Friday, August 23, 2013

Minamata - from mercury victim to savior

In January 2013, governments agreed to a legally binding global instrument to govern mercury use. The Minamata Convention on Mercury was born after a four-year period of negotiation. Almost 30 national governments from the North and the South have provided financial support to the establishment and implementation of the Convention. The Government of Japan—alongside Norway, Switzerland, USA, Uruguay, and the Nordic Council of Ministers and the European Union—is one of the big sponsors of the Convention that bears the name of a small fishing village in Japan that came to be synonymous to environmental pollution. Japan has come a long way from the days when Minamata pitted the national and local government against the victims of Minamata disease and their advocates, becoming a highly divisive issue in the island nation.

Minamata is close to my heart for many reasons. It touches upon concerns that are central to me, namely ecosystem health and trampling on local people’s rights by big business and authoritative government. In brief, the history of the Minamata pollution case is as follows. In 1956, four patients with severe but undiagnosed symptoms were brought to the Minamata City Hospital on the southwestern Japanese island of Kyushu. All had similar symptoms, including severe convulsions, high fever and intermittent loss of consciousness, before they lapsed into coma and died. As this disease was undiagnosed, a local doctor, Dr. Hajime Hosokawa, started investigations into the cases and engaged local health centers in an epidemiological study. He found that in the nearby fishing villages altogether 17 other people had died of similar attacks. There were also reports of local cats succumbing to the ailment following uncontrolled convulsions.

What all of the victims had in common was that they all had consumed large amounts of fish and seafood from the Minamata bay. The epidemiologists soon honed in on environmental pollution as the cause of the disease. Studies found that the sludge from the bay contained high concentrations of various industrial chemicals, so the researchers contacted Chisso, a chemical company that had its plant in Minamata. From the very beginning, Chisso was uncooperative and refused to release any information to the researchers. It was clear, however, that for many years Chisso had released its untreated wastewater directly into Minamata bay. Similarly, Kumamoto University engineering department that had collaborated with Chisso stonewalled the medical researchers. When the medical team released its findings that showed that the probable cause for the disease and deaths was heavy metal poisoning, Chisso produced its own report that disputed these findings.

Finally, the medical team was able to conclude that the culprit beyond any doubt was methyl mercury that the chemical plant had discharged into the bay. There were massive concentrations of mercury in the sludge from the bay, as well as in the fish and the people who had died from eating it. The epidemiological study was able to produce a conclusive map showing one-to-one distribution of the poisoned fish and the occurrence of the disease. The company had kept its use of mercury in the plant as an industrial secret. Chisso continued its own studies but in 1959 was forced to conclude tentatively that mercury was, indeed, the likely cause of Minamata disease.

Case closed, one would think. Far from it, as it turned out. Chisso was the main source of income for the remote region that had suffered greatly in the Pacific War. Following the war, Japan adopted a self-sacrificing strategy to rebuild at a frantic pace and at any cost catch up with the West. General Douglas MacArthur ruled in an imperious way in Tokyo as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers occupying Japan promoting American values and morals. It had been decided not to punish many of the militarists from wartime Japan, especially the wealthy industrialists who had supported Japan’s military ventures, so as to support quick economic development. Japan would be formed into a Western-oriented bulwark against the communists in China, Russia and North Korea (MacArthur was later relieved of his duties as the commander of the American forces in the Korean War by President Truman, partly because of the former’s suggestion to use the atomic bomb against the communist targets). The Japanese wholeheartedly agreed: democracy should not come in the way of this project. People’s rights and the natural environment were secondary considerations to be sacrificed for economic growth.

Consequently, Chisso’s success was to be protected. Although the link between its waste disposal and the increasingly widespread Minamata disease causing the death of numerous people was undisputed, the plant continued to release mercury into the bay until 1968. The community in and around Minamata was conflicted. Many people depended on the industry for their livelihood and the victims tended to be poor fisherman families from the coast. The fact that the terribly painful disease caused physical and mental symptoms, such as grotesque convulsions and lapses into crazed mental states, further contributed to the fact that many of those not affected considered the victims freaks who should not be allowed to derail progress.

An American photographer Eugene Smith documented the suffering of the victims in powerful photographs, which touched me deeply. In 1972 he was physically attacked by Chisso employees trying to stop him from publicizing the case to the outside world. Chisso throughout refused to negotiate directly with the victims and insisted on third party mediation by the local and national governments. These clearly sided with the company to ward off any lawsuits that were being put forward by the victims and their advocates.

Funding was cut from research teams working on the Minamata disease. Academics, such as Jun Ui, who conducted research around the issue from a social science point of view were ostracized by the establishment. A brilliant writer and a conscientious researcher, Prof. Ui was unable to secure tenure in Tokyo or anywhere in mainland Japan and finally ended up in the University of Okinawa in the Ryukyu archipelago halfway towards Taiwan.

In 1990 I moved to Japan and only a few months later became involved in the Minamata case. I was working with the United Nations University in Tokyo as coordinator of environmental research when we were approached by officials from the Kumamoto prefectural government where Minamata is located asking our cooperation to turn Minamata’s reputation from an environmental disaster to an environmental model. The then vice-rector Prof. Roland Fuchs and I traveled to Kumamoto and Minamata to learn about the plans. This was still a time when legal cases from the pollution events in the 1950s and 1960s were lingering in the courts unresolved, but the local government had decided to move on. True to Japanese approach to things, technology and engineering were to be the solutions. The entire bottom of the semi-enclosed Minamata bay had been dredged and the polluted sludge had been sealed off by a plastic sheet, which then was covered by clean soil. The opening of the bay to the ocean was blocked by a net, which would prevent fish from crossing and spreading pollution. A bamboo forest was being created to symbolize harmony with the nature. Our local government hosts, Mr. Tanaka, a serious young man, and his boss, more animated Mr. Kamakura, were very proud of the work being undertaken—and rightly so.

