The Poisoning of the Amazon

By: Jacqueline Gerson, Kelsey Lansdale and Melissa Marches

The pitter-patter of rain echoes through our metal boat as we chug down the Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian rainforest.rees line the riverbanks, just visible through the dense fog and heavy rain, while macaws and capuchin monkeys screech in the background; the Amazon is just as we had envisioned.

But we are not your average tourists, birdwatching on an Amazonian tributary — we come equipped with an entire boatload of supplies to conduct research: 55-meter-long PVC pipes, six coolers, two enormous duffel bags, two large boxes and three camping backpacks. We are here to investigate something that is normally hidden from visitors yet is one of the largest environmental and human health disasters to plague the region: mercury contamination from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).

Gold and other precious metals have been mined and exported from Peru’s resource-rich landscape since Spanish colonization began in the 16th century. In the last twenty years, gold mining specifically has become increasingly popular, offering promises to men from all over the country to “strike it rich” by mining this in-demand and profitable commodity. The mining practice continues to expand despite being completely illegal. The reason behind gold-mining’s success? Mercury. ASGM uses large amounts of this potent and dangerous pollutant to effectively extract gold from sediment. Mercury usage, in turn, spells lifelong health consequences for residents and wildlife, plays a large role in deforestation, has radical social effects and causes detrimental environmental contamination.

During the first few days of our adventure, the impact of ASGM remains invisible to us. Instead, we happily soak in the astounding beauty of the forest and the sincerity of its people. During our first stop along the Madre de Dios River, as we climb the steep mud stairwell from the boat to the small town of Boca Manu, we are greeted by delicious food, kind people and magnificent rainforest.

Yet, even on land, our view of all the activities occurring on the river in front of us serves as a reminder of how interconnected the people are with the water that runs by their town. In an effort to better understand this relationship, we ask a group of children to illustrate what the river means to each of them. Almost all of their drawings show a heavily forested riverside with a winding, clean river; large fish swim in the water, birds flit above it and people paddle across its smooth surface. The river they draw — the one they intimately know — is a river that provides the population with food, transportation and tourism revenue.

Yet, moving downstream on the Madre de Dios River, the landscape suddenly begins to deviate from the picturesque body of water depicted by the children. ASGM’s presence is very clear, ravaging the shores for hundreds of miles. First, dense old-growth forests are replaced with younger stands that struggle to grow after the rampant deforestation associated with ASGM (deforestation stems from mining camps, illegally built roadways and the mining itself). Then we begin to see large pyramidal mounds of rocks hugging the shoreline. Sometimes a pile stands alone, isolated from other pyramids. Other times they are found by the dozens, one beginning at the tail of another. As we stare at these piles of displaced rocks, we notice men poking their faces out of the water as they angle tubes into the sediment, and other men preparing the engines that rest on wooden platforms above some of the piles — these are the active mountains of rocks, formed as miners extract gold from the river in the process of ASGM.

The piles of rocks littering the river are not the only evidence of mining activity in this area. As we pass the Colorado River, home to one of the larger mining towns, a visible mixing of water occurs with the Madre de Dios River. The Colorado River has a drastically different coloration than the blue of the Madre de Dios — it is an opaque chocolate brown. The suspended sediment loosened by the gold extraction process has given the river this color, so its name, “The Colored River,” is fitting. We watch as the Colorado River slowly turns the Madre de Dios River from its deep blue to a caramel brown — spreading the impact of ASGM to the entire ecosystem.

When we finally reach the shore of Boca Colorado, we feel as though we’ve entered the Wild West. All eyes are immediately on us, the obvious foreigners and only females wandering the streets, but we are not the only outsiders in town. Most of the men here have traveled from faraway cities, such as Cusco and Puno, and reside here without their families for several months of the year. In a country where culture is shaped by regional norms that have formed over centuries, this influx of transient migrants disrupts established social patterns. The miners come with a burning desire to become rich overnight, a general disregard for the dominant Amazonian culture, a lack of family to care for and a bachelor style of living. As a result, prostitution, heavy drinking and crime have become commonplace, particularly in the Red District area near the center of town, and a general sense of mistrust pervades what was once a tightknit community. It is not only the people that remind us of the mining activities, but also the infrastructure we observe. Nearly every store either buys the gold produced from ASGM or caters to it in some way: hardware stores specialize in mining equipment (tubing, diesel engines, etc.), general stores are lined with rubber boots for trekking on the mucky shores, and restaurants open early to serve hearty breakfasts to miners. Gold mining in Peru may be illegal and subject to periodic government crackdowns, but the local businesses in this town help perpetuate the practice.

