Amazon communities suffer heavy metal poisoning

17 May 2019

Mongabay has recently highlighted the significant ongoing health challenges facing Peru’s remotest indigenous peoples, notably the Nahua who reside within the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Territorial Reserve (RTKNN) in Atalaya province, Ucayali region. They are among those peoples which are relatively ‘untouched’ by contacts with the outside world. 

Numbering less than 500, the Nahua are suffering from dangerous levels of heavy metal poisoning, principally mercury. Previously, the main identifiable problem facing the Nahua has been the effects of logging in the RTKNN reserve.

The government was only initially alerted to the threat of mercury poisoning when a six-month-old baby, originally diagnosed with pneumonia, and his mother were admitted to a private clinic in Lima in November 2014. The baby was found to have severe anaemia and his blood was tested for heavy metals, resulting in the infant and mother being diagnosed with “mercury intoxication”.

Between then and October 2015, the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (CENSOPAS), part of the Ministry of Health, collected urine samples from Nahua community members on four different occasions. Investigations revealed the presence of mercury in the samples each time, especially in children under 12 years of age. Overall, according to a leaked 2017 ministry report on the investigation, 78 per cent of the samples contained high mercury levels. This heavy metal challenge is exacerbated by the absence of healthcare for the Nahua whose medical post in the village of Santa Rosa de Serjali, located within RTKNN, lacks medicine and is not always staffed.

The source of the mercury remains unknown, but the 2017 report recommended investigating the Camisea project operated by PlusPetrol which has been extracting gas from Lot 88 in the RTKNN since 2004. A 2014 report by Forest International found that the project had led to an intensified risk of disease, epidemics and increased death rates among indigenous peoples. Such accusations are strenuously denied by PlusPetrol. It rejects the idea that gas extraction could generate mercury contamination among the local population.

But this is not an isolated incident. Indigenous communities in Peru’s Loreto Region also have high levels of heavy metal poisoning arising from mismanaged oil exploitation. One community, Cuninico, a Kokama indigenous village on the banks of the River Marañon, was affected by a 2,000-barrel spill from the North Peruvian pipeline in 2014. The spill, combined with the employment of locals by Petroperu in remediation work, contributed to their exposure to heavy metal poisoning. As with the Nahua, the situation was made worse by the absence of medical support and the lack of state development more broadly.

 

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