Metal usually arrives in Latin America legally through Bolivia, where its importation is allowed. From there, it follows clandestine routes to prospectors in the Amazon, leaving a trail of violence and damage, says UN rapporteur. Before arriving at illegal gold mining in the Amazon, mercury, a toxic substance, arrives legally in Latin America. And the most common gateway is Bolivia, from where the heavy metal is illegally distributed to countries in the region.
Research on the mercury route is one of the current focuses of Marcos Orellana, United Nations rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights. This position is held by an independent expert who reports to the UN Human Rights Council.
Brazil is viewed with concern by the rapporteur due to the advance of illegal mining and the Bolsonaro government’s attempt to open up indigenous lands to mining, oil exploration and other large undertakings, which led Orellana to send a letter to the country’s authorities. “We manifest that this has serious repercussions, particularly for violations of the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples,” he said in an interview with DW.
DW Brasil: Illegal mining has skyrocketed in the Amazon and, as a consequence, the use of mercury. How is this substance investigated in the special rapporteurship on toxic substances and human rights?
Marcos Orellana: Mercury has been recognized by the international community as one of the most serious and urgent hazardous substances to be addressed. That’s why the Minamata Convention on mercury exists, to tackle this problem that has a global dimension, because mercury does not degrade, it persists in the environment.
In addition, he has an ability to be transported over long distances. Mercury that is dispensed in one country crosses borders and affects people in other countries.
From the perspective of human rights, the dimension of environmental justice is extremely worrying. Indigenous communities, for example, who do not practice mining, are affected in their bodies and in their culture by the mercury dumped by illegal miners into rivers, which causes contamination of water and fish, the food on which riverine and indigenous communities depend.
How has the UN acted in this situation?
I’m preparing a report for the Human Rights Council on mercury, small-scale gold mining and human rights. And one of the things I found is that there is a loophole in the Minamata agreement that allows small mining, the garimpo, to continue using mercury.
It is necessary to close this gap and fight illegal mining, because the implications for human rights are serious, as we are currently seeing not only in the Brazilian Amazon, but also in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, which has become a center for the illegal distribution of mercury. in the region.
The same goes for West Africa, in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, Southeast Asia, Indonesia. We see a global problem with mercury, miners and human rights impacts.
How does the illegal mercury route happen in Latin America?
The international trade in mercury is a big part of the problem. Some countries approach the issue as if it were a crime, as an environmental crime, such as trafficking in mercury. Others, however, treat it as a legal topic.
In Bolivia, for example, the mercury trade is legal, the importation is documented, the import taxes are paid. The cargo enters the country and then Bolivia does not have the tools to monitor where this material goes.
Often, it not only goes to mining cooperatives, which use it in rivers to extract gold, but is also illegally diverted by trafficking to Peru, Colombia and Brazil.
This is creating a problem throughout Latin America, in which the violation of human rights is directly related to this trade that often enters from Mexico to Bolivia and goes on to the rest of the region.
How can your UN mandate interfere in this scenario?
The mandate brings visibility to the issue so that, in this way, governments can become aware of the issue and address the issue, have policies and regulations that can address the issue. Because if the problem isn’t visible, it goes under the radar.
This issue does not seem to be very visible in Latin America.
Until now, journalistic teams, for example, have had a lot of difficulty getting to the sites and documenting the contamination of rivers and land, of people, because it is dangerous. They are often criminal activities that are linked to drug trafficking, with the kidnapping of people, forced prostitution. We’re not just talking about toxic products and exposing people to dangerous contaminants, but a host of human rights violations associated with this activity.
How do you evaluate these human rights violations associated with the use of mercury in mining in Brazil?
A few weeks ago I sent a letter to the government of Brazil expressing our deep concern at the initiative that this government has taken to open up indigenous territories for mining, oil and hydroelectric exploration.
We express that this has serious repercussions, especially for violations of the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples. In Brazil, the recognition of these rights has been very progressive and we are very concerned about how the current government is going backwards in the protection of indigenous peoples, their territories and natural resources.
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