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Climate ChangeIn Bolivia, Mercury Pollution Spreads Amid a Surge in Gold Mining

In Bolivia, Mercury Pollution Spreads Amid a Surge in Gold Mining

Across Bolivia, even in protected areas recognized by the United Nations for his or her diversity of wildlife, greater than 1,000 artisanal mining operations are razing trees, diverting waterways, and reshaping the land of their seek for gold. While miners are making a living, though, also they are dispersing mercury through the air, water, and soil. Their use of mercury has helped propel Bolivia to grow to be the world’s biggest importer of the toxic substance.

The Minamata Convention is a worldwide treaty to guard human health and the environment from the consequences of mercury, considered by the World Health Organization to be considered one of the highest 10 chemicals of best public-health concern. The treaty is known as for Minamata Bay, Japan, where industrial dumping of mercury within the Nineteen Fifties and ’60s led to widespread birth defects, neurological problems, and deaths as people consumed tainted fish. Like most South American nations, Bolivia signed the convention, which got here into effect in 2017 and requires countries to develop a national motion plan to scale back and, where feasible, eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. But unlike other nations, Bolivia has done almost nothing to manage the import or use of mercury.

Last yr, gold was Bolivia’s top export, value $2.5 billion — double the worth in 2020.

Bolivia has long been criticized by environmental and civil society groups for its lax regulation of the element, of which the overwhelming majority is used for gold mining. Last yr, Marcos Orellana, a professor of environmental law at George Washington University who’s the UN’s special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, urged the Bolivian government to take motion against the mercury trade, noting that its approach “has generated serious impacts on the human rights of populations affected by mercury contamination, including members of Indigenous peoples.”

In response, Bolivia’s attorney general defended the country’s adherence to the Minamata Convention, citing pilot programs amongst miners to boost awareness of the consequences of mercury and to advertise alternative technologies. But little has modified in distant mining camps, and this past September, Orellana presented a report back to the UN’s Human Rights Council that called for a worldwide ban on trading mercury and on using it in small-scale gold mining, which is now the world’s largest source of mercury pollution. He singled out Bolivia as a reported hub for mercury smuggling to other countries within the Amazon Basin. In October, when Orellana was in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, for a conference on mercury, two Bolivian NGOs released preliminary findings of their very own mercury studies, which showed that communities downstream of mining activity have abnormal and, in some cases alarming, levels of mercury of their bodies.

Gold has long been considered a refuge for investors and a hedge against inflation. Lately, its price hit record highs, and the rise has driven a surge in mining. Last yr, gold was Bolivia’s top export, value $2.5 billion — double the worth in 2020.

Left: Mercury is poured by miners on a clump of earth to amalgamate gold particles. Right: A lump of gold and mercury.

Left: Mercury is poured by miners on a clump of earth to amalgamate gold particles. Right: A lump of gold and mercury.

Left: Mercury is poured by miners on a clump of earth to amalgamate gold particles. Right: A lump of gold and mercury.

Thomas Graham

Nearly all of Bolivia’s gold mining, performed by unionized mining “cooperatives” working each legally and illegally, takes place within the La Paz region, including within the mountains and forests of the Apolobamba, Madidi, and Cotapata National Parks, which lie north and northeast of the nation’s capital. In Bolivia, as in much of the Amazon, gold occurs at low concentrations within the earth and in riverbeds. Practices vary, but miners typically use heavy machinery to excavate huge amounts of fabric, or hoses to suck up sediment from the riverbed, then process this gold-bearing soil and water through a sluice system that concentrates the gold. The miners then add liquid mercury to a slurry of gold and sand. The metal binds with the gold, forming an amalgam. Miners discard the method water and tailings, which still contain some mercury, then heat the amalgam, vaporizing the portion that’s mercury and abandoning purer gold.

Mercury leads to human bodies through two distinct pathways. The primary is when miners, most of whom work without protective masks, vaporize mercury and inhale fumes. This may occasionally occur on the positioning of a mining operation or where gold buyers further refine small nuggets of ore of their shops, dispersing fumes through populated areas.

