The tragedy of mercury in the Amazon

Image: Adem Albayrak


With several Amazonian states showing contamination rates far above what is allowed, disaster is imminent

The worrying levels of mercury found in samples of Amazonian fish, confirmed in research by Fiocruz/UFOPA, bring to mind the terrible reports of Minamata, from the 1950s.

In this small town on the Japanese coast, neurological diseases caused by mercury in the human body were identified for the first time. Many people had disorders that affected vision, touch and hearing, even causing paralysis and death. Several fetuses were contaminated, and were born with irreversible physical and neurological problems. Called “Mal de Minamata”, it was a warning to the entire planet of the high risk inherent in water pollution.

Scientist Akagi Hirokatsu (1942/2020), who worked at the Instituto Nacional do Mal de Minamata, discovered in the 1980s a method of measuring organomercury that is used worldwide today, including in this Fiocruz study.

With several Amazonian states showing contamination rates far above the permitted level, disaster is imminent. Used mainly in mining, legal or illegal, the deadly amounts of mercury dumped into the waters of the Amazon Basin are a grim confirmation that humanity does not learn from its mistakes, and much pain and suffering will still result from this environmental crime.

Roraima, champion state for devastation and illegal mining, is also the record holder for contaminated samples: 40% of those collected in markets and free fairs were above the acceptable limit. By a cumulative phenomenon, mercury increases according to the food chain, that is, the carnivores at the top, which feed on smaller fish, accumulate higher levels of the deadly element. Translating: pirarucu, tucunaré, painted, young, in other words, some of the noblest Amazonian fish.

It is obvious that it is not just “invisible” riverine populations that eat fish with mercury. They are also on the menu of the main restaurants and hotels in the Amazon for the “rich”, in Manaus, Belém, Santarém and other cities in the region. Many are already found in chic supermarkets in the south of the country.

Award-winning filmmaker Jorge Bodanski directed the film Amazon, the new Minamata? (2022), focusing on the Munduruku people. It describes the struggle of leader Alessandra Korap, who took doctors and researchers to the region to research the evil that threatens her people. He also voices neurologist Erick Jennings, a scientist who investigates why many children in the Amazon have neurological problems.

In the words of Jorge Bodanski, “this is one of the most important and difficult films of my life. We cannot let the Amazon become a new Minamata”. The film dialogues with the documentary Minamata: the Victims and their World (1971), by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, which can be seen on YouTube with English subtitles. The Japanese author produced a series of documentaries about the disaster, and even inspired American productions, such as Minamata (2020), with Johnny Depp, of debatable value. To know more and better, stick with the original.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.


Minamata: the Victims and their World (1971), by Noriaki Tsuchimoto:

Amazon, the new Minamata? , by Jorge Bodanski (Trailer):

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