The encouragement of illegal mining promoted by the Brazilian government over the past two years has caused a flood of mercury in Amazonian waters. An estimated 100 tonnes of the neurotoxic metal was used in 2019 and 2020 to illegally extract gold from the region, according to estimates based on an official survey. This gold was exported by Brazil to countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
In a survey produced in conjunction with the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) detected a quantity of 49 tons of gold washed out (illegally extracted, but documented to appear legal) with commercial agents operating in the Amazon obtained in collaboration with criminal factions that invade protected areas in search of the precious metal. The falsification is based on fraudulent declarations of origin.
Of these 49 tons, 17 were washed in Pará — especially in the middle Tapajós region, an area where indigenous peoples of the Munduruku ethnic group live. The social and environmental damage in the region, according to the MPF, reached 9.8 billion reais. And the calculation is that the extraction of this gold was responsible for the deforestation of 21,000 hectares of forest — felled for the search for the metal.
“Because of its failure to implement controls for certification of origin and traceability in the gold mining production and circulation chain, the Brazilian State promotes and is itself directly responsible for the threats and violence practiced against indigenous peoples, especially the people Munduruku”, emphasizes the MPF, which recommended a series of measures to Organs legal control bodies, such as the adoption by the Agência Nacional e Mineração of a certification and traceability system for Brazilian gold.
Mercury is a neurotoxic metal present in nature, but deforestation, fires and, especially, mining release and increase its concentration in the atmosphere. Its damage is usually severe and permanent. It can cause direct changes in the central nervous system, causing cognitive and motor problems, vision loss, as well as kidney, cardiac and reproductive system implications.
Widely used in mining to separate gold from other sediments, there is no official control over the amount used in Brazil, but environmentalists estimate that for every gram of gold extracted, 1.3 to 1.5 grams of mercury are used. There are at least 2,500 illegal farms in the country, most of them on indigenous lands. In neighboring Peru, which also shares the Amazon, the amount of metal used reaches 185 tons per year, according to data provided by WWF-Brasil.
Used and discarded without control, the metal ends up contaminating rivers, fish and those who feed on them. According to data from the National Inventory of Mercury Emissions and Releases, published in 2018 by the Ministry of Technology, Science, Innovations and Communications, 70% of the mercury used in mining is emitted into the atmosphere and 30% into soil, water and tailings. The concentration of mercury is usually higher in fish in rivers closer to mining regions, but it can also be found to a greater or lesser degree in more distant locations.
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“There is a lot of guessing about the amount of mercury. We do not know exactly, but we can say, with certainty, that it is a lot”, points out biologist Sandra Hacon, a specialist in public health at Fiocruz. “Even if a mine is deactivated today, by police or inspection, the mercury used there will continue to contaminate. It has neither fullness nor color. There is no way to mitigate this”, explains Hacon.
Starting this week, in partnership with WWF-Brasil and the Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA), Fiocruz will launch a geo-referenced platform capable of locating mines, fauna contamination and the presence of mercury in indigenous lands. O Mercury Observatory it also presents a systematic review of the scientific literature on the subject from 1980 to 2021, with about 200 articles and researches listed.
Even in regions without mining, such as the Rio Negro basin, in Amazonas, there is an incidence above normal. Through the Mercury Observatory, it is possible to see that this is an integrated phenomenon: the extensive illegal mining in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador directly affects regions without mining in Brazil. “The smaller the mercury nanoparticle, the greater the transport capacity. Whether through the rivers, whether through the atmosphere, or through the rain”, completes the biologist.
In many indigenous or riverside communities in Amazonian regions with mining, concentrations in humans already exceed the limit established by the World Health Organization (WHO) — of two micrograms of mercury for each gram of hair. The US environmental agency, in turn, uses only one microgram as an acceptable parameter. Fiocruz identified Yanomami indigenous communities with medians between 3.2 and 15.5. “These are alarming concentrations, directly linked to the presence of the garimpo”, explains Paulo Basta, a researcher at Fiocruz and author of the study.
According to WWF-Brazil conservation specialist Marcelo Oliveira, there is a direct relationship between the increasing levels of mercury in the region and the advance of mining and burning in indigenous lands. “Removing the damage caused by mercury from invisibility is essential to increase social pressure on legal measures that interrupt this cycle”, he says.
The problem, however, is not exclusive to municipalities in the North of the country. According to the studies gathered on the platform, mercury contamination spreads through the Legal Amazon and affects not only the Amazon rivers, but also the Cuiabá and Paraguay rivers, in the northern region of the Pantanal.
According to Oliveira, the great benefit of the platform is to combine 13 different levels of information that, superimposed, allow you to accurately visualize the problem caused by the metal. These range from georeferencing of rivers and indigenous lands to information on registered and illegal mining in protected areas, to lawsuits filed by the Federal Public Ministry against irregular miners.
It is possible to visualize, on the maps available on the platform, extensive areas of mineral exploration where the demarcation of the indigenous land is ignored by the miners. The most affected indigenous land is from the Munduruku ethnic group, in the middle of Tapajós (PA), where the Mercúrio Observatory has identified 600 records of legalized mining or mining authorization requests from the National Mining Agency.
Continuous exploration areas are identified in several tributaries of the Tapajós, such as the Tropas, Pacu, Kabitutu, Cadariri, Kaioruá rivers and dozens of other streams. There, indigenous communities are trying to preserve their territories from invasion and remain immune to mercury contamination. Another indigenous land heavily affected by mercury is ethnic c, on the border between Amazonas and Venezuela.
The platform makes it possible to cross the geographic data of the garimpo with scientific studies that reveal the impact of mercury on local populations and fauna, especially on fish used as food by indigenous peoples and river dwellers. The icons for accessing articles with contamination in humans and animals are classified by color: the darker, the higher the level of mercury concentration in the organisms.
The exploitation of ILs is exclusive to the original populations, but bills 191 and 490, pending in Congress, intend to release the exploration of gold in demarcated territories, change the demarcation criteria and allow the passage of roads, among other measures — the initiative is publicly defended by President Jair Bolsonaro, who often says that keeping Indians isolated on their land is treating them like animals in zoos. In view of the permissive speech of the Federal Government itself, the strategy of the miners, according to the specialist from WWF-Brazil, has been to ask for permission to mine miners (PLG) even before the law was approved, as a way of pressing for change.
The usufruct of demarcated indigenous lands is guaranteed by the Indigenous Statute to 66 territories that are home to around 70,000 people throughout the Amazon. PL 490 was approved by the Constitution and Justice Committee (CCJ) of the Chamber of Deputies at the end of June, in a vote marked by attacks on protests against the bill outside Congress. With the release of the CCJ, the PL can now be voted on or in the Plenary.
“The issue is aggravated by the accumulation of this metal over the years by those who frequently feed on fish with some level of contamination, albeit low. The human organism, due to the frequency of ingestion, does not have enough time to eliminate the metal, as happens with those who ingest fish with some mercury content only once in a while”, explains Paulo Basta. Another item in Basta’s research found high concentrations of mercury in four out of 10 children under the age of five in the Yanomami regions. According to studies, indigenous people of the ethnic group consume, on average, about 70 grams of fish per day. Fish is the main animal protein consumed by them.
Although it is difficult to measure the harm caused by mercury in the human body, there is evidence of its toxic potential. “Mercury, when absorbed, directly affects the central nervous system. And, in children under the age of five, this is particularly more worrying because the brain is still developing,” explains Basta.
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