Peru has declared a state of emergency in 11 jungle districts to tackle widespread mercury poisoning among the population caused by wildcat gold miners.
The ministry of environment announced the measure on Monday after hair samples from local people in the Madre de Dios area of eastern Peru revealed levels of mercury up to 16 times what it considered a safe limit of 1 microgram of the metal per gram.
The ministry said the poisoning is believed to affect around 50,000 people, many of them living in remote corners of the Amazon near two world-renowned ecotourism destinations — the Tambopata Nature Reserve and Manu National Park.
The indigenous Harakmbut people, many of whom still live a largely traditional lifestyle in the rainforest, are thought to be particularly affected.
The environment ministry also said that the 60-day state of emergency includes a government commitment to provide drinking water and food to local communities, which normally depend on the heavily-contaminated river for their basic needs.
Catching or consuming calophysus macropterus, a common local species of catfish that accumulates mercury, has also been banned.
In a separate statement, the health ministry said on Monday it was sending three hospital ships to the zone to treat affected communities and would also monitor levels of mercury in local water sources.
The drastic measures have been triggered by a wave of illegal gold mining in the area that has seen as many as 100,000 miners destroy vast swathes of the Amazon, ravage river ecosystems with dredgers, and poison the water table with mercury and other mining byproducts. The miners use mercury because the gold sticks to it.
Small amounts of mercury, however, can cause irreversible damage to multiple organs, including the brain. Typical symptoms of mercury poisoning include trembling, vision impairment, lack of coordination, and muscle weakness.
The United States banned mercury exports in 2008 because of the dangerous way it is used in often illegal mining in the developing world.
The Madre de Dios mining boom began in 2009 when gold prices rose following the global recession that saw spooked investors seek out the precious metal, which is widely seen as a safe investment in difficult times.
Peru is Latin America's largest gold producer and about 15 percent of its output is thought to come from illegal miners.
Many of them have fled poverty in the Andes and work in appalling conditions in remote corners of the jungle, often serviced by Wild West-style towns that have sprung up in the rainforest. These towns have become notorious for violence, heavy drinking, and brothels with under-age girls working against their will.
Some of the country's new gold miners have also made millions, and have even imported heavy machinery and large dredgers while employing hundreds of other miners to work for them.
One Madre de Dios lawmaker from President Ollanta Humala's Nationalist Party, Amado Romero, has even earned the nickname of the "gold eater" for his illegal mining business. The scandal broke in 2011 when he was a member of the congressional committee on energy and mining.
The government has taken some moves to crack down on the problem, including sending in the military to dynamite equipment. But the miners have usually been able to avoid arrest by melting into the jungle, returning once the raids are over.
Meanwhile, even with the new state of emergency, the problem could get even worse if Keiko Fujimori wins Peru's June 5 presidential election, as polls currently predict she will.
The right-wing candidate has promised to reverse Humala's attempts to stop the mining, and described the government's environmental regulations as "obstacles" put in the path of the miners.
José de Echave, a former environment undersecretary, described Keiko's proposals as an "extremely dangerous," leap in the dark.
"It's true that this government's policies have not come up with the desired results of ending the mining," he told VICE News. "But the correct response is not to scrap them, but to improve them. We can't allow this kind of illegal mining to take over the country."
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