Mercury contamination caused by illegal mining in Colombia’s Amazon is threatening the welfare of Indigenous communities who are now seeking legal action against the government.
In November, a group of affected Indigenous communities presented a lawsuit against the government in a superior court in Bogotá, claiming the violation of their constitutional rights, El Espectador reported.
The communities say that the government has, either actively or by omission, permitted illegal gold mining and mercury dumping that has led to a humanitarian crisis affecting some 66 Indigenous communities.
“Although [the mercury contamination] is recognized by the state, it is negligently overlooked,” the Amazon Indigenous Peoples Organization (Organización Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas de la Amazonia Colombiana – OPIAC) stated.
Mercury is frequently used by small-scale gold mining operations to extract gold from ore and to find small pieces of gold mixed in sediments. The chemical is toxic to humans and can have devastating effects on the environment.
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Reports of mercury contamination within the Caquetá river, as well as the Apaporis and Cotuhé waterways, have been seen since at least 2014. A study conducted by the national natural park service, the Ministry of the Environment and the Universidad de Cartagena recently identified an unusually high mercury content in 17 species of fish from the Caquetá river.
Another report by government agencies and Corpoamazonia also found that the hair of inhabitants of the Caquetá, Apaporis and Cotuhé river basins exceed the mercury concentration threshold established by the World Health Organization (WHO).
High levels of mercury have also been detected among children younger than two years old, indicating the consumption of breast milk with a high mercury content, according to Semana. An increase in children born with birth defects and illnesses has also been reported along the Caquetá river. Reported symptoms of mercury poisoning among these populations include increased heart rate, fatigue, weakness and decreased muscle strength.
OPIAC claimed it is less about the government not having the economic resources to confront mercury contamination, but rather that it lacks the will to do so. “The current administration does not have the will to respond to the situation of the Indigenous people, but it does show its interest in talking on international stages about protecting the Amazon and its inhabitants,” said the Indigenous organization.
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The effects of mercury contamination on Indigenous groups in Colombia reflect a growing concern regarding the environmental devastation of illegal mining and other certain criminal economies, and the challenges governments face in combating it.
In August 2019, the Colombian government re-signed the Minamata Convention, an international agreement to stop the production, importation and exportation of products containing mercury, with the goal of reducing domestic use of mercury by 180 tons per year and being mercury free by 2023. As around 55 percent of the mercury used in Colombia goes to gold mining, fulfilling that goal depends largely on the government’s ability to control gold mining — particularly illegal gold mining.
While most large-scale regulated gold mining operations do not use mercury, it is common among small-scale and illegal operations that lack the capacity, funds and incentive to adopt cleaner and safer alternatives.
Attempts to regulate mining-related mercury contamination in Colombia have been ineffective. In 2014, the Constitutional Court issued a judgment to protect Indigenous lands in the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta by requiring reviews of mining permits. But the new regulation triggered a surge in illegal, unregulated mining operations. Two years later, in 2016, Indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada filed a plea to extend the regulations to small-scale miners. To date, the judgment remains pending.
The government’s ability to protect the environment and vulnerable communities from organized criminal activities seems to lie not in environmental regulations, but on their ability to crackdown on criminal operations.
The harmful effects of illegal mining-related mercury contamination are not only a concern in Colombia. Indigenous communities in Brazil and Peru are also denouncing the rising mercury levels caused by gold miners.
In March 2019, authorities in Peru launched an operation to catch illegal gold miners and loggers that had cleared some 10,000 hectares of Amazon forest, leaving behind pools of mercury.