BOGOTA — Colombia is a country of many controversies, but one issue — a disaster, really — seems to evade public anger: extensive and destructive mercury pollution. It's a legacy of mining activities that is literally poisoning half of our country.
President Juan Manuel Santos recently presented an ambitious plan promising a "comprehensive" response to illegal mining. It's about time. But beyond the issue of the plan's utility and effectiveness, his explanations about why it was necessary to launch this new war were outrageous in themselves, making us wonder why this hadn't been done before.
Colombia, "and specifically the department of Antioquia, have the highest levels of mercury air pollution in the world," he said. He cited two districts, Segovia and Remedios, as the worst affected, though these official revelations have prompted neither public debate nor indignation. The country carries on, as if nothing has happened.
Mercury used in gold extraction pollutes water and air and kills fish. And should it come into contact with humans, it affects skin and respiratory tracts, and causes severe nerve damage. Because it evaporates in the mining process, it's difficult to detect but has evident consequences for both people and the ecosystem. We know all this but carry on as if nothing were the matter.
Colombian woman on her way to a mine in Suarez, Cauca — Photo: Jhon Paz/Xinhua/ZUMA
Mercury pollution has become so extensive that the Environment Ministry estimates that half the water consumed in Colombia comes from sources potentially polluted with it. And much of the fish we eat also have mercury levels beyond what's considered safe.
But where is the indignation from all the people who make a fuss every day about the latest petty news or sordid little scandals? Where are the proposals by parties wringing their hands over their votes and shifting support? Have they nothing to say about how we must care for the only place we have to live in?
Where are the senior officials persecuting citizens for being gay or keen to jail others for sharing pictures on the Internet? Have they no responsibility in the face of this devastation? Where is the Church? How is it applying the pope's encyclical on curbing the "disproportionate use of resources?" And the rest of them — the NGOs, universities, analysts and panelists, local community leaders — where are they? There are only the isolated voices of committed environmentalists when this should be a priority for the entire country.
Mired as we are in a war that has dragged on for more than half a century, we get all scared when death comes suddenly by gunfire or bombs but feel nothing, it seems, when it approaches slowly. We are like the frog that leaps to safety after being tossed in a pot of boiling water, but that will die — thanks to complacency and ignorance — if left in cold water that's slowly brought to boil.
Things are heating up around us, but we carry on as if nothing were wrong. We don't want to see the hazards of mercury, and so we look away from the unfettered mining in our countryside. And that's just mercury. As we sit in our simmering cauldron of complacency, spare a thought for the all the trees being cut down, the mountainsides that have been razed and the species being wiped out.