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Controlling the mercury that is killing the Colombian Amazon

Tropical rainforest, Wikimedia Commons. All Rights Reserved.

Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is an issue that continues to be the centre of public debate. However, this is not the only serious problem faced by the inhabitants of the region. Mercury contamination has also reached alarming levels, leading indigenous Amazonian groups to report possible 'ethnocide' and a humanitarian crisis in their territories.

The physical and cultural survival of several ancestral groups is threatened due to effects on their health, as well as the birth of babies with physical malformations and cognitive problems. In addition to this, in order to reduce the risks from mercury exposure, they have had to abandon practices such as traditional forms of fishing and breastfeeding, which are of great importance for their individual and community development.

Within this context, on November 19, 2019, indigenous representatives from five associations filed an appeal to ask judges to protect their fundamental rights and order the Colombian government to take effective measures to address mercury contamination in the Indigenous Territories of the Yurupari Jaguars Macroterritory.

Likewise, the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) and the Amazon Regional Table condemned the negligent attitude of the State and the lack of effective actions to stop mining that is generating a humanitarian crisis that affects 66 indigenous communities in the country.

According to these organisations, although they have formulated different proposals to help solve the problem, the government's response is that there are no economic resources to implement them.

Where does the mercury come from?

Mercury can be found naturally in the environment as a product of volcanic eruptions, erosion, or as a result of human activities. Although people can come into contact with mercury in different ways, when exposure is high and over a prolonged period of time, it can have very harmful consequences for health.

Despite the novelty and ambition of the ruling, recent hearings to follow up on its implementation teach us a lesson that a judicial declaration alone is not enough to solve the difficult situation faced by Amazonian communities. The major challenge is to achieve the effective implementation of both judicial mandates and international commitments.

The transition from words to concrete changes requires resources, time and political will. However, one cannot lose sight of the fact that, as time goes by, the situation of Amazonian communities and environmental deterioration become more serious and will leave damage that could be irreversible.

Accordingly, the protective action filed by the indigenous communities could be a valuable tool to monitor compliance with the goal of eliminating the use of mercury by 2023.

Achieving this ambitious goal will require a significant investment of resources, political will and technical support from different state entities in coordination with the most affected communities.

Therefore, through different judicial and civil society means, we must continue to demand that concrete actions be taken to prevent the definitive elimination of the use of mercury from adding to the long list of commitments that can only be seen on paper.

The severity of the effects depends on factors such as the type of element, dose, age, duration and route of exposure. In the case of the Caquetá River, the cause of the exposure is the consumption of fish contaminated by the excessive use of mercury to separate the sand from the gold in mining activities.

When the mercury has been used, it is dumped into water, where it is transformed into methylmercury (an organic and neurotoxic form of mercury) and absorbed by fish that are then consumed as part of the diet of populations who live by the riverbed.

What are the effects of exposure to high levels of mercury?

Although almost all fish have a small level of mercury, when the concentration level exceeds the recommended maximum limits (more than 0.5 μg/gr according to the World Health Organisation and the European Commission) it can have serious health effects. Especially for very vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, growing children and subsistence fishers.

Two of the recommendations to reduce the levels of exposure to mercury are, in the case of breastfeeding mothers, to instead not breastfeed their children, and in the case of the rest of the community, to reduce their consumption of fish.

These two measures, while they may be effective in preventing health impacts, must be temporary while definitive measures are taken to stop the causes of the problem. Communities have the right to maintain their cultural practices and diet based on traditional fishing, and both mothers and children have the right to have breastfeeding fully guaranteed.

How is the use of mercury regulated in Colombia?

Mercury is used as raw material in several industrial processes; therefore, its importation and commercialization is permitted under control guidelines established in Resolution 130 of 2017. This regulation also created a register for authorized importers and traders.

However, a study published by the Gaia Amazonas Foundation in 2018 revealed that a large proportion of the mercury that enters the country legally ends up being used in illegal mining activities. For example, in 2017, of the 118.8 tons of mercury legally imported, at least 50% was diverted for this purpose.

In this context, the implementation of the Minamata Convention, ratified by Colombia on August 26th, is especially important. The objective of this international treaty is to definitively eliminate the use of mercury in all manufacturing sectors. The goal set by the national government is that by 2023 the use of mercury in Colombia will be completely suspended.

What is the protective appeal for?

The appeal has become a powerful tool to protect the rights of indigenous communities and to apply innovative concepts such as the recognition of rights to nature. An important case that combines both objectives is the recent ruling that declared the Colombian Amazon as a rights-holding area.