There isn’t any single internationally accepted limit for mercury levels in humans, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a secure limit of 1 part per million (ppm), as measured in hair samples. Mercury emissions may be human-caused or result from natural processes: the element is emitted into the air when forests burn, volcanoes erupt, and rocks weather. In 2018, the United Nations carried out a worldwide mercury assessment and concluded that in most background populations — that’s, amongst people without significant mercury exposure — the extent tends to be lower than 2 ppm.

Members of 1 Indigenous community reported pains of their muscles, heads, and stomachs after mining intensified upstream.

“That being said, we don’t think there’s any secure level of mercury,” said Professor Niladri Basu, an environmental toxicologist at McGill University who was a part of the assessment. “There are case studies by which people will exhibit mercury within the hair lower than 2 ppm and show some kind of effect.”

Prompted by the intensification of gold mining in Bolivia lately, civil society groups in 2022 carried out two non-peer-reviewed studies of mercury levels in riverside populations downstream from mining activity within the Bolivian Amazon. Within the Department of La Paz, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Reacción Climática took hair samples from 268 people from 27 communities and five Indigenous groups. The typical mercury level of everyone tested was 2.96 ppm, while the Esse Ejja, an Indigenous group that eats way more fish than the others, averaged 6.9 ppm. This study built on a 2021 study carried out by the International Pollutants Elimination Network, which found that Esse Ejja women of child-bearing age had a mean hair mercury level of seven.58 ppm. The best level was 32.4 ppm.

Also in 2022, the Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information took 590 samples from 15 riverside communities within the two principal watersheds of the Bolivian Amazon, the Beni and the Madre de Díos. All five communities along the Beni River had a mean mercury level above 2 ppm, and two had average levels closer to 7 ppm. The researchers took 112 samples from children under the age of 15 in these communities and located a mean mercury level of 6.48 ppm. Meanwhile, on the Madre de Díos River, where gold mining is less intensive, all but one community had a mean mercury level above 1 ppm, though none exceeded 3 ppm.

An Indigenous Chiman woman who lives along the Beni River cooks fish.

An Indigenous Chiman woman who lives along the Beni River cooks fish.

AIZAR RALDES / AFP via Getty Images

Neither study collected data on the health of participants, and researchers drew no conclusions about links between poor health outcomes and mercury exposure. The degrees observed were far lower than those observed in Minamata Bay, where hair mercury levels ranged from 191 ppm to 705 ppm. Nonetheless, researchers noted — and participants reported — symptoms that might be connected to mercury exposure.

“Within the case of youngsters, considered one of the symptoms is extremely sensitive skin and a sort of pink rash on the hands and extremities,” said Oscar Campanini Gonzalez, director of the Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information. “And we observed this on the skin of assorted children that were nursing.” If confirmed, said Campanini, this is able to imply exposure to mercury either in utero or through breast milk. Oscar Lurici, a representative of the Esse Ejja, told Yale Environment 360 that adults in his community began to experience recent sorts of health problems as upstream mining intensified. “They began feeling pains of their muscles, heads, and stomachs,” he said. “Sometimes, babies and the elderly have blood of their feces.”

Pál Weihe, who 30 years ago led a benchmark study on the consequences of methyl mercury exposure within the Faroe Islands, where mercury-contaminated pilot whale was a crucial a part of the food regimen, said that the symptoms being reported in Bolivia amongst adults wouldn’t be typical with this level of mercury exposure. “But if you happen to ask me, is the extent of exposure stated by these NGOs problematic? Then I’d say, yes, they need to definitely be brought down.”

Gold merchants in La Paz, Bolivia.
Thomas Graham

Essentially the most urgent reason to try this, Weihe said, is to guard fetuses that may be exposed to mercury when moms devour mercury-contaminated fish. Such exposure can have subtle but everlasting neurodevelopmental effects. “Humans are more vulnerable [to toxic substances] before birth, unquestionably,” said Weihe, now chief physician on the University of the Faroe Islands. “The brain is developing. Its architecture is taking shape.”

