Hydrargyrum 80 / What do you eat?
Poisoned fish in the Rio Negro
In this series of posters, visual artist Denilson Baniwa reflects on the contamination of fish in the Amazon basin by illegal mining and pesticides.
The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have the jungle as a great “natural supermarket,” where everything is available for the sustenance of life. Fish is one of the main protein sources that keep Indigenous bodies energized to live out their cultures and identities. Protected waters are essential for life to continue in the forest.
Although there is natural contamination by mercury in the Negro River, the same does not occur in other Amazonian rivers. It is because of human action that fish are contaminated by heavy metals like mercury, copper, arsenic, lead, and selenium. Garimpos — as illegal gold mining is known in Brazil — irregular garbage, factory or agribusiness waste contaminates the rivers, accumulates in fish and ends up in the stomachs of thousands of Indigenous people.
This poisoning is reaching increasingly alarming levels and, if we do nothing, we will reach a point of no return. According to studies by the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), about 27 species of fish most consumed by Amazonian populations are contaminated, and among the diseases caused by ingestion of these fish are cancer, neurological problems, intestinal disorders, loss of sight, and death. Predator fish such as tucunaré, catfish, wolf fish, and piranhas are contaminated with mercury at levels above the limit of 0.5 parts per million, or 20 times more than is acceptable for human consumption. Despite the urgency, some studies are only now being conducted and the proposed solutions remain poorly outlined. Unlike French Guiana, which banned the use of mercury in 2006, Brazil seems to encourage illegal mining and mercury use is only increasing. Thus, the fish in the rivers that feed the populations of Pará, Amapá, Roraima, Amazonas, and Acre are increasingly at risk of poisoning.
This work is a call to reflect on the vulnerabilities in the protection of Indigenous peoples in their communities and demarcated lands if we do not work to protect the entire biome. Illegal exploitation of minerals and pesticides must be prohibited in the whole country. The question we must ask ourselves is, “What do we eat: food or poison?”. This includes non-Indigenous communities since many Amazonian fish reach the tables of non-Indigenous people and food contaminated with pesticides is ubiquitous in large Brazilian cities.