The Chenchu tribe think of the tiger as their brother. They understand their forest and its wildlife better than anybody else and have shaped, nurtured and protected this environment for millennia. Yet their lives are being destroyed by government efforts to conserve this animal. Survival International researcher Fiore Longo spent time with them in Amrabad and Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserves, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh States, India.
“Our ancestors taught us only one thing: Love and respect the forest and it will take care of you. Here we don’t need money to eat and to live. This forest is our breath and our life.”
The Chenchu can recognize five different types of bees that produce five different types of honey. “We leave the larvae so it will recycle again; by looking at the way a bee flies we can know where the honey is”.
Outsiders think that tigers and humans are a threat to one another, but the Chenchu, who live with the animals day to day, have a different perspective; “We love them as we love our children. If a tiger or a leopard kills our cattle, we don’t feel disappointed or angry, instead we feel as if our brothers have visited our homes and they have eaten what they wanted”.
Evidence proves indigenous peoples manage their environment and its wildlife better than anyone else. Yet like other tribes in India’s tiger reserves, such as the Baiga and Mising, the Chenchu are being threatened with illegal eviction from their ancestral homelands: “We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest. This forest is our home. The flora and fauna of this forest are part of our family. Without us the forest won’t survive, and without the forest we won’t survive.”
Under Indian law, to conduct a relocation of indigenous peoples from their forests, evidence must be provided to demonstrate that the community is irreversibly harming the flora and fauna, and that coexistence with wild animals is impossible. Then, if the community gives its consent, they should be offered one of the two options of the resettlement package that the authorities are obliged by law to provide: either receive cash (Rs 10 lakh per family, around 14,500 US dollars), or move to a resettlement village. This is not what is happening in reality.
This woman is from Pecheru village, which was evicted in the ’80s. Of the 750 families that used to live in the village, the Chenchu told us that only 160 families survived after the eviction took place. Many starved to death. “The thought of that frightens us – we don’t want to see it. We won’t get the safety we have here anywhere else. Most of us would die of depression, unable to cope with a new life, and the rest of us would die slow, horrible deaths.”
“Among ourselves we have pure love and strong relationships. But outside it is not the same. Everything is related to money. If you don’t have money there is no food and no water. No money means no house and no clothes. It’s a shameless world out there, where nothing is pure. From the air we breathe to the relationships we establish, everything is impure there. We won’t get the safety we have here in the forest anywhere else.”
The Chenchu have released a letter demanding to be allowed to stay in their home: “Since our ancestors’ time, we have been born in this forest and we have died and will die in this very forest. This forest is our breath and our life. This forest is our right and no one can take this right from us and break our bond. If anyone tries to do this, we shall fight against it till our last breath. We will shed every single drop of our blood to protect our rights and our forest.”
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By Jennifer Molnar,Managing Director and Lead Scientist of The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Sustainability Science
Recently, I watched my 5-year-old nephew and 2-year-old twin nieces dig into my mom’s garden in New Jersey—looking for worms and pill bugs and other crawling treasures in the early spring dirt.
It brought back early memories of doing the same with my sister—digging into the dirt, trampling through creeks, climbing trees. Exploring nature, and finding cool things.
My interest in science started in moments like that.
It was fun to find new things. And then I became curious and started asking questions. Why does that animal live there? Why is it that color? What does it eat?
Science is about understanding the world and how it works, and I was beginning by exploring my neighborhood.
The more I’ve explored, the more I’ve learned how integral science is in our lives. By knowing how plants grow, we can raise crops that feed us. Biology and chemistry allow us to learn about diseases and how we can fight them.
Science also shows us how interdependent our world is and how much we depend on nature.
For example, water doesn’t just come into our homes through a pipe. It starts by falling from the sky, then it flows over land before joining with a river or lake and ultimately traveling through that pipe. What that water flows over makes a big difference in how clean it is. Flowing over the pavement of city streets and parking lots, it picks up contaminants like gasoline, motor oil, and trash. Flowing through a forest, the ground can act like a sponge, absorbing and filtering the water.
We can take advantage of nature’s role in protecting our water supply. Companies can not only look for efficiencies within their factories, but invest in conservation upstream to avoid the need to filter water. And cities can bring elements of nature into their urban spaces—using rain gardens and bioswales to allow rain water to flow more slowly and filter through the ground to enter waterways cleaner.
There are many other ways that nature supports our lives and our economy. Trees filter our air. Healthy soils are needed to grow healthy food. Fish from rivers and oceans feed us. And of course there are the intrinsic values of nature and benefits we get from just spending time in it—relieving stress and having fun.
Science allows us to make better decisions—including how we can better support nature so it keeps supporting us.
