Minimata Convention: Mercury solution or just politics?

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by Britnae Purdy

Mercury is a problem. Over time, it accumulates in fish and marine mammals and is passed along to humans through our food and water. A little mercury won’t hurt you. But over time, your body collects, or bioaccumulates, it in your fatty tissue and organs. When you have accumulated too much, it can cause brain and kidney damage, speech impairment, memory loss, fatigue, joint pain, vision loss, and cardiovascular disease. It is a massive threat because our most precious and vulnerable populations – pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and young children – are most susceptible to mercury poisoning.

Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately high rates of mercury poisoning. Indigenous lands and reservations are the sites of coal plants and mining operations – both of which are heavy emitters of mercury.

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On January 19, 140 states adopted a new treaty at the Minimata Convention on mercury restricting mercury emissions.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an environmental, health, and human rights organization representing the indigenous populations of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, says that it is pleased with this treaty. Arctic populations are most susceptible to mercury poison due to traditional diets based heavily on seafood and the use of the Arctic to transport mercury-contaminated products.

“Mercury reaches the Arctic region solely through long-range transportation from other regions of the world,” says Parnuna Egede, advisor on environmental issues for ICC-Greenland. “In this otherwise pristine environment, Arctic Indigenous Peoples are heavily impacted by mercury through their traditional diet.”

A 2009 study by the Arctic Monitoring  and Assessment Programme reported that 19% of indigenous women in Alaska, 5.6-32% of women in Northern Canada, 20-98% of women in Greenland, and 1.5-12% of indigenous women in Russia had elevated levels of mercury in their system. A 2008 study by the Inuit Health Survey showed that 25% of children in Nunavut, Canada had elevated mercury levels and found that 95% of mercury intake in the community came from traditional foods such as beluga, narwhal, ringed seal, and caribou.

However, representatives from the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus are unhappy with the treaty. They argue that the language of the treaty is too weak, and prefer an agreement that would be legally-binding and effective immediately. The current treaty is a mixture of legal and voluntary measures and, though it cuts mercury emissions from artisanal and small-scale gold-mining, utility plants, and industrial complexes, it provides exceptions for vaccines containing mercury, religious and traditional activities, and for processes where there are no mercury-free alternatives. The treaty will not go into full effect until it is signed by 50 nations, expected to happen within three to four years.

“It will probably be decades before we can actually measure declines of mercury levels in the environment,” says Egede.

Some indigenous groups were also disturbed by disagreements over how to address and include indigenous peoples in the treaty. Indigenous peoples are only mentioned in the preamble of the document and are referred to as “communities” rather than “peoples.” This is a result of France and the United Kingdom refusing to accept a document containing the phrase “indigenous peoples,” despite support for the inclusion by nations such as the United States, Canada, Nepal, and many Latin American countries.

The California Indian Environmental Alliance and the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus acknowledge that the inclusion of indigenous issues in the document and the wide support by nations at the conference do represent a win for indigenous rights. However, Attorney Danika Littlechild of the International Indian Treaty Council, sees this as an upsetting precedence.

“This is the first new multilateral environmental Convention to be negotiated at the United Nations since the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007,” she said. “We cannot understand why states which voted in favor of the Declaration refused to include the term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ which is so important for the full recognition of our rights and status in the international arena. It is clear that we still have a lot of work to do in the fight for our recognition and rights within the environmental program of the U.N.”