‘Babies here are born sick’: are Bolivia’s gold mines poisoning its indigenous people? | Global development

Exterior a small brick home shared by 4 households, Daniela Prada, who’s closely pregnant, gathers guava leaves to make a tea for her two-year-old son.

“My child will get sick rather a lot,” she says, boiling a pot of water in her outside kitchen. “He at all times has diarrhoea and final evening he had a fever. More often than not I give him pure medication.”

In an equivalent home close by, city chief Oscar Lurici says fevers are part of life in Eyiyo Quibo village on the Beni River in northern Bolivia. Folks of all ages undergo from debilitating head and physique aches, bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea, reminiscence loss and tiredness. Some kids present indicators of cognitive development delays.

Esse Ejja leader Oscar Lurici listens to the UN special rapporteur on toxics and human rights at an online event.
Esse Ejja chief Oscar Lurici listens to the UN particular rapporteur on toxics and human rights at a web based occasion. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

“We have no idea for positive what causes these sicknesses,” Lurici says. “We are beginning to assume that is all due to water contamination from the mercury discovered within the mining waste.”


Lurici’s 17-year-old son, additionally referred to as Oscar, started affected by exhaustion, aches and trembling in early 2019. Numerous medical doctors identified illnesses comparable to Parkinson’s illness and anaemia. One instructed the sickness got here from the contaminated river water. Earlier than the 12 months was out, Oscar had died.

Bolivia has lengthy been criticised for utilizing mercury in small-scale gold mining, and rising proof exhibits that mercury contamination is causing illnesses in poor communities. Mercury is used throughout the nation, in mining initiatives within the cordilleras of the Andes and on dredgers extracting gold from the sediment on the backside of waterways. The uncontrolled disposal of mercury waste creates poisonous flows in Bolivia’s river programs.

A dredger operating in a river
A dredger outdoors of Guanay, Bolivia, April 2019. Throughout the pandemic, as international gold costs rose, mining exercise elevated. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

Often called the “folks of the river”, the Esse Ejjas survived as nomads for generations, looking and fishing alongside the area’s waterways. After settling in Eyiyo Quibo, males and boys continued to fish, spending days travelling the river, tenting on its banks and dealing in pairs to fill their lengthy, slender picket boats with catfish and piranhas.

In instances around the globe, together with a examine within the Brazilian Amazon revealed by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020, researchers have discovered fish to be closely contaminated with mercury, and imagine fish-based diets in mining areas are inflicting elevated mercury ranges in indigenous folks. This might clarify a number of the sicknesses in Eyiyo Quibo.

In 2019, representatives of the Bolivian volunteer organisation Reacción Climática took hair samples from ladies at Euiyo Quibo, together with Prada. In complete, 64 samples had been taken from Euiyo Quibo and Portachuelo, one other Esse Ejja group 380km (235 miles) north, for a examine by the Worldwide Pollution Elimination Community (Ipen) to judge ranges of mercury in folks dwelling close to small mines in 4 Latin American international locations: Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia.

A young Esse Ejja boy sits on a boat full of fish in a river
A younger Esse Ejja boy takes his catch to a wholesaler outdoors of city. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

Published in June 2021, the examine discovered that ladies from the Esse Ejja communities, the one members not dwelling close to a mine, had by far the best ranges of mercury – on common nearly eight instances the accepted threshold of 1 half per million (ppm), with one pattern reaching 32.4ppm. The outcomes instructed a correlation between mercury within the physique and fish consumed.

The findings rang alarm bells internationally. In September, the UN particular rapporteurs on toxics and human rights and on the rights of indigenous peoples, Dr Marcos Orellana and José Francisco Cali Tzay, submitted a letter to the Bolivian government calling out Bolivia’s inaction on the regulation, use, and commerce of mercury, with a deal with small-scale gold mining. They gave Bolivia 60 days to reply.

In Eyiyo Quibo, the place households eat river fish day by day, concern is rising. “Typically infants here are born deformed, or sick,” Prada says, sitting on the dust ground of her kitchen. “Now I fear concerning the well being of my kids. I fear that they get sick, that they are going to die from the contaminated fish.”

On 8 December, on a lodge patio in Rurrenabaque, north Bolivia, a gaggle of fearful Esse Ejjas folks huddled round a laptop computer to listen to Orellana talking at a web based occasion hosted by Reacción Climática and the Bolivian Documentation and Info Centre (Cebid).

A woman fills a pot at an outside tap, while her son stands nearby
Daniela Parada, 28, a participant within the worldwide hair examine on mercury contamination in the neighborhood, prepares a tea for her sick son. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

“Here is the place a group lives their life in response to their historical traditions in shut relation to their pure assets, together with rivers, and so they could have been contaminated by actions that are being carried out somewhere else and for the good thing about different folks,” Orellana mentioned. “That may be a clear instance of environmental injustice.”


Orellana’s important problem was the Bolivian authorities’s lack of engagement with the Minamata Conference on Mercury, an settlement of 128 international locations to curb or eradicate nearly all makes use of of mercury, together with in small-scale gold mining, which got here into power in 2017. Bolivia ratified the settlement in 2015, committing to develop and execute plans to scale back and management mercury markets and shield weak populations from contamination.

But whereas neighbouring international locations comparable to Peru have been curbing or eliminating mercury imports, a Cebid report from September 2020 confirmed that the mercury economic system in Bolivia was bigger than can be required for the nation’s gold output, suggesting Bolivia was now the regional hub of illicit gross sales.

A gold prospector mixes liquid mercury with river sediment in a pan
A gold prospector mixes liquid mercury with river sediment and water to create an alloy of mercury and gold particles. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

Two days after the net occasion, Orellana obtained a response from the legal professional common of Bolivia. The letter highlighted state pilot programmes working with miners to advertise new applied sciences to scale back mercury use, and reiterated the legal guidelines and Bolivian structure that decision for the safety of the rights and well being of indigenous folks. Importantly, the doc referred to a two-year challenge to develop a nationwide motion plan to handle mercury contamination underneath the Minamata settlement, and one other to speed up the assembly of the commitments of the conference by a multimillion-dollar regional challenge with its neighbours.

The latest worldwide consideration has prompted regional and nationwide mining cooperatives to ask the Bolivian government for alternatives to mercury to make use of in gold mining. “We don’t intend to do extra harm. Quite the opposite we wish to do accountable mining,” Vicente Choque, president of the Federation of Gold Mining Cooperatives of the North of La Paz, mentioned in a press convention after the federal government’s response. “We ask the mining authorities, the federal government and others to suggest insurance policies to resolve these issues.”

For now, the importation, sale, use and re-exportation of mercury in Bolivia stays uncontrolled and the Beni River continues to be poisoned by gold mining exercise, its waters reaching a number of the world’s most biodiverse areas, the place mining exercise encroaches on the properties of an unmeasurable variety of indigenous folks, together with the Esse Ejjas.

An Esse Ejja fisher takes his catch home in Eyiyo Quibo
An Esse Ejja fisher takes his catch dwelling in Eyiyo Quibo. {Photograph}: William Wroblewski/The Guardian

In Eyiyo Quipo, the fishers proceed to usher in their catch for households who depend on the fish for meals and revenue. Prada continues to choose medicinal vegetation to ease her son’s fevers and pains, and worries about what sicknesses she could also be passing on to her unborn youngster, due this month.

Orellana welcomes the goldminers’ assertion as a constructive step, however says the federal government must “set up a coverage that enables it to decisively management and cut back the usage of mercury in small-scale gold mining”.

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