In keeping with Campanini, the riverside communities need a medical specialist to research potential links between mercury exposure and their symptoms. Additionally they want more studies performed on fish from their rivers, to assist them discover which species have lower levels of mercury. If people stop consuming mercury altogether, their levels will slowly fall, experts say, but fish consumption is otherwise highly helpful for these populations. “It’s very difficult to weigh the neurological risk that mercury may pose against the neurological advantages of fish consumption,” said Basu.

Lurici, of the Esse Ejja, said his Indigenous group only recently came upon about elevated levels of mercury of their community. “But we will’t be told to not eat fish, because that’s the community’s work, its source of food. Absolutely everyone eats fish.”

If communities can’t surrender fish, can miners surrender, or reduce, their use of mercury? Large-scale miners often use cyanide to leach gold from ore, however the chemical can also be toxic to humans and wildlife. The Bolivian foundation Medmin, which works with miners to enhance their environmental practices, and other NGOs have worked with 15 mining cooperatives to adopt technologies that prevent mercury pollution by reducing the amount used after which recycling it. In keeping with Danilo Bocángel Jerez, general manager of Medmin, miners can concentrate the gold as much as possible before adding mercury, then heat their amalgam in a closed system that captures after which reliquefies vaporous mercury for reuse.

In 2021, the federal government announced it will produce an motion plan for mercury use in July of 2022. The plan has yet to seem.

In theory, such technologies could reduce mercury loss to close zero, and the NGOs are hoping the cooperatives they work with will pass these lessons to others. But there are 1,400 mining cooperatives in La Paz, and more appear every yr. They operate in distant locations, often without environmental licenses and sometimes without legal concessions. The federal government, said Marcos Uzquiano, until recently the top of protection at Madidi National Park, mostly turns a blind eye to those operations. And if it does levy a nice, the miners pay it and keep working.

Most miners, said Alfredo Zaconeta Torrico, a mining expert at CEDLA, a Bolivian think tank, are unlikely to adopt such technologies of their very own volition because they’re used to working with mercury and are unwilling to make the investment. Furthermore, the economic incentive to reuse mercury is small. “In comparison with what they’re earning with gold, the value of mercury is nothing,” said Zaconeta.

One other technique to reduce mercury use could be regulating it at the purpose of import. Zaconeta said every importer of mercury must be required to state where it is going to find yourself, and if it is going to be utilized in mining, what environmental practices will probably be used. Even when such regulations were flouted, he said, they might increase the value of mercury and incentivize miners to reuse it. In keeping with Campanini, the Ministry of Environment presented such a proposal to the Bolivian Cabinet several times lately, but the thought was never pursued.

Exports of mercury to Bolivia in 2020 by value in U.S. dollars.

Exports of mercury to Bolivia in 2020 by value in U.S. dollars.
Chatham House

Fecoman, the union of cooperative gold miners in La Paz, has said it’s open to changing technologies, but provided that the federal government pays for it. Previously, the union has blocked proposed mercury regulation by shutting down traffic within the nation’s capital. Last yr, gold exports represented 6.2 percent of Bolivia’s GDP.

In 2021, after UN rapporteurs submitted a 10-page letter to the Bolivian government citing the shortage of regulation of mercury and human rights violations against Indigenous peoples, and suggesting the country was in breach of the Minamata Convention, the federal government announced it will produce an motion plan for mercury use in July 2022. The plan has yet to seem, though officials insist it’s within the works.

“We just want some support from the federal government,” said Oscar Lurici, of the Esse Ejja. “Possibly they may help people find [alternatives to] fishing. Or perhaps help them raise their very own fish” on land, something the federal government has supported as a development strategy elsewhere in Bolivia. Campanini said further studies could also help communities just like the Esse Ejja discover which fish, from where, have lower levels of mercury and are safer to eat.

For now, the Ministry of Health has created a toxicology network, which it says has greater than 100 doctors monitoring for symptoms of mercury poisoning in areas affected by gold mining. The ministry didn’t reply to a request for an interview. “The creation of this network shows some sort of attention on the a part of the state,” said Campanini. “But it surely’s definitely not the national motion plan required by the Minamata Convention.”


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