Thousands forced from their homes in western Colombia are now facing water poisoning from mercury, allegedly from illegal mining operations, reported Colombia’s highest governmental human rights organization on Tuesday.
Colombia’s Ombudsman reports that the fundamental rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations in the state of Choco are being violated due to the the use and dumping of mercury into community drinking water by illegal mining operations.
According to the report, at least eight rivers in Choco have been contaminated and diverted by mining complexes. Mercury, used in the extraction of gold from rock, is being dumped directly into rivers, contaminating tributaries and posing a high risk to the health of the communities, who use the water for direct consumption, fishing, bathing, and washing clothes and utensils.
According to Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper, in the towns of Condoto, Lloro, Atrato, Istmina and Pizarro, 400 people were treated between January 18 and April 12 for symptoms related to the consumption of contaminated water.
A report by an independent commission of the Ombudsman states that exposure to mercury leads to symptoms such as persistent cough, diarrhea, fever, increased blood pressure, pulmonary edema, dermatitis, and even incidences of reproductive failure episodes such as spontaneous abortions and birth defects.
The Regional Autonomous Corporation (Codechoco), reports that in 2013 there were 54 gold mining dredges operating in the area, an increase of 184% compared with 2012.
According to a 2013 study on the impact of mining in Colombia, the use of both mercury and cyanide is “indiscriminate and unchecked,” with no government environmental controls in place, despite repeated warnings by both governmental and non-governmental agencies.
In March, the National Police announced the seizure of three illegal mining operations in Choco, and confirmed that large amounts of mercury and cyanide — precursors of the extraction process — were found dumped in nearby rivers, which are the water supplies of numerous municipalities.
The state of Choco already suffers from poor water supply and sanitary conditions, as in many areas there are no landfills, no water treatment plants, and waste is disposed-of in the open or thrown into water sources, reports El Espectador.
The environmental hazards plaguing Choco’s citizens add to the already existing humanitarian crisis of violent conflicts between armed groups, which has forced thousands from their homes in recent months.
The Regional Ombudsman Office of Choco counts 538 people, belonging to 94 families, forced into refugee camps since June 13 due to increased violence between the ELN guerrillas and “Los Urabeños.” These numbers are still being verified, according to the national report.
These recent displacements add to the 2,500 residents of Choco already forced from their homes in May 2014 due to outbreaks of violence in the municipality of Alto Baudo.
- Desplazamiento, minería y mala calidad del agua azotan a Chocó (El Espectador)
- Crítica situación de derechos humanos en Chocó por impacto de la minería ilegal y enfrentamientos entre grupos criminales (National Ombudsman Press Release)
- Impacto de la minería de hecho en Colombia (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz- INDEPAZ)