Women and children Yanomami taking part in the presentation of the results from the study looking at mercury contamination from gold-mining . Yanomami Indigenous land, Papiú region. Photo: Marcos Wesley/ISA, 2016

The Yanomami people are contaminated with the mercury from gold-digging

Study of Fiocruz and Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) points the presence of high levels of mercury in the people of Indigenous Yanomami Lands

To be the owner of a land with a huge gold mine could be seen as a blessing and a synonym of wealth. However, for the Yanomami people, one of the largest native populations in Brazil’s Amazon, this has been their biggest curse. A recent study, conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz, in the Brazilian initials) in partnership with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA, Brazilian initials), shows that the frequent invasion of illegal miners in their territory has brought terrible consequences: in some villages, 92% of the tested individuals were contaminated by mercury.

Many miners work illegally in our rivers and, beyond the environmental and social disasters that they cause, we suspect that our people are being poisoned by mercury
( Davi Kopenawa , March 2013)
Researcher collect hair samples from a Ye’kwana girl of the Maloca Nova village, Waikás region. Photo: Marcos Wesley/ISA, 2015

At the request of Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY) and the Associação do Povo Ye’kwana do Brasil (Apyb) , a team of scientists visited 19 villages in November 2014. A total of 239 hair samples were collected, prioritizing the ones that are usually more vulnerable to contamination: children, women of reproductive age and adults with a history of direct contact with mining activity. Beyond that, 35 samples of fish — an essential part of the indigenous diet — were collected . The study was conducted in the regions of Papiú and Waikás, where the Yanomami and the Ye’kwana live.

Photo: Marcos Wesley/ISA, 2015

The Aracaçá Yanomami community is the one facing the most disturbing situation. There, in the region of Waikás, 92% of the total samples exposed high levels of contamination. Among all the examined communities, this one is the closest one to the illegal mining spot. As for the region of Papiú, where the presence of miners is rarely noted, the levels of contamination were modest: 6,7% of the analyzed samples.


How does the mercury contamination takes place

Mercury is generally used in mining activities to separate gold from other sediments. Part of the mercury is tossed in rivers and streams and another part goes to the atmosphere. Once in the atmosphere, the mercury ends up falling nearby the areas exploited for mining. The rivers and the fishes which ingest the mercury may carry it to very distant regions. The contamination of human beings takes place mostly by eating contaminated fishes, especially predators and the bigger ones

Mercury’s side effects

This kind of metal is a highly toxic and can cause permanent damages, such as changes in the central nervous system (causing cognitive and motor problems), vision loss, heart diseases and other disabilities. The effects are even worse in pregnant women: Mercury can cause irreparable deformations in the fetus.

Mining in Yanomami Indigenous Land

Mining activities left deep scars in Yanomami’s people and territory: It is estimated that between 1986 and 1990 20% of the population (1,800 individuals) died as a result of disease and violence caused by the invasion of their land by 45,000 miners.

In 1990, the illegal miners invasion and the consequently tension that came out of it, culminated in an episode known worldwide for its barbarity. In July 1993, gold miners invaded the Yanomami village to shot and stabb to death 16 Indians, including elderly, women and children. Known as the Haximu Carnage, it was the first case judged by the Brazilian Justice in which the defendants were convicted of genocide.

The mining activities remain as a threat to the life of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana people. Since 2014, the invasion of their territories by miners grows exponentially. Today it is estimated that 5,000 miners work illegally on Yanomami Territories (A land reserve established in XX). The numerous complaints made ​​by the native communities have not resulted in effective actions by government agencies. If any concrete action happens, a new Haximu may be on the way.

The destruction caused by illegal mining in the Uraricoera River, Yanomami Indigenous land, December 2015. Photo: Guilherme Gnipper | FUNAI

To end the illegal gold mining in Yanomami Indian Land it is necessary to discover its funders — the ones who really profit and maintain these activities. One must find the gold route: What path does it take after the extraction? Where is the gold final destination?

With that in mind, the Federal Police of Brazi carried out two operations, but they only raised the edge of the mantle that covers this illegal activity: The Wxawara operation, in 2012 , and the operation Warari Kox,i in 2015. In addition to discovering some traders and aircraft owners in Roraima, the Federal forces also found that gold reaches a Distributor Values ​​and Real Estate Securities (DTVM) on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo.

Be warned: The gold sold in major financial centers of Brazil can carry with it the suffering of the Yanomami people.

Gold-digging boats ate Uraricoera River, Yanomami Indigenous Land, 2015. Photo: Guilherme Gnipper | FUNAI

Research ethical aspects

Giving back hair samples. Photo: Marcos Wesley/ISA, 2016

The tests made ​​in November 2014 were preceded by consultations with indigenous peoples, who authorized the removal of hair samples with the condition that, after the analysis, those samples would be given back. This request is due to the obligation, for the Yanomami , that all belongings and body parts must be cremated after death. It is also a precaution they adopted after finding out about the case of Yanomami blood theft by US researchers in the 1970s.

Both consultations for authorization and the presentation of the results were made in the indigenous language, with the help of interpreters and of bilingual explanatory material, aiming to ensure understanding by all the ones involved in the research.

Delivering to the government

A committee formed by the Yanomami and Ye’kwana leaders , and representatives of Fiocruz and ISA, went to Brasilia in March 2016, to disclose the diagnosis to the responsible agencies. The committee delivered copies to the Funai and Ibama presidencies, the coordinator of the Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Special Rapporteur on UN Indigenous Rights, who was visiting Brazil. Indigenous leaders also demanded the immediate removal of miners from the Yanomami Indigenous Land and a special health care for people who are infected.

Photos Marcos Wesley/ISA and Alejandro Zambrana/SESAI. March , 2016
Photo: Marcos Wesley/ISA, March, 2016
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