The scale of mining operations ranges from a small group of men equipped with a diesel engine to larger groups with barges and heavy construction equipment, but the processes and results are essentially the same. In ASGM, miners work in a team to pump sediment from the river and then pass these slurries through a gravity filter — rocks and heavy particles are discarded back into the river, forming the mountains of rock we see. The remaining fine particles cascade down a wooden board covered with what looks like a rug. The dense gold particles get stuck in the threads of the fabric, while water and other sediment are washed back into the river. The cloth is then removed and dunked in an oil drum to begin the process of isolating the gold particles. At this point, mercury is added to bind selectively to the gold, separating it from other sediment particles. This mercury-gold amalgam is then retrieved and the mercury burned off, leaving behind gold that can be sold in town. Any mercury-rich tailings that remain in the oil drum are dumped directly into the river.

While groups of miners can produce up to 30 grams of gold per day using this process (worth an astounding US$600), their actions are altering the river’s flow, disturbing local cultural norms and introducing large amounts of toxic mercury into the environment. In fact, the Madre de Dios region of Peru is estimated to produce 16 tons of gold per year, using over 32 tons of poisonous mercury in the process. Once in the air and water, mercury is a potent toxin that can impact the neurological functions of people and animals, particularly carnivorous species that feed high in the food web. It is these environmental and health impacts of mercury that brought us on this journey.

The effects of ASGM on forests and wildlife are not isolated to the area around Boca Colorado. As we continue downstream to the regional capital of Puerto Maldonado, the river is lined with eroded streambanks, gaps in the forest canopy and endless mountains of rocks. In Laberinto, a day’s trip downstream from Boca Colorado, we dock our boat on a deteriorating shoreline that is slowly dumping abandoned edifices into the river as the sediment banks crumble. We are greeted by a towering sign proudly advertising “Amazon gold” (a gold-buying shop) and other stores selling the standard rubber boots, pumps, tubing and cloth needed for the mining process. The entire region has been transformed by ASGM.

Only after witnessing the harsh realities of SGM from the river and in mining towns such as Boca Colorado do we fully realize the effects mining has on the communities upstream. When we first arrived in Peru, we were mesmerized by the beauty and serenity of the Amazon — the trees, birds, animals and people. During the first few days of our trip as we journeyed to Boca Manu, the forest seemed untouched by ASGM, but the impacts of mining do reach even these upstream communities and wilderness areas. Mercury released through burning the mercury-gold amalgam travels through the atmosphere to be deposited in areas far from its source, fish that migrate through the river are now scarce due to the high sediment loads associated with mining, and gold-rush newcomers from other areas of Peru bring alcoholism and crime to remote areas, disrupting the established social norms of indigenous Amazonians. The scene we witnessed near Boca Colorado is becoming the standard as mining activities continue to increase. Everyone must try to adapt to this new Peruvian Amazon.

Even though we are studying the impact of mercury on the environment, we also witnessed how the tradition of ASGM and the toxin itself are leading to neurological impacts on the people and changing the interactions of people as a whole. At moments in our journey, it seemed that only by developing superpowers (as suggested by our boat guide Ramiro) could we stop the illegal and omnipresent practice of gold mining. While we obviously wish for superpowers, we choose a more realistic pathway for change. We strive to use scientific research to promote an improved understanding of the environmental, health and social impacts of mercury used in ASGM and to induce policy reforms that benefit this unique environment and its people.

Originally posted 2018-10-03 04:52:10.

“My Life for the Land”: Kiliii Yuyan’s Powerful Article on Indigenous Conservation Efforts

By: Nejma Belarbi, based on an article published on Voices for Biodiversity

Wearing the mantra of Standing Rock Sioux, Water is Life, a young woman at the Oceti Sakowin camp looks out over an estimated ten thousand people gathered there. To the Sioux, fighting for water and land is not an intellectual exercise— it is a fight for the health of the people.

