Peru’s Health Ministry found shocking contamination among the Nahua, but hasn’t published its full report
Raya, one of the Nahua elders, in Santa Rosa de Serjali in the remote Peruvian Amazon. Photograph: Johan Wildhagen
An indigenous people living in one of the remotest parts of the Peruvian Amazon has been struck by a mystery mercury epidemic, according to an unpublished Health Ministry report dated 2015 and 2017 seen by the Guardian.
The Nahua only entered into sustained contact with “outsiders” in the mid-1980s, which led to almost 50% of the population dying mainly from respiratory and infectious diseases. Today, numbering less than 500 people, the vast majority live in a village in the Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti and Others Reserve established for indigenous peoples in “voluntary isolation” and “initial contact” in south-east Peru.
The leaked report, titled Análisis de Situación de Salud del Pueblo Nahua de Santa Rosa de Serjali en la Reserva Territorial Kugapakori Nahua Nanti y Otros, states that government health authorities were first alerted to the mercury crisis among the Nahua when a six month old baby, initially diagnosed with pneumonia, and his mother were admitted to a private clinic in Lima in November 2014. The baby was found to have severe anaemia and his blood was tested for heavy metals, resulting in both him and his mother being diagnosed with “mercury intoxication.”
Between then and September 2015, a series of visits to the Nahua’s village, Santa Rosa de Serjali, were made by national and regional government health authorities. More than 150 urine samples – 41% of the Nahua population – were taken: 78% contained “high levels of mercury”, with “no significant differences” across age groups, women and men, or adults and children. The highest level (96.57 μg/L [micrograms per litre]) was recorded in a 14 year old girl, the second highest (80.38 μg/L) in a 27 year old man, and evidence was found for lactating mothers passing mercury to their babies.
According to the World Health Organisation, mercury is one of the world’s “top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern” and is a particular “threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life.”
“The results are extremely concerning and mean serious risk for the people living in Santa Rosa,” states the Health Ministry report, a general survey of the Nahua’s health running to 171 pages.
According to the report, the source of the mercury isn’t known, but two possible explanations are considered in some detail. One is fish consumption, which it concludes is unlikely to be the main source. The other is the Camisea project, the pioneering Latin American gas extraction development, which it recommends should be investigated.
“Without adequate and sufficient information about gas operations in the Camisea project, it is not possible to rule it out as the source of the mercury contamination among the Nahua in Santa de Rosa de Serjali,” the report states. “The Peruvian state must conduct serious, complete analyses of the mercury emissions – in the air and water from run-off produced during exploration – and the contamination routes in order to establish the risk levels for people in the reserve as well as others elsewhere in the Urubamba basin.”
The report cites research by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) that mercury is present in “almost all” fossil fuels including gas as well as rock sediments and strata, and that the extraction or burning of fossil fuels “contributes significantly to the liberation of mercury into the global environment.” It states that the presence of mercury in Camisea gas has been confirmed, and that a mercury removal tower has been installed in the main processing plant, Las Malvinas. The Health Ministry states it has been unable to access reports by the Energy Ministry and Environment Ministry on the removal tower and its “levels of mercury capture”, and that it has also been unable to access reports by the same ministries on gas flares in the region.
Other possible explanations for the mercury are mooted by the report, but quickly dismissed. These include the use of mercury in possible artisanal gold-mining in the reserve – ruled out because satellite images showed no evidence of any mining – or visits by the Nahua to the adjacent Madre de Dios watershed where artisanal gold-miners have cleared 10,000s of hectares of the forest, causing a chronic mercury epidemic among the population. Further, more general possible explanations are mooted too: deforestation, waste burning, water capture and industry. The report states there are large logging concessions just to the north of the reserve about which “no information exists”, but that there are no “significantly deforested areas” in the reserve itself.
In addition to urging Peru’s government to research Camisea’s mercury emissions, the Health Ministry report makes other recommendations too. These include taking hair samples to better understand the extent of the contamination and whether it is caused by exposure to organic or inorganic mercury, conducting further studies to discover the source and design the “best strategies of response”, and monitoring permanently all the Nahua who have “high levels” of contamination.
But to date the report has not been made public. The version seen by the Guardian suggests it was written in 2015 and would be printed in May 2017, and includes a preface by the now former Health Minister, Patricia Jannet García Funegra, who left her position in September 2017. The aim of the report, the then minister stated, is to “generate a better response by the health sector to the Nahua people.”
One Nahua man, who prefers to remain anonymous, told the Guardian “almost everyone” is contaminated with mercury and the government has “forgotten” them. He said that no one from the authorities has visited Santa Rosa de Serjali since March 2017, that the only advice they have received is to “eat well” and avoid drinking alcohol, and the only possible explanation given for the mercury is that two species of fish might be contaminated.
“We need help, we want help, we want someone to help us,” the Nahua man says. “People are concerned. There’s no one dealing with this. We’ve been well forgotten.”
National indigenous federation AIDESEP has accused the government of a “cover-up” and was demanding the “immediate publication” of the Health Ministry’s report back in mid-2016 – to no avail. “The Nahua in the Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti Reserve continue dying from illnesses while the government hides reports about their plight,” AIDESEP stated, before highlighting that “almost 80%” are contaminated with mercury and numerous organisations have repeatedly requested the government to take action.
