Gold mining is poisoning the planet with mercury | ET REALITY


Jeovane de Jesus Aguiar was knee-deep in mud in the 100-meter gash he had opened in the Amazon rainforest, filtering brown water from a saucepan, when he found the shiny little flake he was looking for: a mix of gold and mercury. .

Aguiar had sprinkled liquid mercury on the floor of his makeshift gold mine on the eastern edge of the small South American nation of Suriname, just as he had done every few days.

The toxic element mixes with gold dust and forms an amalgam that can be extracted from the mud. He then sets the mixture on fire, burning the mercury into the air, where the winds spread it across the forest and borders, poisoning the plants, animals and people he encounters.

Gold is left behind. That part usually ends up in Europe, the United States and the Persian Gulf, most often in the form of expensive jewelry.

Twenty minutes down the river, the Wayana indigenous community falls ill. The Wayana eat fish from the river every day and in recent years many have suffered from joint pain, muscle weakness and swelling. They also say that birth defects are increasing.

Tests show that the Wayana have double or triple the medically acceptable levels of mercury in their blood. “We are no longer allowed to eat certain fish,” Linia Opoya said in June, showing her hands, which hurt after meals. “But there is nothing more. “That’s what we’ve always eaten.”

Driven by the global scientific consensus that mercury causes brain damage, serious diseases and birth defects, most of the world’s countries signed a groundbreaking international treaty in 2013 pledging to eradicate its use globally.

However, ten years later, mercury is still a scourge.

It has seriously harmed thousands of children in Indonesia. It has contaminated rivers throughout the Amazon, creating a humanitarian crisis for Brazil’s largest uncontacted tribe. And all over the world, doctors still They warn against excessive consumption of certain fish. because the toxic metal floats in the ocean and is absorbed into the food chain.

Suriname, a forested nation of 620,000 at the northern tip of South America, is a case study in how mercury has become so intractable largely due to society’s insatiable appetite for gold.

For decades, mercury has poisoned much of Suriname’s population. According to one study, almost one in five births causes complications such as death, low birth weight or disabilities. double the rate of the United States. However, the mercury has also boosted the country’s economy; Gold accounts for 85 percent of Suriname’s exports, most of it mined with mercury.

“I could work without mercury,” said Aguiar, 51, looking at his open-pit mine. “But it wouldn’t be profitable.”

Suriname has banned mercury, but the substance is easily smuggled and widely used.

Suriname’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While Western countries, including the United States, have largely eliminated mercury, more than 10 million people According to the United Nations, in 70 countries, mostly poorer nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the toxic element is still used to extract gold from the ground.

These small-scale miners produce one fifth of the world’s gold – and Almost two-fifths of the world’s mercury pollution., according to the United Nations and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Mining is the main source of mercury emissionsahead of coal-fired power plants.

“This is the brutal face of poverty,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme. For many miners, “the fact that mercury could harm me in 10 years is too far from the reality of survival,” he added.

Large gold miners use centrifuge machines or arsenic, which does not leach into the environment. Small miners choose mercury because it is cheap, easy to use and still available.

“Mercury, for better or worse, is a very simple technology, used for the better part of 2,000 years,” said Luis Fernández, a professor at Wake Forest University who has studied small-scale gold mining. “You can learn to be a miner in 15 minutes and you get pretty good results.”

While many countries have banned mercury in mining, enforcement is lax, Fernández said. Gold mining “is an economic pressure valve for the poorest countries,” he said. And that has only been compounded by the 12 percent rise in gold prices over the past year, to nearly $2,000 an ounce.

In 2013, the international community signed a comprehensive treaty to remove mercury from the market. It was called the Minamata Convention, after a Japanese city where decades of industrial mercury pollution caused neurological diseases in more than 2,200 residents and even poisoned the city’s cats, causing them to jump into the sea.

Under the convention, which 145 nations have already ratified, including Suriname, countries committed to ban new mercury mines, close existing ones and, with some exceptions, stop the import and export of mercury.

Since then, the United States and the European Union have banned virtually all mercury exports, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, Russia, Mexico and Nigeria as some of the largest exporters. Researchers believe that chinawhich adopted the treaty, remains the world’s largest user of mercury.

However, the Minamata Convention did not address small-scale gold mining. “The evidence has shown time and time again that if you ban something that people need and there is no alternative, it just drives them into illegality,” Steiner said.

Where Aguiar lives along the Maroni River, which forms the border between Suriname and French Guiana, everyone is a miner or works for one. About 15 percent of Suriname’s workforce, or 18,000 people, is involved in the gold mining industry, one of the highest percentages in the world, according to studies by the Free University of Amsterdam.

In the mines, workers shoot pressurized water to remove generations of sediment, cutting through the landscape and exposing the layer they hope contains gold. They then throw mercury into the water so that it naturally bonds with the gold below.

Mercury is not difficult to obtain and experts believe that much of it comes from China.

A few hours before Aguiar dumped mercury at his mine, where he employs seven people, he docked his canoe before one of dozens of Chinese merchants on the banks of the Maroni. The stores sell the same products: Coca-Cola, instant noodles, condoms and mercury. Aguiar purchased a kilogram in an unmarked prescription bottle for $250. If he is lucky, he will be able to extract half a kilo of gold, which he can sell for about 25,000 dollars.

Elsewhere in Suriname, vendors posted ads on Facebook and taxi drivers offered mercury hookups. People across the country said mercury sellers were overwhelmingly Chinese, and interactions with several Chinese sellers revealed that they were not concerned that they were doing anything illegal; Mercury was a product like any other.

The Organization of American States said this year that the mercury in Suriname was likely “imported from China on container ships bringing other goods, such as mining equipment.”

In South America, according to researchers, only Bolivia imports mercury legally.

“So the question is: where does it come from?” President Chandrikapersad Santokhi of Suriname told reporters in May. “We know it’s contraband.”

Dr. Wilco Zijlmans, a pediatrician from Suriname who has studied the health effects of mercury, said its impact was clear. In a 2020 study Of 1,200 Surinamese women he helped survey, 97 percent had dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies.

In addition to the high rate of birth complications, Dr. Zijlmans also found that children in Suriname were much more likely today than a generation ago to have delayed brain development, diminished motor skills, and poorer social and language skills.

The effects are also manifesting on the other side of the border. The Wayana indigenous community has around 1,000 members spread across Suriname and French Guiana, which is French territory. Residents of French Guiana have French citizenship, and French doctors have tracked the spread of mercury in some of their villages, which are surrounded by more than two dozen gold mines.

“Over time, this will also become Minamata,” said Ms. Opoya, a member of Wayana, who lives in one of the villages on French territory.

Upriver, when Aguiar wants to profit, he takes his loot to the Chinese merchants who sell him the mercury. Those traders then head to the hundreds of small gold-buying shops spread across Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital.

At one store, the owner, Arnaldo Ribeiro, said he buys almost all the gold that comes through his doors but has little idea where it comes from or whether it has been mined with mercury.

It then resells it to Kaloti Minthouse, a joint venture between the Suriname government and a gold importer based in the United Arab Emirates.

“We don’t have to prove provenance,” Ribeiro said of the gold he sells.

Kaloti Minthouse then legally exports the gold around the world.

That means gold like Aguiar’s, cleansed of its mercury residue, is sent to be turned into bank bullion, a necklace or perhaps a wedding ring, with all its documents in order.

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