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Leco indigenous people in Bolivia
being slowly poisoned with mercury

Leco indigenous people in Bolivia being slowly poisoned with mercury

By Karen Gil

November 1st 2021

Over the last few years, mining activities in the Kaka River have intensified and the use of mercury to amalgamate the precious metal has increased. The Leco indigenous peoples grow their food and fish in these polluted lands and waters. Even though the risks are clear, no research has been carried out to determine how much the health of the community is affected and exposed, and there are no public policies to take care of them.


Yheiko, Gadiel and Daryl are waiting impatiently for the boat to arrive. They are excited because they will be fishing downstream. They are seven, nine, and ten years old, and they are happy to follow in their grandfather, don Hernán Tupa’s, footsteps. He is one of the few fishermen from Tomachi, a Leco indigenous community where mining companies extract gold by the Kaka River and affect the fauna of this area of the Bolivian Amazon.

It is 12.30 p.m. and the boat that will be taking us has just reached the Tomachi port, located in Teoponte, La Paz Department. It arrived four hours later than agreed because of the heavy rains of the early morning. The children are eager to start sailing so they get on the boat fast.

—It is the first time we are on a boat—says Gadiel, while sitting on the board that works as his seat.

—I did this before with my dad— his cousin Yheiko mentions.

We will be sailing for a few hours in our quest for fish until we reach Catea, located in between this area and the Madidi National Park in the San Buenaventura municipality. As a form of game, the children count the dredges they find along the Kaka River. It has not been five minutes since we started the journey and they shout: “Dredge!”. In less than 15 minutes, we see five more. They all belong to Colombian companies that arrived in 2015. These machines are huge, at least 10 meters long and 12 meters across, and they remove dirt from the bottom in search of precious metals found near the riverbanks. Every dredge has a Bolivian flag.

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Colombian dredges in Leco indigenous territory. Photo: Mauricio Durán

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Colombian dredges in Leco indigenous territory. Photo: Mauricio Durán

The decision to become mining actors

In the past seven years, the presence of dredges, mainly owned by foreign companies, has increased. The Leco indigenous territory, as opposed to other lands in the Amazon, has a long mining history. According to historians, this activity was already in practice before the Colony and, after the foundation of the Republic, the rustic extraction methods were combined with fishing and hunting.

When the indigenous communities saw a massive intrusion of companies (that were initially national) during the 90s, they decided to resort to mining. Little by little, the native communities became cooperatives since, according to mining regulations, it was the only way to extract gold.

When the indigenous communities saw a massive intrusion of companies during the 90s, they decided to resort to mining and, little by little, the native communities became cooperatives.

When the indigenous communities saw a massive intrusion of companies during the 90s, they decided to resort to mining.

“The communities were forced to become mining actors, organized as cooperatives, in order to defend and enjoy the mineral wealth of our territory. If we had not done so, the State would have authorized foreigners and they would have taken everything. We would only be mere employees,” the president of the Indigenous Peoples of Larecaja, Marcelo Dibapuri, explains.

Therefore, there are many concessions and mining rights granted in the territory that includes the municipalities of Mapiri, Guanay, Teoponte and Tipuani. Even though the exact number of companies is not known, only in Teoponte there are two central cooperatives with close to 75 cooperative mines.

—Eight! — Jeico yells and points at a dredge to the left, near Mayaya, after having been sailing for over an hour.

From a hundred fish to two or five

The machines belong to the companies that extract gold, which associate with the cooperatives that were granted concessions by the Jurisdictional Mining Administrative Authority, even when it is forbidden by law. The cooperatives keep 30% of the profits obtained and sold to other companies, while the private firms take 70%.

As other tributaries of the Amazon basin, the Kaka River has muddy waters because it drags clay and organic material. However, over the last few years, it started to become blackish due to the increasing amount of polluting liquids and metals dumped, for example, mercury.

The old man remembers that when he was young he would get 100 fish, but today, in a lucky day, he gets two or five.

The old man remembers that when he was young he would get 100 fish, but today, in a lucky day, he gets two or five.

“This used to be beautiful. The river wasn’t like this. From the area between the Coroico River and La Paz River, the Beni River was crystal clear. I agree we should exploit the resources, but we shouldn’t destroy them all. Now, it is wreaking havoc,” Don Hernán points out while he pijcha (chews) coca leaves to regain strength. The old man started fishing when he was five together with his father and grandfather. He remembers that when he was young he would get 100 fish, but today, in a lucky day, he gets two or five.

Currently, fish can only be found in Quendeque, downstream, because it is located within the Madidi National Park where the rangers do not allow indiscriminate fishing and mining. If people from Tomachi want to eat fish, they have to go there.

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Fishing is getting more and more complicated and the communities must go downstream. Photo: Mauricio Durán

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Fishing is getting more and more complicated and the communities must go downstream. Photo: Mauricio Durán

In search of gold

The Leco Larecaja territory covers four municipalities: 60% in Guanay, 20% in Teoponte, 10% in Mapiri, and 10% in Tipuani. It has 4,000 families, many of them are natives of such lands and others come from higher grounds and are also considered Lecos. With 360 families, Tomachi is the third most populous community. In the center of town, there is a square and a half-built communal house put up with money obtained from the concession cooperative (2% of the profits). However, constructions have been halted for more than three years.

As we sail, the river becomes broader and the hills no longer have trees and bushes. It is barren land. On the river banks, there are piles of rocks that were left after broadening the river protection strips.