A year later AIDESEP wrote to six United Nations special rapporteurs urging them to request Peru’s government to protect the Nahua from mercury, highlighting the possible connection to Camisea, expressing concern that indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in even remoter areas in the reserve could be contaminated too, and making a series of recommendations, including that the rapporteurs should request that Peru suspends gas operations in the reserve until the source of the contamination has been identified. AIDESEP acknowledged that the government formed a Working Group in 2016 to support the Nahua but claimed the results were “nil or little”, and stated that two “declarations of emergency” were made the same year but “their impacts haven’t been what was hoped for.”
In late 2017, in Uruguay, AIDESEP also appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the crisis. In a statement to the Commission, the very first issue raised was the Nahua’s mercury contamination.
The urine samples taken by Peru’s health authorities were reviewed last year by two scientists at the Biodiversity Research Institute in the US. They reported “notable exceedances of acceptable levels” among the Nahua, and concluded “it appears that a large segment of the sampled Nahua population in the village of Santa Rosa de Serjali is exposed to elevated levels of mercury.”
The scientists, David Buck and Oksana Lane, described anything above 10-20 μg/L as indicating “excessive exposure” – much lower than the levels of 96.57 μg/L or 80.38 μg/L found in the 14-year-old Nahua girl and 27-year-old man. But they noted that the samples had not been collected according to WHO guidelines, and asserted that they are “insufficient to fully characterize [the Nahua’s] exposure” and determine the source.
Yet various explanations, including the Camisea project, were considered. They stated that there have been gas operations since early 2015 “upstream of the Nahua’s village including in new exploratory wells on the Upper Serjali river basin”, and that “activities associated with natural gas exploration in the region could be the original source”. Gold-mining was mentioned too, but Buck and Lane stated that it is “not practiced near the community in the watershed” and that operations in Madre de Dios were “unlikely” to be the source too because it is a different watershed.
The scientists made numerous recommendations, including re-taking urine samples according to WHO guidelines, taking hair and food samples, surveying surface soil, monitoring air, and investigating the “mercury removal process”, gas flares and production waters in the Camisea project.
“I think the levels of mercury measured in Santa Rosa de Serjali warrant concern and further investigation,” Lane told the Guardian. “The exposure is elevated and if this reflects chronic exposure, it can lead to kidney damage and possibly other health issues. The testing conducted so far has been inadequate and so we recommend sampling and testing human hair for total mercury – a combination of inorganic and organic forms – to determine exposure from the diet. Most exposure to mercury from the diet is organic – methylmercury – which is a potent neurotoxin and has detrimental effects on the central nervous system. Mercury in urine is inorganic and therefore doesn’t measure exposure from the diet.”
The Camisea project indirectly precipitated contact with the Nahua in the mid-1980s and since 2000 has been run by Pluspetrol. In early 2014 Peru’s government approved expansion of the project into Nahua territory. Asked about the links made to gas operations by both the scientists in the US and the leaked Health Ministry report, Pluspetrol told the Guardian it does not have access to the latter but that gas operations are not to blame for the mercury.
“It has been ruled out that Camisea is one of the sources of the mercury contamination,” the company told the Guardian. “It is widely-known that the area is overrun by mining.” Asked to clarify who exactly has ruled out Camisea as the source and which specific “area” it is referring to, Pluspetrol did not respond.
In 2015 the Culture Ministry issued a statement about the Nahua which included saying that it had asked Pluspetrol about mercury and the company replied it did not use it in any of its operations because it was not “suitable” or “necessary”. The Culture Ministry also stated that it had made an overflight of the “main river basins and tributaries” used by the Nahua for their food and water, but found no evidence of “illegal activities” – ie gold-mining – “that could be the source of the contamination.”
The leaked report by the Health Ministry includes further concerning findings about the Nahua’s health, describing them as in an “extremely vulnerable demographic situation”. While acknowledging that they recovered from the “demographic collapse” in the 1980s following contact, they continue to suffer from a series of diseases and problems today – so much so that the perception among the Nahua themselves is that their health was better pre-contact. According to the report, 50% of all deaths between 1997 and 2014 occurred in people younger than 17, and 25% in babies less than six months.
The diseases and problems highlighted include chronic malnutrition (61% of children under five sampled), anaemia (76% of children under five sampled), severe diarrhoea (main cause of death between 2007-2014), tuberculosis (the first case recorded in a young man returning from military service), and hepatitis B. One of the primary explanations given is the Nahua’s shift from a mobile to a sedentary way of life following contact in the mid-1980s, and the subsequent reduction in access to natural resources and clean water which have resulted in a less nutritious, diversified diet and an increase in intestinal parasites and infectious diseases. Other contributing factors include frequent travel to other areas, jobs in the timber trade and Camisea project, and “insufficient and inadequate” medical attention including “low vaccination coverage” in both children and adults.
Two young Nahua men are reported to have died in recent weeks. Both Daniel Dixpopidiba Shocoroa and Ruben Yuradahua Shure were in their early 20s. According to regional media outlet Gaceta Ucayalina, Yuradahua died on 21 January in Atalaya from pulmonary tuberculosis – described as possibly the “consequence of mercury contamination.”
The Health Ministry did not respond to questions.