A new and legally binding international treaty to reduce harmful emissions of mercury was adopted by more than 140 states at the 5th International Negotiating Committee session at the Minimata Convention on Mercury at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 19. But representatives of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus expressed disappointment that the treaty fell short on some of the tougher measures they had hoped for and failed to include the term “Indigenous Peoples.”
However, the fact that Indigenous communities around the world suffer disproportionate impacts of mercury contamination was recognized in the document’s preamble “as a result of a monumental effort carried out by representatives of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus attending the INC5 95th (International Negotiating Committee) negotiations,” the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and the California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA). said in a joint press release January 23.
“The term Indigenous ‘communities’ rather than ‘Peoples’ was used in an important preambular paragraph addressing specific impacts. Neither Indigenous Peoples nor communities were mentioned in the operative text, despite proposals for wording using ‘Peoples’ presented by the Indigenous Caucus,” the organizations said.
The United Kingdom and France stated outright that they could not accept the term “Indigenous Peoples” in either the preamble or operative text despite their votes in favor of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007, the organizations said.
Representatives of the Indigenous Caucus made several interventions in the plenary and met with states and regional groups throughout the session. The Indigenous Caucus received strong support for including “Indigenous Peoples” in both the preamble and text from Nepal and Canada, which proposed including “Indigenous Peoples” while highlighting the Arctic and its vulnerability to the global transport of mercury. The United States, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and several Latin American countries also supported the language, but could not overcome the objections from France and United Kingdom in the drafting process, which is consensus-based.
The new treaty aims to cut mercury pollution from artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, utility plants and a host of products and industrial processes, by setting enforceable limits and encouraging shifts to different processes and products in which mercury is not used, released or emitted. Mercury is a natural element that cannot be created or destroyed. It has been a known poison for centuries. Mercury is released into the air, water and land from gold mining, coal-powered plants, and from discarded electronic or consumer products such as electrical switches, thermostats and dental amalgam fillings. It accumulates in fish and goes up the food chain, posing the greatest risk of nerve damage to pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children. The World Health Organization says there are no safe limits for the consumption of mercury and its compounds, which can also cause brain and kidney damage, memory loss and language impairment.
But the treaty only requires that nations with artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations, one of the biggest sources of mercury releases, to draw up national plans within three years of the treaty entering force to reduce and – if possible – eliminate the use of mercury in such operations, according to an Associated Press report. Governments also approved exceptions for some uses such as large measuring devices for which there are no mercury-free alternatives; vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative; and products used in religious or traditional activities, the report said.
Parnuna Egede, an advisor on environmental issues for the Inuit Circumpolar Council – Greenland explained why it was important to include Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the treaty and why the treaty does not go far enough in reducing mercury emissions. "Mercury reaches the Arctic region solely through long-range transportation from other regions of the world,” Egede said. “In this otherwise pristine environment, Arctic Indigenous Peoples are heavily impacted by mercury through their traditional diet. It is therefore disappointing that provisions on atmospheric emissions came out rather weak, with a mix of legally binding and voluntary measures. It will probably be decades before we can actually measure declines of mercury levels in the environment."
Other Indigenous representatives pointed out that although the treaty prohibits new mercury mines, the long time-frame for closing existing mines combined with weak language on emissions reduction from existing sources means there will be no immediate relief from exposure to the highly toxic element for the members of many communities whose health, especially the health and development of babies and unborn children, is severely affected through their traditional foods and other sources.
The approved preambular paragraph highlights the effects of mercury on Indigenous communities overall. "Noting the particular vulnerabilities of Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities because of the biomagnification of mercury and contamination of traditional foods, and concerned about indigenous communities more generally with respect to the effects of mercury …"
A representative from Bolivia stated for the official record that the preamble’s final compromise language referring to “communities” rather than “Peoples” was “rather worrying,” because it would set a precedent that undermines the international standard set by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus agreed.
Attorney Danika Littlechild, who led the International Indian Treaty Council’s delegation at INC5, acknowledged the Indigenous Caucus’s successes in achieving recognition of mercury contamination’s devastating impacts on Indigenous communities around the world, halting new mining as well as the inclusion of a specific article on health which was another objective of the Caucus. “This is the first new multi-lateral 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.”
Jackie Keliiaa, vice-president of the Board of Directors for the California Indian Environmental Alliance, said it was “encouraging that a number of countries, including the United States and Canada, expressed support for including “Indigenous Peoples” in the document and for acknowledging the disproportionate effects of mercury exposure on Indigenous Peoples across the world. “We will continue to build on the valuable progress we have made in the implementation of the Convention,” Keliiaa said.
The U.N. Environment Program said the treaty will be signed later this year in the southern Japanese city of Minamata, for which it is to be named, the AP reported. After that, 50 nations must ratify it before it comes into force, which officials predicted would happen in three to four years.
Minimata disease, a severe neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning, was discovered in the late 1950s because of methylmercury escaping from the city's industrial wastewater. The illness, which sickened people who ate contaminated fish, killed hundreds and left many more badly crippled.