Science is also critical to addressing one of the biggest challenges we face today—climate change. We have seen evidence of changes that are already happening, with models indicating more will come if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sea levels are rising. Animals are changing migration patterns and farmers are shifting crop timing due to earlier springs. Weather events are becoming more extreme and less predictable.
Data on these changes allow our communities and companies to better understand the risks and develop solutions to adapt.
Unfortunately, despite the critical role science plays in our lives, its value today often gets questioned. And now in the United States, federal budgets and programs for science and conservation are threatened.
It is more important than ever for us to speak up for science, including the science of nature and its value.
As scientists, this includes communicating the importance of our work not only to peers, but also to broader audiences. To raise awareness of the role science plays in our lives, so it won’t be taken for granted.
All of us can speak up to support science through our votes and calls to government representatives. We can deliver the message that having science data and using it to inform our decisions—in policy, by companies, in our daily lives—is critical.
And I also hope that many more kids will see the wonder and awe of science like I did. Exploring their part of the world and asking questions, and then being inspired to keep asking questions through careers in science. They will be our next generation of explorers and problem solvers—helping us to better understand our world and what we can do so people and nature can thrive together.
In the dark, early hours of October 13th, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and articulated barge surged south through the vast, turbulent waters modernly known as Seaforth Channel in the heart of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, in Heiltsuk First Nation territories. The American-based tug (also referred to as the “NES”) was returning to Vancouver Harbor after delivering nearly 8 million liters of jet fuel and gasoline to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Dawn on October 13th revealed the NES run aground on the reefs of Athlone Island, its crew being rescued off the sinking ship by the Canadian Coast Guard. Its hull was hemorrhaging diesel fuel and synthetic lubricants that would eventually result in the devastating spill of over 110,000 liters of contaminants into the Pacific ecosystem. On November 14th, 32 days after its grounding, the disfigured remains of the NES were finally lifted from the seafloor.
The grounded Nathan E Stewart tug sinks beneath the waves in Heiltsuk territory. Photo by April Bencze.
Athlone Island, where the tug and its barge ran aground, is a millennia-old harvesting site stewarded and managed by the Heiltsuk First Nation of Bella Bella, British Columbia, whose unceded territory witnessed the disastrous end of the NES that dark morning in October. The Heiltsuk Nation has fostered complex and sustainable relationships with their traditional lands and waters for at least a documented 14,000 years, and likely longer. The NES spill site, known locally as Gale Pass (at and around the ancient village of Q’vúqvai), was and remains a focal and biodiverse community harvesting ground. The impacts of the diesel spill on the Heiltsuk cannot be overstated; not only do the fishing grounds represent an abundance of protein that supports physical subsistence, but also the area provides a powerful environment to practice traditional harvesting, knowledge transmission, and support Heiltsuk cultural revitalization efforts despite more than two centuries of oppressive colonization.
“While the environmental impacts of oil spills, in Canada and globally, can be measured by instruments of science, the profound personal, cultural, and communal impacts of the NES spill defy measurements by such instruments.”Tweet this
Gale Pass. Photo by April Bencze.
Twenty months after the diesel spill, the Heiltsuk Nation is still grappling with the profound impacts of the social, cultural, and environmental havoc wrought those stormy early morning hours in October 2016. As a Conservation Scientist working at the interface of ecological and social sciences, and a partner to the Heiltsuk Nation in their work to uphold Indigenous management strategies in their traditional territories, I seek to understand these intersectional impacts of such catastrophes. While the environmental impacts of oil spills, in Canada and globally, can be measured by instruments of science, the profound personal, cultural, and communal impacts of the NES spill defy measurements by such instruments. Understanding these impacts, infusing their consequences into modern dialogues regarding the expansion of tanker traffic in Pacific waters, and working towards real reparation, requires sharing of the Heiltsuk lived experience, which only members of the Heiltsuk Nation can do. In poignant and eloquent words, Megan Humchitt, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, shares her perspective below.
The Canadian Coast Guard and Heiltsuk first responders attempt to diminish the impacts of the Nathan E Stewart spill. Photo by April Bencze.
I knew something was wrong when I heard the VHF radio blaring in our kitchen upstairs in the early hours of October 13th. My father worked for the Coast Guard auxiliary for most of his life, and whenever someone was missing or overdue out on the water he would go out looking for them. He saved lives and helped many people from Bella Bella and the surrounding areas. He was able to engage in rescue efforts in any type of weather, day or night, because he knows our territory like the back of his hand. The loud voices on the VHF that night reminded me of those days past when my family and I would sit in the dark, worrying and listening for word from him on the radio. I went upstairs after I heard him leave in the early morning hours of October 13th, where I found a note that read, “oil tanker aground, Gale Rocks”. Fear gripped me. In that moment I knew that I had to go out there – I had to try to help protect our territory. I had to see for myself what was going on.
