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Seattle Mennonite Couple Lead Fight to Prevent Extinction of Indigenous People Due to Mercury Poisoning

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What is now an all-consuming campaign started quietly nine years ago, with a routine U.S. government contract for environmental toxicologist Dan Peplow, a long-time member of Seattle Mennonite Church.

So learned about 100 people at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) on Feb. 6, 2013, as they listened to guest speaker Sarah Augustine, now married to Peplow.

The U.S. Embassy in Suriname hired Peplow early in 2004, Augustine said, to test some folks living in rural parts of that country to see if gold mining might be having an impact on their health profiles.

Peplow, who holds a PhD in ecotoxicology, was shocked by the results of testing the blood, hair and urine of 262 villagers living along a major river, the Tapanahony. Every single one of them had been poisoned by methylmercury, one of the world’s most toxic chemicals.

Mercury’s horrific effects

As Peplow knew from many famous cases ­in the 20th century – such as 10,000 mercury victims in Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s ­– methylmercury poisoning typically can be traced to eating contaminated fish. Its effects are irreversible, causing impaired vision, hearing, speech and muscle control. Poisoned children often have severe deformities at birth and mental retardation.

Even more shocking to Peplow was the discovery that U.S. officials had no intention of warning the Wayana about the dangers they were facing and the likely source of the problem – river water contaminated by gold mining, often by North American businesses.

Peplow ended up teaming up with a sociologist from Seattle Mennonite to secure interpreters and transportation to return to the Amazon rainforest and give the Wayana the results of the tests. That sociologist was the woman he married in mid-2004, Sarah Augustine, who has Native American roots.

Destructive impact of gold mining

“Rivers have historically been the source of life for the Wayana,” said Augustine, showing slides of some of the people that she and Peplow have embraced since 2004. Suriname’s rivers “provide transportation, food, drinking water, bathing, and a place to clean laundry and cooking utensils.”

But since the 1990s when gold mining began decimating Suriname’s tropical forests ­­– just north of those of Brazil ­– those rivers have become repositories of mercury, a deadly adjunct to the mining operations. Mercury facilitates the removal of gold from water and sediment. (An 18-minute exposé on gold mining in Suriname by Dan Rather – which aired Sept. 25, 2012, on satellite and cable stations that carry AXS TV – attributed the pollution to small, unlicensed gold miners, but Augustine says many of them are working on concessions owned by wealthy backers, protected by private militias and Suriname’s military.)

Fish from Suriname’s polluted rivers are the primary sources of protein for the Wayana and other indigenous peoples in Suriname.

“At first we really believed there would be some agency that knew what to do with this problem and would take it over after we explained it to them” Augustine told the EMU audience. Initially when they were shrugged off, they told themselves: “This can’t really be right. We just have to keep looking. Surely there is an agency that deals with this kind of thing.”

No response to pleas for help

They made the rounds of the United Nations Environmental Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and government officials of both Suriname and the United States. “There’s a contamination problem,” they told whomever would give them an audience. “There are people being impacted. What should we do? Surely there is better mining technology? Someone should at least come and provide pubic health to the people being affected.”

On the contrary, people like Bill Grisly, assigned to Suriname by the Inter-American Development Bank (which bills itself as the leading source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean), dismissed their concerns. “In two generations, there will not be any indigenous people in Suriname,” he wrote to them nonchalantly.

Were the economic-development people complacent over, maybe even complicit to, what was beginning to look like genocide to Peplow and Augustine?

The couple gradually developed the stunning realization that nobody from the outside world was going to take an interest in this tragedy, if they didn’t commit to the cause for the long haul. They were both college-teaching academics who owned a small farm, not experienced activists. In search of assistance, they tapped the only firm base of support they had: their church.

Mennonites step up

With the help of fellow Mennonites (and a Quaker or two), they formed the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, a nonprofit established in 2006 to provide a forum for the people they knew in Suriname who were being treated as if they did not exist.

From the beginning, they said this fund would only do what the indigenous people of Suriname wanted it to do. But how to set up lines of communication between those living on the banks of the Tapanahony ­– at least 90 minutes by bush plane into the interior of Suriname – and those living in Washington State?

Augustine said they set up a time-consuming system of sending information to the capital of Suriname to be translated into Dutch (the country’s official language), then into Wayana, and then hand-carried for days to Wayana villages. Feedback returned by a similar route. Once a year or so, either Peplow or Augustine would lead a small group of visitors to consult with the Wayana in person.

An early request by the Wayana was for a movie to tell their story to the world. It took years to emerge, said Augustine, because the Wayana wanted it done their way, based on lengthy interviews they did with each other. A 25-minute version of this footage, Indigenous Suriname (2008), won three international awards (including one from the United Nations and one from the Smithsonian). In 2012, an hour-long version was released, Inside Suriname: Human Rights in an Era of Global Development.

These days, Peplow and Augustine have given up on receiving help for the indigenous peoples of Suriname from established governmental agencies and large nonprofits – most of whom, they believe, have agendas that are at variance with the local control and self-determination that the Wayana desire.

Denouncing “Doctrine of Discovery”

Instead this Mennonite couple hopes that the social justice stream of Christians ­– the ones who halted slavery against all odds and who take Jesus’ teachings seriously about aligning with the poor and suffering – will embrace the cause of survival in Suriname.

As a first step, they are asking churches of all stripes to repudiate the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a philosophy dating to the early colonial era whereby any human beings viewed as “heathens, infidels, or pagans” were considered to have no reason to exist, and thus were treated as if they did not exist. In February 2012, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches took this step.

More information about the work of Peplow, Augustine and the Suriname Indigenous Fund, including film clips, can be found at www.sihfund.org.

One Response to "Seattle Mennonite Couple Lead Fight to Prevent Extinction of Indigenous People Due to Mercury Poisoning"

  1. Evan says:

    Wow there are Mennonites everywhere… and they all do so much good… good story!