Luis E. Fernandez is a research ecologist at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, and is the director of the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project (CAMEP), a multi-institution research initiative that examines the impacts of artisanal gold mining, mercury contamination and deforestation on natural and human ecosystems in the Peruvian Amazon. His research focuses improving understanding of the global mercury cycle, particularly emissions from the artisanal gold mining sector, and its regional and global effects on forests, ecosystems and human populations.
Below, check out the translation of a recent interview about his work and the effects of illegal gold mining in the Amazon with Vanessa Verau, the former Peruvian Vice Minister of the Environment, which originally appeared in El Comercio:
According to your assessments, what is the current impact of mercury coming from illegal mining in Madre de Dios?
In all of the communities of Madre de Dios, levels are three times higher than the internationally allowed maximum. This is a huge risk for the people exposed to methylmercury, which is the most commonly found form and the most toxic.
When did this research start?
Last year, so we have current data. We took hair samples from more than 1,000 people from different communities of Madre de Dios and found very high levels of mercury, of methylmercury, which comes from the consumption of contaminated fish.
What other angles were considered in your analysis?
Many. We did a large survey about the consumption of fish and the occupations of those with the highest levels of methylmercury contamination. We needed to know what kinds of fish are the most consumed and if all those affected worked as miners.
And what were the findings?
We verified that for adults from Puerto Maldonado, mercury levels were almost three times the permissible limit. We found very high levels in the fish offered in the market; we analyzed 15 types of fish and 60% of those sold in Madre de Dios were contaminated, all at levels much higher than the permissible limit. It’s difficult to determine the exact origin of this fish because they’re brought to the market from different zones.
Mercury from illegal mining goes to the river, then the fish, and then the tables…
Exactly, and what we wanted to know in this first study is what rivers or lakes they were from, where they had been contaminated. The species offered in markets are consumed a lot in the city.
I understand that your research is continuing…
That’s right. After the initial analysis, the next study covers 28 urban communities, in Puerto Maldonado, Mazuco and Iberia, 13 native communities and small non-native rural communities. All present with mercury contamination above the limits.
Which species of fish are the most contaminated?
We’ve observed that those who occupy a higher position in the food chain have higher concentration of mercury. The smallest and those who live from nuts and grasses have lower levels. The same applies to those raised in fish farms. The most contaminated are the carnivores, the fish that eat other fish. And these are also the most consumed: doncella, zungaro, mahi-mahi, among others. They are large, migratory fish that live for many years and travel through different basins, some very affected by illegal mining. Mercury accumulates and continues to increase as you go up the food chain. A contaminated fish that feeds on another contaminated fish absorbs the mercury and thus adds to the poison.
Would you say that the mercury from illegal mining has become a public health problem in Puerto Maldonado?
I think it’s obvious. Moreover, in Madre de Dios and in the cities where illegal gold is bought and sold, you have a great deal of mercury emissions in the air, because it’s burned and this directly pollutes the urban zone where many people live.
In Puerto Maldonado you also see cases of exposure from breathing in the dust, since there has been a lot of mining activity there. It’s a complex situation, where you have mercury in various forms, affecting the body in different ways, and it’s in the cities as well as natural areas.
It seems difficult to escape mercury…
If you have it in so many places, it’s very difficult and the worst part is this will affect the next generations. Our preliminary results show the exposure in women of childbearing age and these future mothers will transmit the mercury to their children. This public health problem will be inherited by future generations.
What country has the highest rate of illegal mining in the region?
Peru is the country that has the highest rates of illegal mining in the region, especially by artisanal mining. Colombia also has a lot of this mining, which results in lost forests, but more in the coast than in the Amazon. There are artisanal and illegal mining operations in every country, in Surinam, in Guyana, in Brazil, but unfortunately the problem is most acute in Peru.
How does the international community see the problem of mercury contamination in Madre de Dios?
There’s a lot of concern about the depredation of forests and high levels of mercury found in Madre de Dios. It’s an area recognized as a center of biodiversity and indigenous culture.
Madre de Dios and Tambopata are a center of biodiversity. Is there more concern because it is a vulnerable and biodiverse area?
Yes. We’re talking about the Tambopata reserve, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and Manu national park, which is one of the most pristine places of the entire Amazon basin. Thanks to the growth of ecotourism, many foreigners have visited Peru to see its environment, its ecosystems and the traditions and customs of the people of the Amazon. The combination of access that ecotourism brings and the natural wealth that can be seen at every step has created more consciousness about these places, and the concern about what is happening from in Madre de Dios was born from there.
What is your opinion of the growth of illegal mining in Peru?
In 2004, the information that something was happening with mining in the Peruvian Amazon began to come out. It grew driven by the price of gold. Globally there was an explosion of informal mining because poverty pushed people toward the forest to take advantage of the gold and get some money to improve their lives.
What happened, however, is these activities took place without control or oversight, large areas were deforested and rivers and lakes were polluted. And people began to show signs of poisoning from heavy metals, especially mercury, in the form of methylmercury, which is when the heavy metal comes into contact with the sludge and bacteria of the environment
It’s paradoxical, but this activity has a negative impact for those who work in it…
This is true, and it’s those miners, many of whom work for others, who are the most exposed. As a scientist, it’s an issue of professional interest, but my concern is not only environmental, but also human, since the miners are heavily affected.
I’ve worked more than ten years with the Peruvian artisanal mining community on the issue of occupational and public health, because they are polluted, work in dangerous and unsafe conditions, using very toxic chemical materials. And they’re the ones who know the least of the problem and how it’s affecting them and their families.
Is the increase in illegal, informal and artisanal mining since 2004 noticeable?
Yes. Various analyses have been performed via satellite images and in them you can see that the rise really started quickly in 2004 and after the financial crisis of 2007 there was an explosion.
Artisanal mining has become the principal culprit of deforestation of the Amazon in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. This has never been the case before in history, since before deforestation was the result of tropical timber logging and the invasion of the Amazon by livestock and agricultural interests. For the first time in the 21st century there is a new factor to blame for the loss of tropical forests, the pollution of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity: artisanal, illegal or informal mining.