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Illegal mining poisons the Amazon

Mercury contamination threatens a new Minamata

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Illegal mining poisons the Amazon

A new film by Jorge Bodansky analyzes the mercury contamination of Amazonian rivers as a result of illegal mining


Renowned Brazilian filmmaker Jorge Bodansky will preview his new film “Amazonia: the new Minamata?” on 1 February, during the International Colloquium “Amazonia: Rising Violence and Disturbing Trends”, in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford.

The documentary investigates the contamination of Amazonian river basins due to the mercury used in illegal gold mining and draws a parallel with the tragedy of Minamata. Minamata was a Japanese city where hundreds of people were poisoned by mercury in 1956 due to the actions of the Chisso Corporation, which used transition metals as a catalyst for the manufacture of chemical fertilizers.

‘Minamata Disease’, as the neurological syndrome became known, generates symptoms such as sensory disturbances in the hands and feet, damage to vision and hearing, paralysis, severe seizures, outbreaks of psychosis, loss of consciousness and coma; all caused by Mercury poisoning. The symptoms, which are also observed in the local fauna, appear in humans only 20 years after contact, which can come through the ingestion of fish and seafood found in the contaminated area.

‘The film makes a comparison with what happened in Minamata and what is starting to happen now in the Amazon river basin. In our case, we follow the work of Dr. Erik Jennings, who for many years has been researching the damage caused by mercury in the Tapajós basin, with the riverside population and the indigenous population (the Mundurukus Indians). We followed one of these trips by Dr. Erik who was doing exams and already noticing the neurological, irreversible, damage that the population is beginning to manifest,’ said the director, Jorge Bodansky.

Through the work of neurosurgeon Erik Jennings, the documentary shows the social, environmental, economic and health dimensions of the problem. 50 years after the discovery of the first golden vein in the Tapajós River, the Mundurukus begin to suffer from diseases similar to those presented in Minamata, worrying about the effects of contamination on their children and adolescents.

‘The film shows us that the presence of mercury is just the tip of the iceberg of all the problems that are happening in the basins of rivers in the Amazon (the issue of deforestation, fires, hydroelectric dams), especially the mining, which is expanding absurdly throughout the Amazon. This mining is illegal, it is out of control and it throws this mercury into the rivers. Fish, which are the main source of food for riverside populations, are contaminated by mercury and thus the mercury enters the human body,’ concludes the filmmaker.

Bodansky, one of the pioneers of environmental documentation in Brazil, continues to record and denounce the acts committed by private capital in the Amazon, a terrain he is familiar with. With the environmental agenda of the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, Amazônia: the new Minamata? brings a necessary debate to the current national and international political issue, especially with the increasingly clear evidence of mercury poisoning in indigenous and riverside inhabitants of the Amazon.


Marcos Colón is the Dean’s postdoctoral and Gannon fellow post-doc in Portuguese at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University; he is also the writer, director and producer of Beyond Fordlândia: An Environmental Account of Henry Ford’s Adventure in the Amazon

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