Gale Pass is a sacred place for us as Heiltsuk; it is a spiritual place, a place that has sustained us through generations. A place of history and culture. A place of present-day Heiltsuk. A place we go to harvest clams, rockfish, lingcod, halibut, herring eggs, and salmon. A place we go to practice ceremony. All these thoughts were running through my mind as we raced towards the location the NES had run aground.
An Orca (Orcinus orca) passes through the Heiltsuk waters near Gale Pass. Photo by April Bencze.
The Ocean is a part of us as Heiltsuk people; we are intrinsically connected to it throughout generations. For as long as I can remember I have been out on the Ocean with my family; it is where I feel most alive. Our health depends on the Ocean. The mood on the herring skiff with my Uncles, Cousin and Husband that early, dark morning as we raced towards the NES was heavy, all of us unsure of what we would see when we arrived at the incident site.
Heiltsuk first responders approach the spill site. Photo by April Bencze.
Chaos. What we witnessed was chaos and confusion. When we arrived at the site of the spill alongside other Heiltsuk boats, our Heiltsuk Guardian Watchmen were already at the site with the Bartlett Coast Guard Vessel. The weather conditions that day were moderate. The tide was falling. The NES tug was grinding on the reef and its connected barge swinging back and forth in the surf. What could we do?! We watched in abject disbelief waiting for the worst to happen. Heiltsuk Mariners tried hailing the Coast Guard on the radio to offer advice on how the tug could be pulled off the rocks, to no avail.
Aerial view of the Nathan E Stewart after sinking. Contaminant booms are deployed in an attempt to contain the diesel spill. Photo by April Bencze.
As the tide fell, the tug began to smash more heavily against the reef, and the chatter on the radio between the Coast Guard and crew was ominous. The pumps on the NES were failing, the hull was breached, it was time for the crew to evacuate the tug. The tug sank in moments. As soon as it was beneath the surface the smell of diesel fumes washed over us, and the water became milky around us. It was the single most helpless feeling that I’ve ever experienced. We think of our territory as part of ourselves – and this crushing new presence felt like a physical assault. The sea conditions were now building, and the tide was turning. The diesel was now flowing into the clam-rich beaches of Gale Pass. We went ashore and walked the beach while we waited for the booms to arrive. The oil washed across the sand and rocks, slick under my boots. My head was dizzy with the fumes.
Oil fills the spaces between rocks on the beaches of Gale Pass. Photo by April Bencze.
As the day progressed we did what we could. We placed booms across the mouth of Gale Pass and around the tug. But the damage was done. Our world was changed. The ride back to Bella Bella was beautiful, the sun golden on the mountains and a humpback whale spouted in the distance. Tears streamed down my face and I grieved.
“The Ocean is a part of us as Heiltsuk people; we are intrinsically connected to it throughout generations.”Tweet this
Making the Unseen Seen
As scientists and scholars, community members and environmental advocates, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, authors, readers, and humans – how do we talk about the impacts of the NES oil spill? Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.
Marine diversity overlooks the sunken remains of the Nathan E Stewart tugboat. Photo by April Bencze.
“Certainly, to quantify the oil that seeped from the doomed vessel that day – to count the clams who filtered diesel through their soft bodies, or to enumerate the gulls, or wolves, or bears who consumed contaminated oceanic protein on that foul-smelling beach in October – would not capture the whole narrative.”Tweet this
Along Heiltsuk shores, part of the temperate rainforest iconically known to the world and National Geographic as the “Great Bear Rainforest”, the irreparability of such spills defy calculation. For the Heiltsuk people, the impacts of the spill still ripple ceaselessly through their lives, nearly two years after the incident. While the oil slicks have disappeared from Gale Pass beaches, Heiltsuk people wonder if local black bears harbor toxins, if ancient cedar trees and their bark that is so culturally important are forever changed. How do we understand the magnitude of spill impacts for a culture that views the Ocean as home, and whose cultural, personal, and physical sustenance is supported by the abundance of species it houses? Perhaps we do so through poetry, through ecologically-embedded social sciences, or through improved cross-cultural communications. More importantly, perhaps we do so by restoring the Heiltsuk’s – and other First Nations’- rights to respond to environmental destruction in their own territories, and by recognizing their rights to dictate who, and what, navigate through their Oceans (and lands).
“Along Heiltsuk shores, part of the temperate rainforest iconically known to the world and National Geographic as the “Great Bear Rainforest”, the irreparability of such spills defy calculation.”Tweet this
Megan Humchitt sits within two conjoined Cedar Trees within Heiltsuk territory. Photo by Megan Humchitt.
