six months, but it continues to this day. Even so, the cause of the mercury problem has yet to be determined and the medical post in Serjali lacks not only staff but also equipment and infrastructure. As if these challenges weren’t enough, preventive care for the Nahua is also scarce: according to the Ministry of Health, only 9.6 percent of the necessary preventive care took place between 2011 and 2014.

The Nahua are already vulnerable for painful historical reasons. They are one of the 51 ethnic groups, who speak 17 different languages, living in the Peruvian rainforest. Part of their population lives in voluntary isolation and another part lives in a state of initial contact. They have lived in a tight-knit community for about 40 years, after having been scattered for centuries.

The Nahua community includes about 400 members. According to a Ministry of Health report, their first “stable” encounter with outsiders was in 1984, when four Nahua met a group of loggers. The encounter “caused the spread of respiratory infections that led to the death of almost half of the population during the first year of contact,” the report states. Of the 240 Nahua at the time, 114 died. Testimonies from the time discuss the spread of the raopae, a Nahua term for an intense disease that causes death.

The illness produced a fever and an “atrocious cough” that the community had never experienced before. The Nahua’s immune systems were unprepared for illnesses common in urban and even rural environments. On more than one occasion, a common cold has sparked a massive tragedy.

This low immune resistance still contributes to the spread of respiratory diseases and perhaps took the life of the infant mentioned earlier. There are also concerns about extremely high rates of tuberculosis in Serjali. The Ministry of Health report gives infectious or parasitic disease as the main cause of death in Serjali between 1984 and 2014.

Disease is not the community’s only serious health problem, however. An estimated 61 percent of Nahua children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. Among the Nanti, another indigenous group in the RTKNN, that number surges to 67 percent, according to the Ministry of Health. The ministry’s report states that nearly 77 percent of the Nahua population has anemia, although children have lower rates. Records taken between 1997 and 2014 reveal that 75 percent of the deaths that occurred during that period happened before age 31, and 25 percent occurred before 5 months of age.

The Peruvian government has not yet established effective policies to protect those living in isolated indigenous communities. Image courtesy of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD).

Disputed land

The RTKNN spans nearly 4,570 square kilometers (1,760 square miles) in the departments of Ucayali, Madre de Dios and Cusco. Lot 88, where the Camisea Gas Project is operating, takes up nearly one-third of that area, having been established in the 1980s before the reserve’s formal creation in February 1990. The gas company has pre-established rights, but the Nahua and other communities have a right to protection and self-determination, which are often difficult to reconcile in these times.

The history of this area is stormy in other ways, and new gas development may be on the horizon. In September 2013, for example, PlusPetrol asked the Peruvian government, then headed by Ollanta Humala, for permission to expand its activities in Lot 88, which is estimated to hold more than 310 trillion cubic feet of gas. The Nahua sent a letter to the Ministry of Culture opposing the expansion because it “affected their ancestral territory.” Memories of the community’s first contact with outsiders came flooding back.

Lot 88 is close to the buffer zone of Manú National Park, recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. There are three other protected areas in that region: Megantoni National Sanctuary, Otishi National Park and Machiguenga Communal Reserve. The Smithsonian Institution estimates that the region is home to 600 species of invertebrates, 800 species of birds, 120 species of fish, 86 species of reptiles, 69 species of mammals, and 300 species of bats, rodents and small mammals. Observers say the PlusPetrol expansion could endanger this rich biodiversity.

In 2013, Paulo Vilca, Peru’s vice minister of interculturalism at the time, was in charge of a technical report that highlighted 82 points from the gas company’s environmental impact study. Among them was a statement that the activities would affect “the health and the way of life of highly vulnerable populations.” The report was posted on the Ministry of Culture’s website on July 15, 2013, but it disappeared from the computer system in a matter of hours. A few days later, a statement appeared claiming that the report was not valid.

Vilca gave up his position on July 22, 2013. Later, the number of points dropped to 13. Vilca’s role overseeing the report was taken over by Juan Jiménez, president of the Council of Ministers at the time.

In 2012, the previous year, another shadow had fallen over the reserve. Two Peruvian media outlets reported that the Humala administration planned to award PlusPetrol another concession covering parts of the RTKNN and Manú National Park, called the Fitzcarrald Lot. In the face of a requirement from the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA), Perupetro, the state-run company in charge of negotiating, endorsing and supervising oil exploration contracts, announced that the exact location of the lot was still “being developed.”

While the situation remains in limbo, the prospective gas project on the Fitzcarrald Lot and Camisea’s proposed expansion on Lot 88 reveal the vulnerability of the RTKNN and the people who live inside it. The fifth article of Peru’s Law 28736, known as the “Law for the protection of communities in isolation or in a state of initial contact,” opens a legal door for these projects to move forward: it establishes the possibility of extracting existing resources (such as gas or oil) in indigenous reserves “out of public necessity.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda of the Lima-based Legal Defense Institute (IDL) said this article could conflict with rights established in the Peruvian constitution, especially the right to life. “There is a right to property,” he said, “but it cannot prevail over something else if there is a risk that a population — in this case the Nahua — could be eradicated. An increase in the gross domestic product for the extraction of gas does not justify that.”

Alone against the world?

Flores, from the Nahua community, told Mongabay Latam that the local ecosystem is suffering. Certain animal species have declined in number, he said, like the South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari). “Now we have to go farther” to hunt them, he said. Something similar has happened with fish: a freshwater species called the palometa is still common, but the tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum), which is often eaten, is now found less frequently, he said.

The future is unclear for the area. Of five territorial reserves, a 2016 Supreme Decree converted three into so-called indigenous reserves, which confer greater protection: the Isconahua, the Mashco Piro and the Murunahua. The other two territorial reserves are still being reviewed by the Multisectoral Commission, but the RTKNN is likely the most problematic because of Lot 88. The status of the lot has sparked controversy and disputes, and its impact on the health of the Nahua has not yet been officially clarified.

Julio Cusurichi, the president of the Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD), called the situation “completely worrying.” Conrad Feather, a British anthropologist who has worked in the area, said “these communities are accustomed to living dispersed; they do not have the capacity to endure the presence of people from all different places.” When the Nahua people began to gather in Serjali, they lost land, resources and parts of their identity.

Julio Cusurichi, president of the Indigenous Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD). Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Some actions have been taken to soften that process, such as a letter sent by the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), which represents indigenous groups, and the IDL to six United Nations special rapporteurs. One of them was Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, whose work focuses on the rights of indigenous communities. In the letter, the AIDESEP and the IDL expressed concern about the serious health situation of the Nahua in the RTKNN. They said the Peruvian government has not fulfilled its obligation to guarantee the rights of the community and others living within the RTKNN. Tauli-Corpuz expressed her concern about the issue and insisted the government should take urgent action.

Three important announcements were made at the meeting in Atalaya: that there will be an investigation into the origin of the mercury; that the RTKNN is under review for possible categorization as an indigenous reserve; and that a management team has developed a work plan for 2019 to help protect the lives and health of people living in the area.

The Nahua, Nanti, Mashco Piro and other indigenous groups will carry on, exercising their rights to live freely and to avoid contact with outside groups. How long they will be able to do so depends on their health situation improving. Right now, according to the anonymous source from the reserve, those in the community too often watch their children die, in a hut or canoe, without medical care to save them.

Banner image: Nahua people. Image courtesy of Survival International.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam.