Human rights commission urges Bolivia to immediately eliminate mercury use and trade

Mercury, which is often used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), causes damage to both human health and the environment. But phasing out its use has proven rather difficult: in Bolivia, the past years have seen an increase of use and trade of mercury. During a session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights urged the Bolivian state to swiftly present a plan of action on how to turn this trend around. IUCN NL’s partner CEDIB published a report on the use and commercialization of mercury in the country as early as 2020, but the Bolivian state has not made any progress since.

Header photo: (c) Bram Ebus

During the 183rd session of the IACHR, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights, Marcos Orellana, expressed his concerns about the human rights violations linked to the excessive increase in the import and use of mercury in Bolivia. ‘In Bolivia, small-scale gold mining is the source of mercury emissions. Hundreds of tonnes of mercury are released into Indigenous territories every year, posing risks to people’s health and the environment and generating serious environmental injustices,’ says Orellana. ‘This is particularly the case for Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the amazon region in Bolivia, who are already living in vulnerable situations,’ Mariel Cabero, Expert Environmental Justice at IUCN NL, adds.

Undermining international efforts against mercury

The Minamata Convention on Mercury regulates the formal trade and use of mercury. The convention aims to reduce and if possible eliminate mercury in ASGM. ‘The agreement has a specific amendment for small-scale mining that has the obligation to adopt measures to reduce the use of mercury, a central piece is the elaboration of action plans,’ Orellana stated.

According to Orellana, the illegal trafficking of mercury from Bolivia to other countries undermines the efforts that neighbouring countries such as Peru, Colombia and others in the Amazon basin are implementing to phase out mercury and protect human health and the environment. ‘Bolivia’s lack of action to phase out mercury adversely affects the right to life, personal integrity, health and the right to a healthy environment,’ Orellana said.

Developing an action plan

Óscar Campanini, executive director of CEDIB, our partner organization in the Forests for a Just Future program, also spoke during the session. According to Campanini, 491 tonnes of mercury entered Bolivia between 2019 and 2021. ‘We called for the state to develop an action plan to reduce the use and commercialization of mercury. The action plan should be delivered in two months, but no progress has been made so far.’

In Campanini’s opinion, Bolivia has abundant environmental protection regulations, but they are not complied with, nor is there any will on the part of the government to enforce them for the benefit of protected areas and Indigenous Peoples.

Worrying results

Colombian scientist Jesús Olivera, coordinator of the PhD in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Cartagena, said that the monitoring of mercury contamination in the communities on the banks of the Beni River had produced very worrying results.

‘The concentrations ranged from one part per billion to seven parts per billion, with an average of seven parts per billion, when internationally one billion is the maximum allowable toxicity concentration in hair, but in all cases concentrations were found to be higher,’ he said.