The proliferation of pits and ponds created in recent years by miners dredging for small deposits of alluvial gold in Peru's Amazon has dramatically altered the landscape and increased the risk of mercury exposure for indigenous communities and wildlife, a new study shows. The study, published in Science Advances Nov. 27, found a 670% increase in the extent of ponds across the landscape in heavily mined watersheds since 1985. These formerly forested landscapes are now increasingly dotted by these small lakes, which provide low-oxygen conditions in which submerged mercury—a toxic leftover from the mining process—can be converted by microbial activity into an even more toxic form of the element, called methylmercury, at net rates 5-to-7 times greater than in rivers. The miners use mercury, a potent neurotoxin, to separate ore from soil and sediments, often without adequate safety precautions to protect themselves or the environment. Some of the mercury used by the miners is burned off into the air or spilled into nearby rivers, creating far-reaching environmental and human health risks. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is now believed to be the largest global source of anthropogenic mercury emissions.
Some 150 are dead, with remote indigenous and campesino communities left stricken and without aid, a week after Hurricane Eta tore through Central America. Eta made landfall south of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, as a Category 4 storm on Nov. 3. Two güiriseros, or artisanal gold-miners, were among the first killed, as a landslide inundated the mining camp of Tigre Norte in Bonanza municipality of Nicargua's North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Far worse was to follow in Guatemala, where officials have called off the search for dozens believed to have been buried when a mountainside collapsed, engulfing the hamlet of Queja. Ovidio Choc, mayor of San Cristobal Verapaz municipality, said the site of Queja will probably be declared a cemetery. Elsewhere in Guatemala's Maya Highlands, villagers have had to mobilize their own rescue and recovery efforts, effectively abandoned by the government.
Indigenous leaders are warning that a combination of neglect, inadequate preparations, and a lack of lockdown measures is exposing remote and vulnerable communities in the Amazon to potentially devastating outbreaks of COVID-19. The nationwide death toll in Brazil has soared above 11,000 amid growing anger at President Jair Bolsonaro's dismissive response. The situation is particularly bad in the Amazon gateway city of Manaus, where the number of fatalities is feared to be many times the official 500 to 600. Peru and Ecuador also have large outbreaks and significant Amazonian indigenous populations.
Amnesty International on Feb. 3 urged participants in an international mining conference in South Africa to address human rights violations. African Mining Indaba, a conference centered on promoting the industry on the continent, is set to run this week, but several civil organizations, including Amnesty, are holding their own conference for the eleventh time to bring attention to claims of rights violations in the mining industry in Africa. Amnesty director for East and Southern Africa Deprose Muchena said in statement: "From child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo to squalid living conditions for workers at South Africa's Marikana mine, the mining industry is tainted with human rights abuses. Mining firms have often caused or contributed to human rights abuses in pursuit of profit while governments have been too weak in regulating them effectively."
Families of young children from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been injured or killed while mining cobalt launched a lawsuit against Apple, Google, Tesla, Dell and Microsoft on Dec. 15. Cobalt is used in batteries for the electronic devices that technology companies manufacture and is abundant in the Congo. The complaint, filed with the US District Court for the District of Columbia, details the dangerous conditions in which children are working, and makes comparisons with the conditions during the 16-19th century slave trade. The impoverished children are digging with rudimentary equipment and without adequate safety precautions for USD $2-3 a day.
For the past several weeks, residents of Sudan's conflicted Nuba Mountains have waged a protest campaign demanding the closure of unregulated gold mines in the region. Villagers from the communities of Talodi and Kalog, South Kordofan state, have been holding a sit-in outside one of the facilities, where they charge cyanide is contaminating local water sources. The mining operation is said to be protected by fighters from the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary headed by warlord Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo AKA "Hemeti," who is owner of the facility. Twelve people were killed by security forces at another gold mine near Talodi in April. The sit-in has won the support of the Sudanese Professionals Association, the main force behind nationwide protests that toppled strongman Omar Bashir earlier this year. Sit-ins have also spread to other areas affected by cyanide gold mining, including in Sudan's Northern State, Radio Dabanga reports. (Middle East Eye, Sept. 26)
The US and Brazil on Sept. 13 announced an agreement to promote private-sector development in the Amazon rainforest. US officials said a $100 million fund will be established to "protect biodiversity" by supporting businesses in hard-to-reach areas of the forest. At the meeting in Washington where the pact was struck, Brazil's foreign minister Ernesto Araujo said: "We want to be together in the endeavour to create development for the Amazon region which we are convinced is the only way to protect the forest. So we need new initiatives, new productive initiatives, that create jobs, that create revenue for people in the Amazon and that's where our partnership with the United States will be very important for us." (BBC News, Sept. 14; AFP, Sept. 13)
Brazilian authorities are investigating the murder of an indigenous leader in the northern state of Amapá, in the Amazon region, where violence has escalated since a group of some 50 heavily armed men—believed to be garimpeiros, or outlaw gold-miners—reportedly invaded the Wajãpi indigenous reserve. On the morning of July 23, indigenous chief Emyra Wajãpi was found stabbed to death close to Waseity village where he lived, according to the Council of Wajãpi Villages (APINA). Three days later, the group of armed men appeared in the neighboring Yvytotõ indigenous village and threatened residents, forcing them to flee to the nearby village of Mariry, according to APINA.