Mercury that kills

Image: Mike van Schoonderwalt


Consequences of predatory, illegal and criminal activity in Yanomani territories

“They think that a gram of gold is worth more than the life of a Yanomani child” (Avelin Buniacá Kambiwá).

Contamination of soil and water, whether surface or groundwater, by elements, compounds or organisms that may harm the health of humans, animals and vegetation can occur both in urban and rural areas and is one of the major concerns of the modern world. . When contamination does not have a natural origin, being caused by dissolved constituents of minerals in rocks and soils, it comes from human activities and ends up reaching the springs.

The treatment of soil and water is quite complex and one of the ways to try to bring it closer to natural conditions is through remediation, which consists of removing or attenuating the concentration of the contaminant in the soil. It is made using various engineering methods so that the concentration is reduced to predetermined limits in the risk assessment of human health, supported by current legislation.

Generally speaking, it can be said that remediation methods include several steps. Excavation, removal and disposal of contaminated soil; the pumping and treatment of surface and underground water; extracting soil vapors; the construction of permeable reactive barriers; chemical oxidation and chemical reduction , and bioremediation, among other steps. Bioremediation is a remediation technique and is based on the use of microorganisms in the degradation of existing contaminants in soil and water. These microorganisms can be added to the contaminated environment or stimulated to grow by means of nutrients.

“When we inhale, ingest or are exposed to mercury, the element can attack our central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as our digestive tract, our immune system, our lungs and our kidneys. Specific symptoms can include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, headaches, muscle weakness and, in extreme cases, death. Unborn babies whose mothers have high levels of mercury in their blood can be born with brain damage and hearing and vision problems.”[1]

Recently, the mainstream media announced that the United States would help in the decontamination of mercury in the soil and water in the areas mined in the Amazon. In this specific case, the electrochemical process, which extracts mercury from the water to form an alloy, could be one of the techniques to be applied in the area of ​​the Yanomani territories, highlighting the large scale on which illegal mining took place in the region.

Here is a question: would the United States support the studies and works of decontamination of mercury on a large scale, with the allocation of funds for its execution, or would these decontamination costs be debited from the accounts of those responsible for this predatory and criminal activity? The situation is serious and it is not about “small-scale prospectors”. Quite the opposite.

 “Small-scale prospectors use mercury regularly to help them separate gold from other materials, and most of that mercury ends up remaining in the environment. In 2015, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment 2018, artisanal and small-scale mining released about 800 tonnes of mercury into the air, about 38% of the global total, and also released about 1.200 tonnes of mercury into land and water.

Mercury poisoning also poses a serious and direct threat to the health of the 12 to 15 million people who work in the industry worldwide. Reducing mercury emissions and releases from mining is a key objective of the Minamata Convention, which requires countries with small-scale gold mining to produce national action plans to reduce or eliminate mercury from the sector.”

It never hurts to remember that the remediation of soil and water is complex and can be costly, as for example, the extensive areas contaminated by mercury by predatory, illegal and criminal activity, as has been happening in the Amazon and invading Yanomani territory. So, how should we proceed in the face of this aggression to the environment? It is expected that these invaders of the Amazon who have been deforesting, burning, grabbing, mining and contaminating its soils and waters for some time will be duly identified, held accountable and punished in accordance with the law.

Even if the legislation allows the destruction of machinery for extracting gold in Yanomami territory, on the grounds that the removal of these invaded areas would be “unfeasible from a logistical point of view”, could it be that once those responsible have been identified, they would not be held accountable for the removal of this equipment? Wouldn't it be a reasonable solution to transfer these equipment (engines and pumps) to other more distant areas of the Amazon region, where they could be adapted and reused in water collection, as in regions that lack this resource? The Brazilian semi-arid region, which extends across nine states in the Northeast region and also across the north of Minas Gerais, could be one of these transfer areas. Other equipment, such as tractors and excavators could be confiscated and used in the excavation stage to remediate contaminated areas, for example.

Once these pieces of equipment entered the Amazon forest, by land, water or air they must, logically, be able to leave the same way and the account with these costs must be charged to the invaders in addition, obviously, to the recovery of the degraded areas with the decontamination of the mercury in the soil and water, including the recovery of the forest with native trees. On the other hand, as there is social concern with the large number of miners who worked in illegal and predatory mining – who, in a way, were “displaced from the job market” – those who are not the principals and with no criminal record could be reused as labor in replanting the removed vegetation, as long as they are duly registered with the inspection bodies and monitored, controlled and supervised in this important stage of recovery of degraded areas.

A parenthesis. This kind of scenario looks like an old movie. Devastation and mismanagement occurred as part of another dictatorship, the one that started in 1964 and lasted until 1985, and which we are sadly witnessing now, with criminal prospecting activity in the Amazon. Even keeping the abysmal differences in scenarios and situations, with a type of predatory granite mining in the Southeast region of the country, it can be said that official eyes were also closed to this type of activity, such as what happened in the last four years .

“In Ubatuba, a municipality with a strong tourist vocation located on the North Coast of the State of São Paulo, in the 80s, the extraction of green granite was rampant and the federal government's supervision was negligible. Of the tax that had to be collected because of its extraction, for its later commercialization, the former IUM (Imposto Único sobre Minerals), almost nothing was left for the municipality that was the territory that suffered most from the predatory practice in the removal of this type of ore, geologically very rare, and used for the so-called “thin coating” in civil construction.

Large blocks (a few tons of parallelepipeds) were exported to Europe, the United States, and Japan and were not difficult to be identified, with the naked eye, on the large trucks that traveled along the federal roads in the region. I just didn't see who didn't want to.[2]

On the other hand, recent studies, such as the report “Yanomani under attack”, developed by the Hutukara Associação Yanomani and Associação Wanasseduume Ye'kwana, point to a picture of violations in the Yanomami Indigenous Land.

“The objective of the report is to describe the evolution of illegal mining in the Yanomami Indigenous Land (TIY) in 2021. This is the worst time of invasion since the IL was demarcated and ratified, thirty years ago. It presents how the presence of mining in TIY is the cause of systematic human rights violations in the communities that live there. In addition to deforestation and the destruction of water bodies, the illegal extraction of gold (and cassiterite) in Yanomami territory has brought an explosion in cases of malaria and other infectious diseases, with serious consequences for the health and economy of families, and a resurgence of frightening violence against indigenous peoples”.[3]

* Heraldo Campos, a geologist, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Hydraulics and Sanitation at the School of Engineering of São Carlos-USP.





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