Illegal Venezuelan gold mines cause mercury dangers for indigenous women & children

WNN Earth Watch

Enviornmental damage on Caura river Venezuela
Negative environmental impact from illegal gold mining on the Rio Caura (Caura river) in the Bolivar State region of Venezuela is said to have produced toxic mercury poisoning among the families of indigenous communities who live along the river.  High toxicity levels with mercury is especially dangerous to pregnant women and children. Image: GLB

(WNN) Caracas, VENEZUELA, SOUTH AMERICA: The issue of mercury poisoning and environmental pollution is one that has been studied for decades, but new data is indicating that women, especially indigenous women, are exceptionally vulnerable to an unhealthy rise in their bodies with the toxic metal mercury. Indicators are pointing now to locations inside Venezuela that are beginning to suffer under dangerous levels of mercury, especially from rivers that move through land occupied by indigenous communities.

“Recent research carried out by scientific research bodies in Venezuela shows that 92% of indigenous women of the Caura river, a major affluent of the Orinoco, have levels of mercury poisoning higher than internationally agreed permissible levels. Over one third of those tested have such high levels of mercury poisoning that they have a 5% risk of their newborn children having neurological disorders,” says a recent report released by the Forest Peoples Programme, an advocacy group working inside the Guyanas of Venezuela region as well as other regions in South America, Africa and South East Asia.

The toxic exposure to mercury is thought to be coming from rising risks as illegal gold mining in the region has caused contamination of rivers passing through the lands of the Ye’kuana and Sanema peoples. The contamination now shows indicators are getting worse with conditions that can lead to progressive bio-accumulation, says the new report.

The Ye’kuana and Sanema peoples have been calling for illegal mines in their home region to stop for over a decade. But the recognition of the ownership of land by the Ye’kuana and Sanema peoples of Venezuela is yet to be recognized officially.

“Despite guarantees in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to secure the lands and territories (‘habitat’) of the indigenous peoples, the land claim of the Ye’kuana and Sanema which went through all the requisite legal hurdles in the 1990s including the final sign off by the [Venezuelan] Attorney General, remains unrecognized lacking only a Presidential signature,” continued the Forest Peoples Programme.

Nervous system damage, fetal risks and birth defects are only part of the symptoms of those suffering, especially women, under toxic mercury exposure. Death under toxic exposure can also occur. Heavy or prolonged exposure can cause irreversible damage including possible cancer says the U.S. EPA – Environmental Protection Agency.

Especially vulnerable are pregnant women and their fetuses, infants, and young children. Young’s syndrome is one condition that is thought by medical researchers to be caused by long term exposures to mercury during early childhood. Eating fish from mercury contaminated rivers can also result in ‘Minamata disease’, a condition that can cause visual, speech and hearing impairments, as well as an impaired ability to walk.

While promises to stop illegal gold mining in Venezuela were made by former President Hugo Chavez, but never kept, new doubts on any government policy change in illegal mining following the election of the new Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro continue.

For more background information on this topic link to the UNIDOS – United Nations Industrial Development Organization report on: “Advisory Assistance on Avoidance Mercury Pollution from Artisanal Gold Mining Operations in Bolivar State, Venezuela.”

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