The Mercury Crisis

FRONTLINE – Motorcycles, food stores, a wide expanse of brown-grey soil, and barely any trees or greenery whatsoever: It’s not what comes to mind when you imagine the Amazon rainforest.

But that’s the scene in what’s now known as Delta Uno — a frontier town that’s part of a 370,000-plus-acre area of the Peruvian Amazon that has been decimated by a boom in gold mining, much of it illegal.

This gold rush has done more than just transform the landscape of a section of the Amazon that’s about twice the size of New York City. As FRONTLINE’s newest 360° documentary explores, mercury used in the mining process to help make flecks of gold bind together has caused a health crisis — seeping into the water supply and contaminating the fish people eat. Mercury from the mining has poisoned nearly half of those living in the region, according to international researchers.

“Almost all of the population of this community has a high percentage of mercury — above the safe limits. High above,” Lucho Tayori, an environmental activist and member of an indigenous tribe called the Harakmbut that used to live in isolation in the rainforest, tells FRONTLINE in The Mercury Crisis.

The side effects of mercury poisoning can include chronic headaches, damage to the lungs and kidneys, and, in children, brain damage. Peruvian officials have declared a state of emergency.

But in just one lucky day, miners can make half of Peru’s monthly minimum wage — and many in the Harakmbut community see mining as their only financial opportunity, despite the risks. Including Lucho’s own brother, Jorge.

“That is why we have really gotten into this business of mining: mainly to be able to support our families,” Jorge says.

With the fight over mining continuing to divide families, communities and politicians, what will happen next to this section of the Amazon — and the people who depend on its resources?

Take a 360° look at what’s at stake in The Mercury Crisis — streaming now on Facebook.

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