The experts in Providence express cautious hope as well. “All of the pieces are in place for the international community to be able to move forward if they want to,” says Boston University’s Henrik Selin, a professor of international relations who visited Minamata and nearby Kumamoto City in 2013, when the convention was first opened for signatures.
The convention comes with a long checklist of deadlines. Nations must immediately give up building new mercury mines and, within three years, they need to submit a plan of action to come to grips with small-time gold miners. By 2018, they need to have phased out using mercury in the production of acetaldehyde—the process that poisoned Minamata is still in use. By 2020, they need to have begun phasing out products that contain mercury.
But beyond that, the actual decision-making power on mercury control comes from those Conferences of the Parties, starting in Geneva. It isn’t yet clear which countries will pony up the cash to pay for campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of mercury, for example, Selin says. Nor is it clear whether countries like China, and especially India—who were dragging their feet in 2013 with the argument that stricter mercury standards would be prohibitively expensive—can be convinced to beat the deadlines.
Rimiko won’t be in Geneva, so Providence is her last chance for a while to get her specific message out. At the end of her story, she launches into a plea to the assembled scientists. “We, the ones who live by the sea, are the first ones to realize the strange phenomena,” she says. “Always listen to the voices of nameless persons.”
“What you are protecting are the irreplaceable lives of human beings. This is the wish of Minamata, Japan, where many lives were sacrificed, and [where] some 10,000 people with health damages are still living.”
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Three times a week, a support group of about a dozen people living with the lingering effects of Minamata’s poisoning gathers. It’s Monday morning and they trickle into a room at a community center and sit on chairs or on the floor around a low table. Patients and activists chat, glancing at nonstop coverage of the latest Kim Jong-un provocation on the news. Two attendees bring their cats in carriers, and the organizers let the cats out in an adjacent room. People take shifts to go play with them.
Yoichi Tani, a long-time Minamata activist who first recruited Rimiko’s now-husband Toshio Yoshinaga to the cause in 1972, hosts this informal meeting. It draws a diverse crowd. There are a few high-profile storytellers, several patients who were poisoned in the womb, a couple who recently came out and were covered in the newspapers, and two sisters who spend most of their time with the cats and ask to not have their picture taken.
Hunched over by the wall, her arm bent and held close to her chest, is Shinobu Sakamoto, who was affected in the womb and is maybe the most “famous” living Minamata victim. In 1972, she traveled to an international environmental conference in Stockholm with her mother to talk to scientists about Minamata. Her haircut today is the same as in the pictures, and she’s still flanked by her mother, a tiny, determined-looking woman. Shinobu has never quite abdicated that role: Tani’s group is paying to bring her to Geneva. Hovering in the background is a journalist who quit his newspaper gig last year to write a book about her, and who now serves as an expert in understanding her slurred speech.