My Life for the Land, written by Nanai photographer and writer Kiliii Yuyan, illuminates the importance of viewing conservation through the Indigenous lens. The scientific community has begun to recognize Indigenous knowledge as pivotal to conservation efforts. One commonly overlooked reality is the direct connection between the wellbeing of a ecosystem and the basic human rights of Indigenous people. Cultural survival, food and medicinal needs in Indigenous communities all require the existence of a healthy ecosystem, so Indigenous peoples have a strong vested interest in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. For some of these communities, however, attempts at protecting the environment can be a life-threatening endeavor. Yuyan’s article sheds light on the important correlations between ecosystem health and the health of humanity — now and for future generations.

Kiliii Yuyan’s insights and photographs are truly inspiring. He weaves connections among different Indigenous groups and explains the barriers they face as they strive to both conserve and continue stewardship of ecosystems.

His article depicts the struggles faced by Indigenous people on the front lines of conservation, from the Brazilian rainforest to North Dakota’s Standing Rock to the Alaskan Arctic. He begins with the tragic loss of Indigenous leaders who were involved in — and often spearheaded — conservation efforts to protect their lands and ecosystems from corporate exploitation, a sad reality we are continuously witnessing.

Yuyan connects Indigenous-led conservation with biodiversity by exemplifying ecosystem management and subsistence practices that have often proven to be beneficial to the well-being of many species. He highlights the clear connection between community-led ecosystem management and positive impacts on species such as bowhead whales in the waters of Alaska.

…under Iñupiaq management, the whale population had risen to almost 17,000 whales, which is believed to be even more than before the arrival of European whalers in the 1800s! Today the Beaufort Sea Bowhead population continues to grow at 3.7 percent annually, and serves as a prime example of how a modern Indigenous people can self-manage sensitive wildlife, even while hunting for subsistence.”

Flora Aiken gives a silent blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. The Iñupiaq have a rich spiritual life which centers around the gift of the whale to the community. Foster Simmonds offers a prayer, saying, “Hide something for me. Look at the food, the whales. Look at the sea, the whalers. A blessing for them. Take that and hide it in your heart.” The whale here is tied up after being towed to the ice’s edge and is awaiting the village to come and help haul it onto the ice.

Yuyan explains that conservation efforts based on colonial concepts have sometimes caused great harm to Indigenous groups, who have had to fight back for their right to manage their homes and ecosystems. One such example is the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission, initiated in response to the 1977 moratorium on whaling. At the time, commercial whaling and Indigenous subsistence whaling were put in the same category, most likely due to the lack of understanding of the role these communities played as ecosystem stewards. Yuyan writes that:

The Iñupiaq have been hunting whales here for at least 2,000 years. Yet the fact that they have the rights to whale today is remarkable — they nearly lost this way of life when the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on whaling in 1977… The Iñupiaq refused to give up and started their own Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission, fighting for the right to hunt whales and to manage their own bowhead whale population.”

The importance of Indigenous peoples’ lifeways in conservation is well illustrated throughout, with many examples of ongoing efforts to preserve ecosystems, which in turn protects countless species. His maps clearly show that Indigenous lands in Brazil, are least deforested regions.

Yuyan breaks down the myth that Indigenous land management and modern tools are mutually exclusive. He explains that:

Indigenous land management practices have evolved over thousands of years — and continue to evolve. Today the Ka’apor use game cameras and GPS to monitor wildlife activity and illegal logging. The Iñupiaq share information about whale observations and ice conditions over an extensive network of VHF radios. These modern additions are a natural adaptation for Indigenous people who live in a changing world with changing demands.

A truly salient point, which leads us to address our own biases regarding technology and subsistence living. Yuyan illustrates the shift in perspective by different cultures dealing with a changing world, with many now standing up to protect land and water. He speaks of his own experience at Standing Rock and witnessing the changing values of non-Indigenous people who gathered to support the interruption of the Dakota Access Pipeline:

I witnessed thousands of people — from all races and cultures — gathering in support of the Lakota people and their land rights. I saw outsiders running into new values in a camp structured around Indigenous priorities.

The photographs found throughout the article are rich and rare — true testimony to the power of imagery. With salient writing, a passion for the natural world and a desire to create greater opportunities for Indigenous knowledge to be recognized, Yuyan shows us an alternative vision of humanity’s greatest treasures — community, culture and the earth.

Originally posted 2018-04-15 08:21:10.

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