“Mercury Rising: Tracing Quicksilver and (its) Toxic Assets in a Rapidly Heating Planet”

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I am an anthropologist examining issues of planetary health, focusing on connections of human and environmental wellness. My fleet-footed toxic figure is mercury in its multivalent forms, carrying a “charge” of environmental racism and "slow violence." Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining (ASGM) have become the top sources for anthropogenic mercury contamination, beating out fossil fuels. The 2013 Minamata Treaty recommends eradicating ASGM, which pits brown bodies laboring in the mines against white collar corporations that offer “clean(er)” mining strategies. Mercury’s ability to move through the body, pass the blood-brain barrier, swim through amniotic fluid, and change the body chemistry of all living organisms does not immediately register as a threat for gold miners. The toxic effects take time to become visible. As such, I would like to collaborate and envision with fellow activist-artist-scholars to consider different ways to bring heightened visibility – as well as tactility – to mercury as a toxic figure in the context of both environmental degradation and economic assets that promote the sale of “natural capital” – such as precious metals – for poor countries to pay off IMF-World Bank debt.  As mercury rises on the global barometer, I will trace quicksilver’s toxic circulation through an interactive global map: with images of cinnabar, of liquid mercury, of artisanal mining's amalgams of heavy-and-precious metals, of mad hatters, of the people laboring in the mines, of those who inhale mercury vapor, of Inuit meals of contaminated fish and melting Arctic ice. 

 

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Mercury Rising: Tracing Quicksilver and (Its) Toxic Assets in a Rapidly Heating Plant

I am an anthropologist examining issues of planetary health, focusing on connections of human and environmental wellness. My fleet-footed toxic figure is mercury in its multivalent forms, carrying a “charge” of environmental racism and "slow violence." Artisanal and small-scale gold-mining (ASGM) have become the top sources for anthropogenic mercury contamination, beating out fossil fuels. The 2013 Minamata Treaty recommends eradicating ASGM, which pits brown bodies laboring in the mines against white collar corporations that offer “clean(er)” mining strategies. Mercury’s ability to move through the body, pass the blood-brain barrier, swim through amniotic fluid, and change the body chemistry of all living organisms does not immediately register as a threat for gold miners. The toxic effects take time to become visible. As such, I would like to collaborate and envision with fellow activist-artist-scholars to consider different ways to bring heightened visibility – as well as tactility – to mercury as a toxic figure in the context of both environmental degradation and economic assets that promote the sale of “natural capital” – such as precious metals – for poor countries to pay off IMF-World Bank debt.  As mercury rises on the global barometer, I will trace quicksilver’s toxic circulation through an interactive global map: with images of cinnabar, of liquid mercury, of artisanal mining's amalgams of heavy-and-precious metals, of mad hatters, of the people laboring in the mines, of those who inhale mercury vapor, of Inuit meals of contaminated fish and melting Arctic ice. 

Found Item: “It’s Elemental: Framing Quicksilver’s Forms and Foundations”

The Swiss company Batrec provides remediation services for mercury or quicksilver contamination, transforming quicksilver liquid into vibrantly red and “stable” cinnabar. I met the company’s representatives and picked up the “Stabilisation of Mercury: Meeting a Global Challenge” pamphlet at the Second Conference of Parties (COP2) of the Minamata Mercury Convention which met from November 19-23, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland.  

This international meeting was a five-year follow-up to the treaty signed in 2013, in Minamata, Japan. So named after the town, Minamata Disease is the benchmark for any assessment of quicksilver contamination. Between 1936-1968, the Chisso Chemical Factory’s emissions of the heavy metal contaminated Minamata Bay. Cats were the first to be seen as affected, chief consumers of fish in dumpsters. Mercury poisoning, however, has a much longer history: from “mad-hatters” who used mercury nitrate to make felt hats in the 1900s throughout the United States and Europe to its application as a “miracle cure” for syphilis in the 16th century. There are different narratives as to how mercury came onto the “global radar.” A metaphorical resonance with the Roman god Mercury as the trickster messenger as well as the god of travel and trade, the reasons behind recognizing the heavy metal as a “global pollutant” differ, depending on the teller of the tale and what kinds of monetary investments are stake. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) believes that the alarmingly high levels of contamination in the Artic region, where there are no anthropogenic sources for mercury release or emissions, jettisoned action by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Artic and the Pacific Islands have some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the world, but are not the producers of a fast moving pollutant that magnifies as it moves up species food-chain, through air, soil, and water. 

While the metaphoric aspects of Mercury as a trickster and a fleet-footed messenger -- the god of trade, speed, and communication -- it is important to recall just how toxic methylmercury is to planetary health. Planetary health refers to the interconnected earth and human systems of wellbeing. More than any other chemical contaminant, mercury contributes to global warming. The contribution of ethnographic research is twofold: 1) Seeking to understand the often conflicting how artisanal gold miners, indigenous communinities (intermingled or the same), and sex-workers (a companion industry to natural resource extraction around the globe) contributes to epidemiological toxicity and 2) the kinds of 
"toxic" or volatile assets of neo-colonial resource extraction. The deep histories of plunder are the colonial faultlines through which IMF and World Bank policies tighten the tourniquet on the "open veins of Latin America" (Galeano 1978).

