Madre de Dios, Peru — Due to mercury contamination caused by illegal gold mining, the government of Peru on Monday declared an environmental emergency in nearly a dozen districts within the Amazon rainforest, saying up to 50,000 people could be exposed to dangerous levels of the toxic element mercury.
Peru is the biggest gold producer in Latin America, and the high price of the precious metal has led to rampant “wildcat” gold mining in the country. Over the last decade, an estimated 100,000 Peruvians have descended upon the Amazon’s rivers and setup unregulated operations — particularly in the Madre de Dios region, where the 60-day emergency was declared.
“Forty-one percent of the population of Madre de Dios is exposed to mercury pollution,” Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidar said on Monday.
“Declaring the emergency brings action, hospitals, food such as uncontaminated fish, among other things.”
Most wildcat miners use makeshift barges to suck sediment up from the riverbed.
“Somebody will dive down to the bottom of the river in a scuba suit or some kind of tube to breathe,” Bill Pan — assistant professor at Duke University’s Global Health Institute — told NPR in 2015.
“They’ll be on the bottom sucking up the dirt.”
Other wildcatters clear trees from riverbanks and set up their operations along the water, where they sift through the soil. It’s been estimated that nearly 100,000 trees have been removed from the Amazon in the name of illegal gold mining.
Whatever the method of extraction, miners then use balls of mercury — a neurotoxin that, according to the EPA, can cause loss of vision, muscle weakness, and speech impairment, among many other things — to separate tiny flecks of gold from rock.
The miners themselves are most directly exposed, but they’re far from the only ones to suffer. Mercury gets mixed with the gold in the separation process in the field, but then gets vaporized when the metal is melted down in shops in villages all over Madre de Dios — releasing the element into the environment.
Consequently, a growing number of studies has shown that an alarming portion of both human beings and wildlife in southeastern Peru have hazardous levels of mercury in their bodies.
One 2013 study, conducted by Stanford’s Department of Global Ecology, found that in recent years, mercury levels increased in 90 percent of fish species in the Madre de Dios region. From the study:
Average mercury levels increased in 10 of 11 (90%) fish species analyzed between 2009 and 2012…indicating that the aquatic ecosystems, the rivers and lakes in which these fish live, are increasingly impacted by mercury released by artisanal gold mining activity in Madre de Dios.
The same study found that women of childbearing age — who had the highest average levels of mercury in their system — were most at risk because “mercury can be passed to the developing fetus across the placental barrier and cause severe and permanent neurological damage to the unborn child.”
“The consequences of mining activity in Madre de Dios will be with us for the next 80 years,” Minister Pulgar-Vidar said Monday, “and that must be fought at its roots.”
The Peruvian government launched a campaign to crack down on wildcat gold mining in 2012, but thus far has been unable to stop the expansion of the illegal activity. In the meantime, officials are sending aid in the form of food and medical supplies to the threatened districts in Madre de Dios.