Photo of researchers, Quarterly NewsletterACA Newsletter, December 2008

In this issue:

 


ACA and EPA Partner to Reduce Mercury Pollution in the Amazon

Gold mining in the Amazon can devastate riverside forests and human health. Artisanal gold miners, often from poor migrant communities, are lured to Madre de Dios, Peru by the dream of easy riches. The state is the most active alluvial gold mining region in Peru, producing between 50 and 100 tons of gold annually.

Mining excavationUnfortunately, that gold rarely enriches the artisanal gold-mining communities, who are sometimes entrapped by mounting debt for equipment, loans, and concession rentals. Instead, they find themselves locked in an endless cycle of deforestation, mercury poisoning, and poverty.

Artisanal miners extract gold from river bottoms and edges using dangerous techniques that expose them to high levels of mercury. Liquid mercury is used to amalgamate the gold, both at the site of extraction and later in shops or in homes where gold is boiled with mercury to form larger nuggets to sell to urban gold traders. Often, the mercury vapors waft out of cooking pots while the whole family looks on. The mercury can poison children and adults alike, causing extreme swelling, hair loss, weakened muscles, kidney dysfunction, insomnia, and memory impairment. In the environment, mercury is likely to reduce reproduction and cause birth defects in wildlife.

Mercury figureOver the last year, ACA has partnered with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to produce new scientific data about mining-related mercury emissions in Madre de Dios and their impact on human health. In December 2007, USAID invited ACA to participate in a meeting with the EPA concerning mercury contamination, and a partnership was born. In May, ACA hosted EPA researchers at our project office in Puerto Maldonado, led tours of mining communities and gold shops, and introduced the EPA team to regional government representatives. On field trips, EPA researchers measured mercury levels that far exceeded any they had encountered at their other project sites, in countries as diverse as Brazil and Senegal. In the fall, the EPA team returned at the invitation of Madre de Dios regional government to install a pilot mercury-capture device that reduced mercury emissions from the amalgamation process by 90%.

Recently, these findings have sparked a dynamic conservation initiative, supported by ACA, the EPA, Argonne National Laboratory, Stanford University, and the Dirección Regional de Energia y Minas – Madre de Dios, to:

  • Discover how much mercury is building up in the environment around gold mining communities by testing samples from plants, fish, soils, air, and people;
  • Provide scientific data about mercury contamination to local decision makers; and
  • Develop methods to limit these communities’ exposure to mercury.

One cornerstone of the initiative will be a mercury testing program for aquatic ecosystems. EPA-affiliated researchers plan to test the mercury levels of a variety of common food fish for sale at local markets, transcribing the results into a simple red-yellow-green guide for safe consumption, patterned on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s popular Seafood Watch guide. As ACA seed-grant recipient Luis Fernandez noted, “Fish consumption is the most important pathway for human methylmercury contamination.”

Over the next year, look to ACA’s website to track progress on this exciting initiative and learn more about how we’re making conservation an attainable goal for local communities.

Figure from: “Mercury in the Environment” USGS Fact Sheet 146-00 (October 2000).

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Melding Art and Science at Los Amigos

Coffee at dawn by Frances BuerkensScientists are from Mars and artists are from Venus—right? Not at Los Amigos! This year our flagship station, normally overrun by scientist types, threw open its doors to the right side of the brain via a new resident artist program. Frances Buerkens, a student at Berea College, was our first artist. She spent two months at Los Amigos taking photographs of Amazonian wildlife, people and landscapes. One of her photos, reproduced above in the article on mercury contamination, was published in New Scientist with an article on the devastating effects of mining in tropical forests.

Since then a resident illustrator, Susan Cousineau, and poet, Kelly Egan, have shared the trails with scientists at Los Amigos. One recent afternoon our sweaty researchers returned to camp to find this on the bulletin board: “Poetry reading tonight.” And so instead of hunching over laptops to enter data, that day at sunset we all gathered around a candle in the garden and were treated to the first reading of a poem about life at Los Amigos.

