Bolivia’s incredible mercury cloud: Mining puts people at risk

From the outside, the La Paz summer is an unseasonably bright and sun-drenched welcome to the country’s highland capital. But it is a sacrifice the indigenous residents are prepared to make if it means fighting environmental degradation in the vast lushness of the Patagonian Plain, which stretches thousands of miles (kilometres) into the Andes.

The Patagonian Plain is Bolivia’s greatest natural treasure, yet it is also the centre of an ugly, impassable wilderness and the source of high concentrations of environmental toxins that have led to some of the region’s highest rates of cancer and birth defects.

One desperate local, Lucia Rosendo, has set up a pick-up truck camera to document the problem. Her detector detects much more visible pollutants than other observers, and because she is an indigenous woman she fears doing so could jeopardise her relationship with her community.

This week she drew national attention to the pollution with a video of her use of a red LED lamp that brings out a high heat in the blinding hot sun. Like other indigenous communities, she says, she has to let light through to her community to sleep safely, and she once lost fingers to infection she contracted while working in a tannery.

Lucia Rosendo says she will not sacrifice the well-being of her community by exposing the pollution to the general public. In this year’s International Polar Year, she hopes to document some of the conditions that have led to rising rates of cancer and birth defects in the highlands. So she is willing to sacrifice her relationship with her community for this sort of risk.

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