An isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest in south-east Peru may be completely wiped out, a new report suggests. More than half of the indigenous group named Nahua have been poisoned with mercury, which causes anaemia and acute kidney problems.
One child of the tribe has died with symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning, according to tribal rights group Survival International. Up to 80% of the Nahua tribe are at risk.
Experts suspect Peru's largest gas field, Camisea, which recently expanded further into Nahua territory, is the source of poisoning. At least five gas leaks in the region are said to have contaminated the land and waterways since 2004. Nahua people have reported severe health conditions, including acute respiratory infections.
"Mercury contamination is extremely damaging to human health because its effects are irreversible. The health department must investigate this, and stop the contamination that is poisoning the indigenous population," Nery Zapata, an indigenous leader, said.
Mercury poisoning is also being blamed on the illegal gold mining in the region. The indigenous people's rights activists are lobbying to carry out full health checks on the Nahua and other tribes in the area, and to conduct a proper investigation into the cause of the poisoning, Survival said.
"Other indigenous communities in the area may also have been affected by mercury contamination, but tests have not been carried out," the organisation said in a statement. "Some of these communities are uncontacted or extremely isolated. It is understood that the Peruvian Health and Environment Ministries have been aware of the problem since 2014," it added.
The Nahua were contacted for the first time in the 1980s after Shell workers discovered the Camisea field and started developing it. Within a few years around 50% of the Nahua had died as they lacked immunity to outsiders' diseases.