Jeovane de Jesus Aguiar was knee-deep in mud in the 100-yard gash he had cut into the Amazon rainforest, filtering brown water out of a pan, when he found the small, shiny flake he was looking for: a mixture of gold and mercury.
Mr. Aguiar had drizzled liquid mercury into the ground in his makeshift gold mine on the eastern edge of the small South American nation of Suriname, just as he had every few days.
The toxic element mixes with gold dust and forms an amalgam he can pluck out of the sludge. Then he sets the mixture aflame, burning off the mercury into the air, where winds spread it across the forest and across borders, poisoning the plants, animals and people it finds.
Left behind is the gold. That part usually ends up in Europe, the United States and the Persian Gulf, most often as expensive jewelry.
Twenty minutes along the river, the Wayana Indigenous community is getting sick. The Wayana eat fish from the river every day and, in recent years, many have been suffering from joint pain, muscle weakness and swelling. They also say birth defects are rising.
Tests show that the Wayana have double to triple the medically acceptable levels of mercury in their blood. “We’re not allowed to eat certain fish anymore,” said Linia Opoya in June, showing her hands, which ache after meals. “But there’s nothing else. That’s what we’ve always eaten.”
“Eventually, this will become like Minamata, too,” said Linia Opoya, a member of the Wayana Indigenous community, referring to the Japanese city poisoned by mercury in the 1950s.
Driven by global scientific consensus that mercury causes brain damage, severe illnesses and birth defects, most of the world’s countries signed a groundbreaking international treaty in 2013 committing themselves to eradicating its use globally.
Yet 10 years later, mercury remains a scourge.
It has seriously harmed thousands of children in Indonesia. It has contaminated rivers throughout the Amazon, creating a humanitarian crisis for Brazil’s largest isolated tribe. And worldwide, doctors still warn against eating too much of certain fish because the toxic metal floats into the ocean and is absorbed into the food chain.
Suriname, a forested nation of 620,000 people on the northern edge of South America, is a case study in how