Rubén Méndez during the conversation on August 31st. Ministry of Environment
Bolivia’s Minister of Environment and Water, Rubén Méndez, caused a stir when he questioned the harmful effects of mercury used in mining on human health. In the discussion “Gold mining: the mercury in question” organized by the Vice Presidency of Bolivia, the United Nations and other institutions, he said that he believed that what someone had told him was true, that after long contact with the substance, which he had told the truth had no symptoms. “I believe him because I come from Potosí and I lived before the mine. I come practically from the mining camps and played with mercury as a child.” And he insisted: “When it rains, mercury continues to flow through the streets of Potosí. The children of Potosí continue to collect mercury in bottles to sell. I don’t know if they’re sick.
The minister announced that he would compare the information he has with data from universities, the Ministry of Health and other scientific institutions in order to “get really true data and see to what extent the mercury is working”.
Bolivia has been mining since colonial times, is proud of its great mineral wealth and its culture freely allows the exploitation of natural resources. In 2016, the country imported 238 tons of mercury from different parts of the world, becoming one of the largest buyers of this toxic substance in the world. This amount has decreased in recent years but remains very high.
Several biochemical analyzes concluded that members of the Esse Ejja, Lecos, Mosetenes Chimanes, Tacanas and Uchupiamona indigenous communities living along two rivers in the Bolivian Amazon basin, the Madre de Dios and the Beni, are between two and seven times more numerous Have mercury in the body as normal. Aboriginal health assessments found memory loss, hand tremors and sensory problems in a large number of people. This suggests that their fish-based diet is poisoning them.
This huge purchase of mercury is directly related to the growth of gold mining in recent years. Legal and illegal miners use mercury, although the former should supposedly do so more rationally. In 2022, they exported $3 billion worth of raw gold, the country’s top export ahead of gas. An unquantified portion of this value comes from the re-export of gold produced in Peru and smuggled through Bolivia. Only a tiny portion of this revenue benefited the state, as it is assumed that producers are engaged in “survival mining” and therefore enjoy tax exemptions.
The “gold rush” radically changed this activity, which decades ago was considered secondary. Today there are miners of all sizes, from simple diggers who earn a salary for hard physical labor and risk mercury poisoning, to large domestic and foreign investors who disguise themselves as “cooperatives” to avoid taxes.
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Miners’ unions are an important political force and have been involved in the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) governments for the last 17 years. For this reason, the opposition doubts whether the ruling party actually has the will to combat illegal mining, which is the main source of pollution, or to raise the environmental standards currently required by cooperatives that have appropriate concessions.
The organizer of the meeting at which Minister Méndez spoke, Vice President David Choquehuanca, was behind a government lawsuit against illegal mining in the Madre de Dios River in July, which was justified by mercury contamination of the river. 57 miners were arrested and 27 dredgers were blown up. “All necessary measures must be taken to protect the health of our people and preserve our Mother Earth,” Choquehuanca wrote at the time.
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