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FEATURE STORYOctober 27, 2023

Regional Collaboration to Address the Impacts of Mercury Pollution in the Amazon

The World Bank

Dredges in the Purité River, overflight September 09, 2022. Source: SZF Colombia


  • Mercury contamination, coming from illegal mining in the Amazon region, affects ecosystems and their biodiversity, and the health of local communities.
  • Regional collaboration is essential to address this environmental crime that crosses borders.
  • The Amazon Sustainable Landscapes Program, together with the Amazon Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining (ARAIMO), promoted regional collaboration by generating information for better decision making and promoting multi-sector and multi-country dialogue.

At the recent Presidential Summit held in August of this year in Belem, Brazil, leaders from the Amazon region came together to discuss the most pressing concerns of the Amazon and opportunities for action to address them. The discussions covered various topics including the protection of hydrobiological resources and threats from exposure to hazardous substances including mercury from gold mining. Among the commitments resulting from the Summit arose the need to address the problem of mercury pollution, with particular attention to the impact on human health, the implementation of prevention and remediation activities, and the strengthening of regional and international cooperation for the fight against illegal mining and other related crimes.

Illegal gold mining generates degradation in forests and rivers by causing deforestation and affecting riverbeds due to removed sediment. In addition, it negatively impacts the health and culture of local and indigenous communities. Recent studies of hair and blood samples carried out in local communities in the Amazon found values that far exceed those accepted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, a study focused on pregnant women in Suriname found that 97% had concentrations of methylmercury in their blood that could severely affect the neuropsychological development of their babies.

In the Amazon territory of Brazil, Colombia and Peru, this illicit practice has been on the rise in parallel with the increase in gold prices and the growing participation of criminal groups. For example, between 2021 and 2022, in the vicinity of the Amacayacu National Natural Park in Colombia and on the border with Brazil, there was a 150% increase in Colombia in the number of rafts used for mining and a 410% increase in Brazil.

With the purpose of generating attention and action in the face of the aforementioned situation, the regional project of the Amazon Sustainable Landscapes Program (ASL) led by the World Bank with resources from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) facilitated the development of a series of activities to strengthen regional collaboration in the fight against the impacts of gold mining and mercury pollution. This process began in 2021 in Brazil, Colombia and Peru in association with the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), which leads the Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining in the Amazon (ARAIMO), and Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF).

These activities expanded the understanding of the regional dynamics associated with gold mining and the use of mercury, and promoted dialogue between public, scientific and civil society institutions, to propose prevention and response strategies to the problem of mercury contamination. For the work, and through regional dialogues promoted by ARAIMO, two priority areas were identified: the territory around the Puré River, which marks the border between Colombia and Brazil, and a triple border area between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. This Storymap contains more information about the results of studies in these areas, the context of illegal mining activity.

The World Bank

Rio Pure Brazil, and Colombia. Source: IBGE, MMA, Maxar, Esri and DANE

The World Bank

Triple border area of Brazil, Peru and Colombia. Source: IBGE, MMA, Maxar, Esri and DANE

The gathering of information and inter-institutional dialogue led, among other things, to the development of roadmaps outlining collaborative actions involving government entities from various sectors, research institutes, academia, civil society organizations and representatives of local social groups, among others.

Impact measurement as an instrument for collaborative action

In a complementary manner to the analysis of the problem in prioritized sites and as an instrument to facilitate part of the actions included in the roadmaps, the ASL regional project also supported the effort to expand the Gold Mining Impact Calculator to Colombia and Peru. The tool was initially designed by CSF to quantify the socio-environmental impacts of illegal gold extraction in Brazil at the request of the Public Prosecutor's Office.

The use of the calculator has facilitated understanding and awareness about the environmental and social impacts of mining associated with human health. Additionally, it has generated information that makes it easier to estimate payments for compensation and the investment costs necessary for planning, impact prevention, and the use of mercury-free technologies. The calculator was applied to the prioritized areas of the Puré River and the triple border, considering the impacts on river sedimentation and impact on human health. The results indicated that the impact of gold extraction carried out in 2020 by 30 rafts in the Puré River and 21 rafts in the triple border in 2021 amount to about USD 86.5 million and USD 20.5 million respectively.

The World Bank
Working table at the II Amazon Regional Meeting. Iquitos, Peru October 2022

Thanks to the support of the ASL, progress has been made in the generation and dissemination of crucial information, motivating collaboration between institutions at the national and regional level. The multiple efforts have not only illustrated the problem with shocking data, but have also broadened the conversation, enticing more institutions to participate in crafting and executing tangible solutions.

The prospects for future inter-institutional collaboration are positive, as is the ASL's commitment to supporting it. Only through cooperation and alliances will it be possible to explore solutions to complex issues at the regional level and achieve joint progress for a more sustainable future for the Amazon.


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