Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal announced on Monday 23 May a 60-day ‘state of emergency’ in eleven provinces of Madre de Dios, claiming that as many as 50,000 (over 40% of the region’s population) have been exposed to mercury contamination. He announced plans to send hospital ships and “healthy” fish (from fish farms) to the area to help feed people.

Pulgar-Vidal is quoted as saying that “the consequences of mining activity in Madre de Dios will be with us for the next 80 years, and we have to deal with this at root”. He says that the fish which provide people living in the area with their main source of protein should no longer been consumed.

The immediate cause of the move was a report from Indeci, the National Institute for Civil Defence. This encapsulates recent research documenting the expansion of informal and illegal mining in the area and the associated dangers of mercury poisoning. The latter is now said to have reached “record high levels” See:

But the move provoked an immediate storm of protest from the region, led by the regional governor Luis Otsuka. Otsuka claimed that tourism and agriculture were already being affected, that the extent of the problem had been exaggerated by the ministry, and that the region should have been consulted before such a measure was taken.

The mayor of Laberinto, one of the affected districts, claimed that the measure had “generated panic, social chaos”. Julio Luna tells how the two municipal radio stations were swamped by panic calls on the day of the announcement from people fearing that the state of emergency meant a military presence and the suspension of guarantees.

The head of the largest hospital in the region claimed that in his 22 years working there, he had never seen a case of mercury poisoning

Yet again, we have a vivid demonstration of the difficulty of mounting responsible public policy in the face of conflicting interests, lack of authoritative information, and low levels of public trust in the authorities.