Studies by Fiocruz show that 60% of the indigenous people of the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land have this toxic metal in their bodies above the limit tolerated by the WHO. Mining in indigenous lands has grown by almost 500% in a decade.

Seven studies by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) show that women and children are the most vulnerable to mercury poisoning, which affects all 200 people in the villages of Sawré Muybu, Poxo Muybu, and Sawré Aboy, in the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land belonging to the Munduruku people in western Pará. The source of the contamination is gold mining, which has grown by almost 500% in indigenous areas, especially in the Amazon, since 2010 and today has the incentive and support of the Bolsonaro government. Lands, fish, and water are contaminated, bringing risks to rural and urban populations.

Fiocruz study area, with the location of the 3 villages (red dots). Image: IJERPH

The surveys, which have been carried out since 2017, were recently finished  by Fiocruz, and were released in the first half of November. According to the study, six out of ten women of childbearing age in the villages have more mercury in their blood than the highest tolerable levels according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and environmental agencies in the United States and the European Union. Severe motor delay and anemia were identified in an 11-month-old infant. Two Munduruku children, aged 12 and 14, who ate fish at least three times a week have vision problems, memory loss, and tremors. 

The average contamination above tolerable limits is of six out of ten indigenous people (40% in Muybu village, 60% in Poxo, and 90% in Aboy). These territories are on the banks of the Tapajós and Jamanxim rivers, where mining has existed since the 1950s. In April, environmentalist Cássio Beda died after two years of living and consuming fish in the Tapajós River basin, where he supported the demands of indigenous peoples.

Everyone from the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Land is contaminated by mercury poisoning and six out of ten have more mercury in their blood than the highest tolerable levels according to the WHO.

“Indigenous peoples in the Amazon depend on natural resources to live, but the growing impacts of human activities threaten their health and livelihoods”, highlights the most recent study by Fiocruz, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The surveys began after complaints about mercury contamination by entities such as the Pariri Association, which represents 11 Munduruku villages in the Middle Tapajós. Tests were carried out on blood nad  and also on the fish consumed took place in late 2019.

Paulo Basta, the coordinator of investigations into mercury contamination among the Munduruku, warns that all the inhabitants of the assessed villages are at high risk of illness because there is no safe level of mercury in the human body. “It is a calamity that associates sanitary and environmental crises, with an increase in contamination and deforestation and a continuous violation of rights, including invasions by miners and loggers that have dragged on for decades”, warned the Fiocruz researcher.

It is a calamity that associates sanitary and environmental crises, with an increase in contamination and deforestation and a continuous violation of rights, including invasions by miners and loggers that have dragged on for decades.

Paulo Basta, Fiocruz researcher

Studies make it clear that eating fish in these villages increases the chances of contamination. The human body does not have mercury and does not eliminate what it absorbs through direct contact or consumption of contaminated animals and water. The toxic metal is associated with infant malformations and neurological diseases such as dementia, dizziness, tremors, hearing, and vision problems. The effects are cumulative and can lead to death. 

Alessandra Korap Munduruku, of the Pariri Association, assesses that many illnesses and deaths are not properly connected to the pollutant due to the precariousness of health services in the rainforest, especially for indigenous people. That is, when they get sick or die, their medical reports and death certificates do not associate deaths with mercury. “Fish with mercury and pesticides are not tied down, they move up and down rivers. Fish, the only food source for many people, is no longer a safe food in the Amazon”, he said, grievingly, in a recent debate promoted by Fiocruz.

Swipe to watch the advance of mining in indigenous lands in the Amazon Forest. The boundaries of the Indigenous Lands of the Munduruku, Kayapó and Yanomami peoples, the most affected by mining, are highlighted in white. Zoom in on the map for more details.

According to MapBiomas, the largest mining spots on indigenous lands in Brazil are in Munduruku and Kayapó areas in Pará and in Yanomami lands in Amazonas and Roraima. Between 2010 and 2020, the activity grew 495% in indigenous areas and 301% in national parks and other conservation units in the Amazon. Almost all (94%) of the area occupied by mines in the country is in the middle of the forest. In the region, the activity is almost entirely illegal and grew by 1.5 thousand hectares per year between 1985 and 2009 and by 6,500 hectares per year from 2010 onwards. A Federal Prosecutor's Office tool estimates that extracting 1 kg of gold causes almost R$ 2 million in social and environmental damages in the forest. 

Developed by institutions such as Fiocruz and WWF-Brasil, the Mercury Observatory reveals that illegal mining is common throughout the South American Amazon. In addition to the Munduruku, Kayapó, and Yanomami, other indigenous lands affected include Baú and Xikrin do Cateté, in Pará; Alto Turiaçu, in Pará and Maranhão; Rio Biá, in Amazonas; and Waimiri-Atroari, in Amazonas and Roraima. The database gathers 40 years of studies on mercury poisoning in the Amazon, actions by the Federal Prosecutor's Office (MPF), deforestation, and contamination of people and fish. The map below shows how mining areas are close to the indigenous villages where the contamination was detected. 

The situation is aggravated by the Bolsonaro administration's actions as well as legislative bills that are being considered in Congress. Signed by the Federal Executive Branch, bill PL 191/2020 is being processed in Congress to open indigenous lands to mining, hydroelectric power plants, and oil exploitation. There are also other bills, such as PL 490, which authorize the exploitation of these areas and will increase land tenure chaos in the Amazon. Funai, the federal indigenous affairs agency, recently banned researchers from Fiocruz, linked to the Ministry of Health, from studying the impacts of illegal mining on the Yanomami Indigenous Land. 

“This government does not have the slightest interest in having access to, or will deny, information from studies on the effects of gold mining among indigenous peoples,” said Fiocruz's Paulo Basta. Alessandra Munduruku says that there is no way to stop the contamination without action from public authorities. “There must be strong supervision, and invasions of indigenous territories cannot be legalized. Mercury is killing a lot of people. The government wants us poor and sick to undermine our rights,” he said.

Minamata Convention exists only on paper

The dangers of mercury have drawn the world's attention since 1956, when people and animals began to die from consuming fish contaminated by industrial waste over 20 years in the Japanese city of Minamata. At least 50,000 people were poisoned. In the 1970s, 40,000 Iraqis were infected by consuming bread made from wheat that was given a mercury-based fungicide. The toxic metal lasts for up to 100 years after being released into the environment. 

Tragedies like these led to the Minamata Convention, which since 2013 calls for a global ban on the production and use of mercury in items such as light bulbs, chlorine, and caustic soda. A total of 128 countries signed the agreement, enacted by Brazil in 2018. So far, however, the country has not taken concrete steps to eliminate the substance, assesses Marcelo Oliveira, a conservation specialist at WWF-Brazil. “The convention exists on paper, but its application is essential for the health of the Brazilian population. Mercury poisoning does not affect only indigenous, rural, and traditional populations, they arrive in urban areas through the consumption of contaminated fish”, he highlighted.

Move the slider to see the progress of mining in indigenous lands in the Amazon. The boundaries of the Munduruku, Kayapó, and Yanomami peoples' Indigenous Lands, the most affected by mining, are highlighted in white. Zoom in on the map for more details.


Story by InfoAmazonia for the PlenaMata project.

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