—They add so many rocks to the river that the course changes— says Stanley, the helmsman, a Leco member whose job has been sailing for a long time.

—Look over there. Those are barranquilleros— warns the guide Waldo Valer and points at six people camping next to the river while searching for the precious metal.

It is common to see men and women who are barranquilleros in these areas. This is the time when they can be seen on the banks the most. Some of them work alone in different parts of the river; others, wait until 7 a.m. or 12 p.m. to recover the gold from the companies’ leftovers. In this river, work revolves around mining. There is no fishing.

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A barranquillero uses a shovel to move the dirt to see if he has better luck and finds gold. Photo: Mauricio Durán

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A barranquillero uses a shovel to move the dirt to see if he has better luck and finds gold. Photo: Mauricio Durán

The use of mercury in gold mining

It is six p.m. and the hustle and bustle in the river does not stop. Boats full of miners sail along others that have up to 20 barrels containing between 2,000 and 3,000 liters of diesel for the machines. Later, it will be dumped into the river along with the oil: a daily habit that affects fish and leaves a mark on the rocks. Boats carrying barrels depart from the Mayaya port, the biggest district in Teoponte, which hosts the highest number of mining activities. In that region, 38 cooperatives are registered and eight mining concessions were granted.

Hernán shows us two grayish rocks that create a kind of hill of about 100 meters long and that contrast with the green landscape of the Amazon. After extracting gold, the miners place back the rocks making walls close to the hill and claim they have restored the dismantled hill, which is one of the obligations of the companies. Nobody verifies whether these are true reparations.

After extracting gold, the miners place back the rocks making walls close to the hill and claim they have restored the dismantled hill, which is one of the obligations of the companies.

After extracting gold, the miners place back the rocks making walls close to the hill and claim they have restored the dismantled hill.

Mercury is a hazardous contaminant that threatens our health and the environment, that is why its use and commercialization is prohibited in most of the 140 countries that signed the Minamata Convention in 2013. The book Mercury in Bolivia: Baseline assessment of uses, emissions and pollution explains that extracting gold using mercury is responsible for 82.3% of this metal emissions in the country. Until 2015, 37,579 kg. were emitted each year: 10,146 were dumped in the atmosphere, 19,120 into the water, and 12,806 in the ground.

Most probably, the use of this heavy metal has increased in the north of La Paz, where most of the gold is extracted. According to the Bolivian Centre for information and Documentation (in Spanish, CEDIB), there was an extension of the areas of exploitation and there has been an increase of mining rights granted between 2015 and 2017.

In this river, all the actors who extract gold use mercury. This metal affects the health of those who handle it because when melted to recover gold, it releases vapors that are toxic for humans and the atmosphere. Additionally, when the mercury is spilled into the environment, it converts into methylmercury, a neurotoxic compound that affects water and fish. A Leco gold miner who is around 60 years old explains that he holds his breath when he handles mercury. He has been resorting to traditional mining for 15 years and he is aware of the fact that mercury is killing him.

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Don Hernán and two of his grandchildren near the mining pit abandoned by a Chinese company in Pahuirno. Photo: Mauricio Durán | La Brava

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Don Hernán and two of his grandchildren near the mining pit abandoned by a Chinese company in Pahuirno. Photo: Mauricio Durán | La Brava

The relentless dredging of the river

This lack of protection is not only seen in traditional miners. According to the diagnosis made in the Guanay municipality by PlagBol, which carries out the project “Encouraging mercury-free gold extraction”, miners do not abide by any safety measures. Probably, the same happens in the rest of the Leco territory.

A research by the International Pollutants Elimination Network reports that women from the Esse Ejjas people of the River Beni show high levels of mercury intoxication due to the consumption of contaminated fish. The three medical centers in Guanay, Teoponte, and Mayaya do not have any data about mercury intoxication because there is no medical protocol to identify the pathologies. The director of CEDIB, Oscar Campanini, explains that the impact of mercury on health is not immediately visible and consequences are felt in the long term.

A research reports that women from the Esse Ejjas people of the River Beni show high levels of mercury intoxication due to the consumption of contaminated fish.

Women from the Esse Ejjas people of the River Beni show high levels of mercury intoxication due to the consumption of contaminated fish.

Authorities in Teoponte and Guanay, and the national Government maintain that the lack of information about the impact of mercury on Leco people rests on its cost. They believe it is necessary to join forces with universities and resort to international cooperation. Meanwhile, Leco people are aware they are being poisoned with mercury. Elizabeth López, researcher and specialist in mining from Teoponte, considers that the lack of information and the growth in mining show the systematic abandonment by the State. Moreover, she concludes that resignation by the indigenous people reflects their feeling of being unable to change their ways of life or to find a solution.

It is getting dark in Teoponte. The lights of the dragons are turned on, as well as the camping sites’ lights that are next to the river. There is a huge dragon. It is waiting for diesel. 15 people are inside, many of them are Chinese, they work the most in this area. At almost eight o’clock, we reach Pahuirno, a Leca community where we will be spending the night next to the river and where we will sleep hearing the relentless dredging of the river.

A previous version of this article has been published by the online magazine La Brava.

Karen Gil is a research journalist, specialized in topics related to human rights, women, and indigenous peoples. She is the author of Detrás del TIPNIS, from the book Tengo otros sueños, and co-author of Días de furia. In 2016, she received the Journalism National Award by the APLP for the online category.