Wildcat gold-mining stokes tension in Bolivia

STORY: This is the moment wildcat gold-miners in Bolivia threw stones at Senator Cecilia Requena as she visited a tiny settlement along the Beni River in the north, a hotspot for the illegal practice.

Tensions are rising in the country's Amazon between small-scale prospectors and local indigenous groups over a boom in unregulated gold-mining, driving a surge in imports of mercury used to extract the precious metal.

The South American nation has seen gold production spike in the last five years.

Centrist lawmaker Requena has become a vocal activist, trying to set rules to curb wildcat mining in the area.

"Miners say they have the right to carry out mining and nobody can take that away from them. They say: 'We will fight and use violence if necessary.' Unfortunately, we have received threats."

The rise in wildcat mining has seen Bolivia become the world's top importer of mercury since 2019, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Experts say its growth reflects how the industry has boomed.

Officials and indigenous leaders are worried about how the mining is impacting the local environment and waterways.

It is also encroaching on indigenous lands, as has happened in the Amazon in Peru and Brazil.

Marcos Orellana is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights:

"The use of mercury in gold mining has severe impacts on environmental protection, deforestation and especially on the rights of indigenous people that are contaminated because of the waters they use for sanitation, and especially because of the fish they eat in the rivers that have become contaminated by mercury."

For indigenous people living in Bolivia's Amazon, their health and livelihood is on the line.

Isidro Flores is the head of the Correo Indigenous Community:

"We also know they use mercury in that river, so it's totally polluted here. We can't even take a bath or drink water like before, we used to fish there and now you can't anymore."

Bolivia's mining ministry did not respond to requests for comment by Reuters for this story.

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