None of this means that we’re losing our lead in science—it means we’re spreading the magic of the Amazon to an ever larger audience. We need herpetologists to write dissertations about those frog calls in the night, but we also need artists to remind us that what we’re hearing out there is music.

(Speaking of music, check out Gordon Ulmer’s jungle sounds dance remix recorded during this researcher-turned-DJ’s stay at CICRA!)

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ACA Supports Indigenous Land Claim in Bolivia

In October 2008, ACA embarked on the final stage of our project to map all the Brazil nut stands in the northern territory of the indigenous Tacana. The tree census in the Bolivian Amazon is intended to support the Tacana petition for government recognition of their territorial land claim, known as a TCO in Bolivia.

Mapping activities and territorial management planning began in 2007, when ACA began work in the Puerto Pérez and El Tigre areas of Bolivia. Since then, much of the mapping has been conducted by CIPTA (Consejo Indígena del Pueblo Tacana), the Tacana People’s Council.

The data collected in this project will be used as the basis for natural resource management plans for the new TCO. These data will also be used to produce new knowledge about distribution of Brazil nut forests, nut production, harvesting dynamics, and growth rate.

Tacana TCO II History: Several years ago, CIPTA made a land claim in the Bolivian state of La Paz, known as TCO Tacana II, on behalf of four Tacana communities: Puerto Pérez, Las Mercedes, Toromonas, and El Tigre. However, since the TCO system requires indigenous petitioners to both prove that they actively use the natural resources within the land claim and create a natural resource management plan for the area, the claim was put on hold. Then, in April 2007, ACA began mapping locations of productive Brazil nut trees in the TCO to support the petition. By the end of 2007, researchers had completed a census of Brazil nut forests in Puerto Pérez and El Tigre. Between June and July 2008, they finished the Brazil nut census in Las Mercedes. So far a total of 13,019 Brazil nut trees have been mapped.

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Keeping Students’ Heads in the Clouds

Student Field TripACA has been working hard to ensure that students living near Manu National Park learn how to protect the majestic cloud forest in their back yard. The cloud forests where the eastern slopes of the Andes meet the Amazonian lowlands constitute one of the world’s greatest conservation priorities, and with the support of the Sea World & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, we’re doing our best to protect this area.

Through this project, we have created an interpretive trail at our Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Center and have already organized 6 school field trips for 124 students to the Research Center. Since demand is so high for these field trips, ACA organized a drawing competition on the theme of “Protecting and valuing our natural and cultural environment.”

Drawing Max CuentasOver 300 students submitted drawings and the winning classrooms from each school will be participating in the first field trips to Wayqecha in 2009.

In addition, ACA has led two workshops about how to include environmental themes in the school curriculumfor 97 teachers from Paucartambo and Kcosñipata. Many of these teachers have now committed to lead an environmental service project with their students. We are seeking support to expand this program in 2009, so please consider us in your end-of-year giving!

Drawing: One of the winning submissions by student Max Raúl Cuentas Apaza of Challabamba. Visit our photo gallery to see more submissions.

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Gracias, Amigo!

Nigel Pitman The end of 2008 has been a time of change for ACA. In our most recent news, we would like to say goodbye to Dr. Nigel Pitman, ACA’s Science Director, who is moving to Brazil. We at ACA want to express our gratitude to Nigel, who has led the charge for strong and innovative science in all ACA’s programs.

Over the past 5+ years, Nigel has devoted his work to the development of the world-class Los Amigos Biological Station (CICRA). His warmth, creativity, and unfaltering dedication to science and conservation in the Peruvian Amazon will be greatly missed by both ACA and the CICRA community. We salute him for his numerous achievements (PDF, 5MB), including the Los Amigos biodiversity monitoring program, Science Saturdays, and turning CICRA into a bona fide research institution that welcomes researchers to a home away from home.

We would like to extend our thanks to Nigel and warm wishes to him and his family as they move on to new adventures.

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