Illegal Amazonian Gold Rush Poisons Water Supply for Indigenous Communities

Image: Ericatarina via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Wildcat gold mining in the Amazon rainforest has skyrocketed since 2019, leading to an increase in deforestation and public health crises for Indigenous communities. Now, the mercury used to strip gold from sediment has poisoned the Tapajós river, leaving the Munduruku tribe without clean water or fish for food. Despite these risks, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called for increased mining on Indigenous land and has sought to lift restrictions, empowering the illegal mines already operating in the region.

Why This Matters: This increase in mining and deforestation threatens all life in the Amazon, and Indigenous communities will bear the brunt of the human damage. Already these communities face economic and social marginalization, leaving them without resources to combat environmental injustice and public health crises.

Empowering wildcat mining and deforestation in the Amazon not only robs the world of a carbon sink crucial to the fight against climate change, but it also robs generations of their health and access to clean water and food.

Poison Gold Rush: Relaxing environmental protections under President Bolsonaro have emboldened thousands of wildcat miners to illegally search for gold in constitutionally protected regions.

Since 2019, deforestation on the reservation home to a majority of the Munduruku tribe has tripled. Bolsonaro has also called to lift restrictions on commercial mining on Indigenous reservations. “Since 2019, there has been an immense increase in activity in the region with the opening of new gold mines,” said Carol Marçal, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon Campaign. “Preventative efforts exist, but little has been done to get illegal gold miners out of the area.”

The Munduruku community says that the mining has turned the waters of the Tapajós river a muddy brown color. Although the mercury contamination is invisible, members of the Tribe are feeling its effects. In 2019, a study of three Munduruku villages found mercury in the hair samples of all 200 residents sampled. Local resident Irene Munduruku was rushed to the hospital after high levels of mercury in her blood left her unable to move her arms or legs or open her eyes. Still, few clinics in the region test for mercury poisoning, making tracking the extent of the impact difficult to measure.

The community is now seeking out new ways to sustain their needs. A Brazilian NGO, Saúde e Alegria, has partnered with nine Munduruku villages to develop alternative water systems. The Pariri Association is seeking funding to help the community cultivate fish in unpolluted freshwater streams. In the meantime, the association is urging residents to cut their intake of catfish, dogfish, and piranha, which may have high levels of mercury.

Up Next

Navajo Nation Fights Uranium Contamination

Navajo Nation Fights Uranium Contamination

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer For decades, uranium mining has contaminated the Navajo Nation, causing higher cancer rates and water pollution. Even though the health risks and environmental harms of uranium mining are well-established, new operations continue to move forward. One local group, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) hasn’t found a […]

Continue Reading 398 words
Gavin Newsom Extends Drought State of Emergency in California

Gavin Newsom Extends Drought State of Emergency in California

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would extend the drought emergency statewide and issued an executive order to have residents conserve water. As part of this effort, eight new counties were added to the state of emergency, and authorized the State Water Resources Control Board was authorized to […]

Continue Reading 249 words
Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

Northern Canadian Indigenous Communities Face Water Contamination & Crisis

By Elizabeth Love, ODP Contributing Writer Authorities in the Canadian Arctic territory Nunavut, announced a state of emergency this week due to a possible contamination event affecting the City of Iqaluit’s water supply.    Tests were performed after residents reported the smell of gasoline coming from their tap water,  but they came back clean. However, […]

Continue Reading 327 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.