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Mercury Poisoning in the Nahua Nanti Kugapakori Territorial Reserve, Peru


In the past, looging and oil exploration led to violent and disastrous contact with isolated Indians. In the early 1980s, exploration by Shell led to contact with the isolated Nahua tribe. Within a few years around 50% of the Nahua had died.This was in connection with the Camisea gas exploitation.

The Nahua is Nanti is an Amazonian indigenous group of nearly 500 inhabitants which live in the State of Kugapakori in Perúin the Nahua Nanti Kugapakori Territorial Reserve (RTKNN). Nahua Nanti had their first contact with Western populations in 1984 with a group of loggers which lead to a severe contagious of infectious and respiratory diseases decreasing the Nahua Nanti population up to 50% during the first year after the first contact with Western societies [1].   Initially, the Nahua lived in isolation, devoted to hunting, fishing, and wood gathering, individually or in small tribes. Currently, they live in the town of Santa Rosa de Serjali. In addition to subsistence activities, they occasionally engage in logging, sometimes exploited by illegal loggers or by their initiative, intending to get an income for subsistence [12].  

Between November 2014 and October 2015, the Occupational and Environmental Health Center (CENSOPAS), on behalf of the Ministry of Health (MINSA), collected urine samples among the Nahua of the RTKNN. Striking findings on high concentrations of mercury and other heavy metals, especially in children under 12 years of age attired the attention of medical authorities and led to more investigations on the Nahua’s health and the possible sources of contaminations [7].

The leaked report, titled Análisis de Situación de Salud del Pueblo Nahua de Santa Rosa de Serjali en la Reserva Territorial Kugapakori Nahua Nanti y Otros, states that government health authorities were first alerted to the mercury crisis among the Nahua when a six-month-old baby, initially diagnosed with pneumonia and his mother were admitted to a private clinic in Lima in November 2014 [5]. The baby was found to have severe anaemia, and his blood was tested for heavy metals, resulting in both him and his mother being diagnosed with “mercury intoxication.”[7].  According to the National Center for Epidemiology, Prevention and Control of Diseases (Ministry of Health) "Exposure to mercury may be due to natural reasons, contamination of food resources or occupational reasons" [1].  It could come from artisanal gold mining. There is no clarity on the primary source of contamination but scientists have pointed out on the Camisea Gas exploitation project run by Pluspetrol in the Urubamba Valley (see the related case on the EJAtlas) as one cause of environmental pollution. The Camisea Consortium currently operates in Block Lot 88 inside the indigenous reserve. Block Lot 88 was established in the 1980s, before the reserve was created, on February 14, 1990. The company has pre-established rights, but the Nahua and other peoples also defend their right to protection and self-determination. Camisea Project representatives have denied the possibility of being the cause of mercury pandemic among the indigenous Nahua Nanti. Surrounded mining projects using toxic substances is possibly another source of contamination [4].

In December 2018 the Nahua Nanti Indigenous asked for exhaustive medical tests about mercury contamination in hair samples instead of the urine sample [3]. Why is a hair sample better than urine? (a) mercury has a longer half-life in hair, so it can be useful for evaluating exposures that occurred months earlier, (b) mercury remains stable for long periods in hair, making it easy to transport and store, and (c) some mercury species, such as methylmercury, accumulate at higher concentrations in hair, making them relatively easy to measure [14]. To face the sanitary emergency, the government created and interinstitutional groups including Ministery of Health, The local government and, other institutions [10, 3]. The organisation AIDESEP has called the attention of the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the crisis. 

Peru ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally-binding global treaty which commits parties to regulate artisanal and small-scale mining [16] but seems that at a national level there is still a lack of political will to protect indigenous groups from it. 

 Nahua Nanti are very concerned about what is happening and require explanations from the Peruvian authorities:  "We have no idea what is happening to us, so we demand that the authorities act." Said Jader Flores, indigenous Nahua Nanti [3]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Mercury Poisoning in the Nahua Nanti Kugapakori Territorial Reserve, Peru
State or province:Ucayali
Location of conflict:Santa Rosa de Serjali, Sepahua district
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

According to WHO, health effects of mercury exposure encompasses harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested. Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years. Kidney effects have been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure. [8]

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:400
Start of the conflict:2014
Company names or state enterprises:Pluspetrol from Argentina
Relevant government actors:Centro de Salud Ocupacional y Ambiental (CENSOPAS), Ministerio de Salud (MINSA), Ministerio de Cultura (MINCUL), Nacional de Sanidad Pesquera (SANIPES), la Dirección General de Salud Ambiental (DIGESA) y el Gobierno Regional de Ucayali, Centro Nacional de Epidemiología, Prevención y Control de Enfermedades (Ministerio de Salud), Ministerio de Cultura,
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Coordinadora de Pueblos Indígenas de Atalaya (CORPIAA), Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), Acción Ecológica

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Local communities mobilising scientists (AMS)


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Infectious diseases, Other Health impacts, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Other Health impacts1) Accute poisonings 2) High levels of anemia in children (almost 50% of children) Haemoglobin on average 10.1 g/dl when the ideal is 12 g/dl. Mercury poisoning is linked with some diseases such as diarrhoea, skin problems, some types of cancer and malformation in newborns.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the fact that the problem has gain visibility and the government of Peru has declared it as a sanitary emergency, indigenous Nahua Nanti remain without answers of what is slowly killing them.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Centro Nacional de Epidemiología, Prevención y Control de Enfermedades (2017) Análisis de Situación de Salud del pueblo Nahua de Santa Rosa de Serjali en la Reserva Territorial Kugapakori Nahua Nanti y Otros


[14] Interpreting Hair Mercury Levels in Individual Patients

[13] Demographic and health attributes of the Nahua, initial contact population of the Peruvian Amazon

[3] Ucayali: claves para entender la lucha de los nahua contra la contaminación de mercurio

[4] Acorralados por mafias y enfermedades: la situación de los pueblos en aislamiento y contacto inicial

[5] Indígenas en contacto inicial Nahua sufren por contaminación de mercurio

[6] Los alarmantes niveles de mercurio en Madre de Dios | Perú

[7] Remote Amazon tribe hit by mercury crisis, leaked report says

[8] Mercury and health- WHO

[9]Mercury poisoning chief among health problems facing Peru’s uncontacted tribes

[12] Four regions in Peru exposed to mercury contamination

[13]Realizarán estudio pionero para conocer origen de mercurio en indígenas de Amazonía peruana

[15] Pioneer gas project in Latin America fails indigenous peoples

[16] Leaked map reveals chronic mercury epidemic in Peru

[10] Decreto Supremo que declara en Emergencia Sanitaria por el plazo de noventa (90) días calendario, a la Comunidad Nativa Nahua de Santa Rosa de Serjali, distrito de Sepahua, provincia de Atalaya en el departamento de Ucayali

[11] Acorralados por mafias y enfermedades: la situación de los pueblos en aislamiento y contacto inicial

Other comments:As written by David Hill for The Guardian “Every year a group of experts called the South Peru Panel issues a report on the country’s largest ever energy development which extracts natural gas and natural gas liquids from the Amazon and pipes them all the way across the Andes to Peru’s Pacific coast. The conclusions of its latest report? “Very positive macroeconomic benefits” and “without precedent in Peru’s modern economic history”, but pathetic, if not disastrous, for the indigenous people living near where the gas is extracted” [15]

Meta information

Contributor:Grettel Navas, ENVJustice Project.
Last update21/06/2020
Conflict ID:4221



Indigenous in Peruvian Amazon

Source: Survival

Nahua elder

Crédito: Johan Wildhage/Survival.