It struck me how beautiful the natural landscape in Minamata was. There were no major signs of environmental pollution and the industry didn’t dominate the scenery. We flew in through the southern city of Kagoshima, over the active volcano Sakurajima that was sending up plumes of white smoke even as we landed; then drove up the western coast of Kyushu on a road between forested mountains and the sea. Minamata itself was a quiet and peaceful town by the secluded bay. It was easy to see why the pollution had had so drastic impacts in the area, as the bay was really self-contained and the outlet to the wider ocean quite narrow. I remember taking morning walks on this and several later visits in the years to come around a small island just off the coast connected by a narrow causeway and enjoying the complete peacefulness. Of course, a partial cause of the peacefulness was that the area had been somewhat depopulated as a consequence of the disaster and the later decline of Chisso.

The government had built a multipurpose hall with hotel facilities on the site. The modern complex was complete with a karaoke bar with beautiful hostesses imported from the Philippines. We visited the National Minamata Disease Research Institute that had been established in the vicinity. As the facts were still being obscured and the government insisted on such low numbers of proven victims from the pollution that they seemed highly improbable to us, we asked the doctor in charge of the research institute what he thought were the real numbers. “Virtually everyone living in this region was affected to a smaller or a larger degree,” he responded with a convulsive tick to his eye.

We agreed to cooperate with the local government in organizing an international conference in the new hall in Minamata, provided that we would be fully in charge of selecting the international speakers and that they would have complete academic freedom to speak about the issues. This was agreed to and we were hosted to a fabulous seafood dinner in a traditional inn by the mayor of Minamata City. Given that mercury and other heavy metals don’t just disappear from the nature in a few years or decades, I remember observing with Roland whether our meal would glow suspiciously in the semi-darkness of the dining room.

The conference on ‘Industry, the environment and human health’ was held in November 1991. The two-day meeting featured keynote speeches by experts on global mercury pollution, Dr. Jerome Nriagu of Environment Canada and Prof. Phillippe Grandjean of Odense University in Denmark. There was a session focusing on the Minamata case with leading Japanese researchers, including Dr. Masazumi Harada of Kumamoto University, and the second day was largely dedicated to exploring similar problems from other parts of the world. One of the speakers was Prof. Geraldo de Assis Guimarães who had studied the impacts of widespread mercury use in gold extraction in the Amazon region. Prof. Guimarães was a warm somewhat pudgy man, speaking from his heart about the subject he had dedicated his life to. His English was good but spoken with a strong Brazilian accent and we came to appreciate his favorite phrase: “This is very important!”

Although it was a scientific conference, the event attracted a large audience of around 1,000 people, mostly local inhabitants, and was covered widely by the media, including several Japanese TV stations, demonstrating the interest that Minamata disease continued to raise. It was heartening to meet with the local people and to witness their dedication to environmental issues. The international participants were also taken to visits to the National Minamata Disease Research Institute, the Meisuien rehabilitation institute for the victims, and even to Chisso Corporation, which now was collaborating in the environmental rehabilitation, while still resisting any responsibility for the original cause.

The conference was a great success and it was celebrated with a lavish party held in a fabulous garden restaurant on a hill overlooking Minamata bay. Kamakura-san was ecstatic, gulping sake and dancing the night away with anyone who wanted to join or by himself if needed. When the exclusive fireworks started from a barge on the bay, Prof. Guimarães approached me with a glass in hand. “This is very important,” he intoned with a broad smile.

The scientific advisor to the conference, Richard Carpenter emphasized the necessity of risk assessment. Although the engineering works in the bay appeared solid, it would still be important to monitor the condition and the effectiveness of the sheet in place to contain the polluted sludge. The government representatives wanted to downplay this aspect and objected to including the recommendation into the report of the conference, so that it would not alarm the citizens and draw attention to a possible risk in the perfect rehabilitation plan. Although the event was fully financed by the authorities, we invoked our agreement regarding academic freedom and included the damning segment in the report. For a while it strained our relationship, but it was soon mended and we had the pleasure of cooperating with Kamakura and Tanaka on a second Minamata environmental conference already the following year.

The Minamata case continued to be fought in the courts. The judiciary branch in Japan doesn’t enjoy quite the same extent of independence as in the West and it was obvious that the plaintiffs were facing an uphill struggle, despite an initial victory in a first suit for compensation in 1967. The legal cases lingered for many long years as a consequence of deliberate delaying tactics. It was only in July 1994 when the Osaka District Court finally decided on a suit filed by 59 plaintiffs in 1982 ordering Chisso to pay rather low compensation (¥3-8 million—or about US$30,000-80,000—per surviving victim), while entirely exonerating the national and Kumamoto prefectural governments from any responsibility. By the time of the verdict, 16 of the plaintiffs had already died. In the following year, 1995, there was a mediated settlement reached between the main group of some 2,000 Minamata disease victims and the government.

So it is more than comforting that a new global Convention on Mercury is named after Minamata and strongly backed by the Japanese government. The Convention will open for signature by governments in Minamata in the coming October. In the meantime, the governments negotiating the Convention selected the Global Environment Facility to serve as the key element of the financial mechanism of the treaty. This is another personal connecting point, as when I left the UN University in 1999, I joined the GEF in its monitoring and evaluation unit in Washington, DC. As it happened, Roland Fuchs was also living in the national capital region by then and we could continue our interactions there. But that’s another story.

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