As British Columbia faces ever-increasing pressure to allow tanker traffic and pipeline expansions through traditional Indigenous territories, understanding these impacts in real and meaningful ways has never been more crucial. On an objective scale, the calamity caused by the NES was small relative to the consequences that would have resulted had the tanker and articulated barge not delivered their payload before meeting an untimely end. Threats of catastrophic tanker spills in Heiltsuk territory persist – near misses occurring far too frequently. Proposals to increase tanker traffic across provincial coastlines only increase the chances of a spill that would result in irreparable cultural and ecological consequences; changes to protect the entire coast from the threat of oil spills must occur – before the unthinkable does.
We are settling into one of our many nights in the forests of Umling, to the western part of Royal Manas National Park. The night is devoid of any human voices, and all we could hear is the river gushing below, and the wind blowing in the trees. There is only the light of the moon, penetrating through the canopy and we are cautioned not to light fire nor switch on torches. The rangers check their guns, put the safety lock on and put it under their pillow. It is 7 p.m., and we are done with dinner. We are at Kukulung, a place very close to the Indian border and infamous for militant activity and armed poachers. There have been infrequent past encounters between these intruders and the Bhutanese counterparts, and the tales of these encounters sends chill down the spine. There are dangers also from the elephants and gaurs (also known as the Indian Bison), both known to be notorious for attacking people. Here, they can be seen in big herds.
I am in Royal Manas National Park, studying tigers. Royal Manas National Park is the oldest protected area in Bhutan and was established in 1964. The national park is located in the southern foothills of the country and is known worldwide for its incredible biodiversity and scenic landscapes. It has seven species of wildcats in an area of 1054 square kilometers, one of the highest density of cat species in the world and I have always wanted to come here and work. I am currently a wildlife biology student at the University of Montana, and as a part of my thesis research, I am studying the genetic make-up of tigers in the Bhutan Himalaya landscape. I am using non-invasive survey techniques to collect poop samples for obtaining DNA which would provide information on genetic diversity and connectivity in tigers of Bhutan. Insights on ecology and spatial distribution are increasingly becoming available, but information on genetic make-up and diversity is highly lacking and thus, lack explicit consideration in tiger conservation strategies in the country.
I come to Royal Manas National Park because it has tigers, a lot of them compared to the rest of the country and the national park has enjoyed momentous success in tiger monitoring and conservation over the years. The park was applauded recently for an amazing feat: the tiger numbers have doubled over the last three years.
With a team consisting of two research assistants, myself, six armed rangers and three porters, we set off to collect tiger poop. With every poop we found, we celebrated immensely; there was joy on each of our faces. But we were always careful and alert. Few rangers would walk ahead, we would walk in the middle, and few rangers would be at the back. We had to be quiet and maintained a steady pace; some eyes looked up front, some sideways and there were few of us looking at the trails for poop, scrapes, and pugmarks. It was one of the most enriching and adrenaline filled days of my life.
We were always ready by 7 a.m. in the morning, and the day’s journey would take a walking of at least 7 hours. We would cross dense forests, grasslands and rivers, tread river beds and climb ridges. By noon, our porters would cook us delicious food. We would retire by 4 in the evening, cook dinner near a water source, have it there, put out the fire and go somewhere else to sleep. We would choose a vantage point to camp, under a tree canopy and close to a river. The weather seemed erratic and we prayed it never rains for we had no tents with us; it was February and it hardly ever rained in February. The camping sites were always shifted, we never camped at the same place. We would be sleeping scattered across the forest floor and never together. It was the usual drill, and quietly, we would slip into our sleeping bags by dusk. We would watch the moon and the stars and fall asleep. This would be our routine for all the days we were in the forest.
I feel extremely lucky to be getting a sizable number of tiger poop in Umling, and the fieldwork went much smoother than I anticipated. Next, I will be visiting Manas Range on the eastern side of the park. The fieldwork will be equally daunting. I will also be visiting other tiger hotspots across the country to collect more samples. Many of whom I had consulted with had not observed much tiger poop deposits in the forests, and I was very nervous. I visited monasteries and lit butter lamps for blessings, and it is typical of what many Bhutanese like to do when they need something urgent. I was also nervous because of the history of some of these places I was visiting. But I was determined to take it as a challenge, and, I didn’t have a choice.
Fieldwork and patrolling along the borders are always this nerve wrecking. Park rangers are on average 15 days away in a month in the jungles patrolling, camera trapping, and carrying out fieldwork for other research purposes. Many decades have passed this way, and they handle it well; their families have learned not to miss them more. The rangers put their soul into their work and their love for nature is genuine. Their sweat and perseverance are returning results: tigers are doubling in numbers and illegal logging is subsiding. They are very happy about these positive developments, and I could it feel from their smiles as they spoke about it. However, they train every now and then and are always alert and fit; complacency has no room in these jungles.
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.