 

In 2013, the Minamata Convention on Mercury became an international treaty in word, but not in action. Signatory countries had until August 16, 2017 to design strategic plans to reduce the emissions and release of mercury compounds. This means banning mercury from batteries, skin lightening creams, thermometers, and vaccines, it means putting air filters atop coal plants, eliminating mercury from dental amalgams and from artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

 

As with any international meeting, consensus building comes slowly and often behind closed doors. Countries like China and India prefer to have lower requirements for mercury emissions and spend the four years between signing to build as many coal-power plants as possible. Any energy infrastructure built before the treaty took effect does not have to comply with the new global mercury regulations. The African Delegation along with the Latin American and Caribbean delegations lobbied for tough standards on mercury emissions. On both the Latin American and African continent, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (AASGM) contribute to mercury releases. The United Nations counts AASGM as the top anthropogenic source of mercury contamination, which not only pits white collar “clean(er)” corporate mining technologies against the small-scale miners, but also serves as a rhetorical move to justify fossil fuel emissions.

 

My research currently occurs in artisanal gold mines in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. So much of the response to the mining and contamination depends on the administration in power. One of Batrec’s main clients is the Peruvian government. Their motto is: “We treat mercury waste with Swiss quality.” That does not mean with milk chocolate. Rather, their stabilization reagent contains sulfur, but that is all the company will say about its patented “solution.” Once the liquid mercury has switched chemical forms, it can be stored as a “stable” element as cinnabar. Where to store it then, becomes the next question. 

Found Item: The “Matador” of the Mines in Peru’s Madre de Dios

Peru’s Amazonian region of Madre de Dios is nestled between Brazil and Bolivia. Madre de Dios means “the Mother of God” or the Virgin Mary in English. It is an ironically fitting name for a region known for its “pristine” or “virgin” rainforest, where sex-work operates as the companion industry to the mercury-infused gold mining that is deforesting at an alarming rate. A South American gold rush is currently taking place in this Amazonian region once known as “The Capital of Biodiversity.” Several factors have contributed to the mining boom in Madre de Dios: 1) the building of the Interoceanic Road which corresponded with 2) the fall of the US dollar and 3) the rise in the price of gold on the world market.  The gold in Madre de Dios is in the form of dust, not nuggets as with the North American gold rush. So for an industry that functions more by hand than by machine, the use of liquid mercury is fundamental to form an amalgam with the gold. In the next installment of this photo essay, I will detail the gold mining process.

 

Public health officials, doctors and nurses who work with miners in the jungle struggle to explain the affects of mercury poisoning. Quicksilver “poisoning” in maternal-fetal health and in that of the Pachamama, her plants and animals has more immediate visibility than it does in the hands of the mostly male miners who place the silvery liquid in their hands and shake their heads to ask me, “esto es veneno?” How could anything this lovely be venomous? Even with the visible marks on the earth and children’s development, life is the mines is often better than “home” for those who migrate there. Mercury’s effects are often secondary to those of the poverty people left behind

 

The work in the gold mines tends to be strictly gendered, with the men in the mining pits and the women in the prostibars. There is a strong affinity for “el mercurio,” seen as a strong male element. This association of male strength connected to both the virility of the bull and to the matador’s ability to “matar” (to kill) and thus prove themselves stronger than the bull, fed men’s affinity for the lithe liquid. The harvesting of gold needs the alchemical interaction with mercury. Stories about the frivolous character of gold, personified as a beautiful woman who lures men into the mines only to leave them with nothing, abound. That quicksilver, the male element, “grabs” the gold particles, harnessing them into an amalgam, makes the human affinity for the heavy metal that much stronger. The image is a powerful and a necessary energizing one because work in the mines is grueling if not fatal. 

It is important for this project not to demonize the miners who are caught up in a larger web of global capitalism, where they are both seen as the contaminators and the contaminated -- socially and physiologically.

Quicksilver’s Legacy

Peru is the 6th largest “producer” of gold in the world. This number does not account, however, for all of the gold mined in Madre de Dios. It’s hard to estimate when there are some 30-50,000 illegal miners operating in the rainforest. The guess is that Madre de Dios contributes to 25-30% of Peru’s overall export of gold. Environmental organizations report that Madre de Dios“ produces” between 16,000-18,000 kilograms of gold per year for the world market. For each kilogram of gold, artisanal gold miners utilize 2.8 kilograms of mercury.  Over the past 20 years, estimates that hover around 3,000 tons of mercury have moved from the mines in Spain, the United States, and the mountains of Peru into Amazonian streams and soil (IIAP 2017; Pinto 2016). As of a report that came out on November 8, 2018, artisanal or “small scale gold mining” has destroyed some 170,000 acres of primary rainforest. That is a size larger than San Francisco and 30% more than previously reported.

 

On May 23, 2016, Peru issued a State of Emergency in Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination. An estimated 40% (48,000) of the population was affected; the highest rates among indigenous populations that consume a diet high in fish. Women and children experience the most marked physical effects. The estimated amount of liquid mercury dumped into the environment from illegal artisanal mining in Madre de Dios hovers around an 30-40 tons per year (Ortiz 2013). Some 400 tons of mercury entered soil and waterways during the boom years of 2001 – 2013 (Pan 2013). Peruvian journalist Guillermo Reaño, writing about the State of Emergency in Madre de Dios, which he compares with the 82 tons of mercury that leaked into Japan’s Minamata Bay asks: “Where does our country place in the rankings of catastrophes of this type, if we consider that it is understood that the Japanese case is the Chernobyl of mercury contamination?”

If we consider that the Amazon rainforest is, as climate scientists and environmental activists allege, "the lung's of the earth," then an integrative and collaborative approach to the deep histories of social, economic, political, ecological AND physiological toxicity is necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November 26, 2018