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Between a rock and a hard place

Professor Marcello Veiga recently received the Killam Teaching Prize from the University of British Columbia, which recognizes the best professors of that institution annually. However, this Rio de Janeiro native really gets excited when talking about the social outcomes of his work.
Veiga specializes in the safer use of mercury in order to protect the miner and the environment. During seven years he worked on a project with the United Nations and traveled the world educating and giving technical support to artisan miners about the safe handling of this heavy metal.
After analyzing the composition of rocks, with the aid of a microscope, and singing with his students during one of his lectures, Veiga sat down withA Brazilian VibeA in his office to talk about his life, work, and his many adventures around the world.
Brazilian VibeA –A What brought you to Canada?
Marcello Veiga –A I worked for many mining companies, including Vale, and after 17 years working in the field I decided to come to Canada to work with the prevention of mercury contamination for a Brazilian company that had invested in a mine here in 1990. In 1992 my wife came to pursue her PhD and I came with her. I finished my PhD in two and a half years at UBC and returned to Brazil. In 1996 we came as immigrants. I worked for mining companies in the city and an opportunity came up at the university in 1997, where I have been teaching ever since.
BVA –A What was it like to work for the United Nations (UN)?
MV–A In 2002 I was invited by the UN to coordinate the Global Mercury Project. There is a way to work with mercury without contaminating yourself, or even substituting mercury altogether. I worked in Brazil, Indonesia, Laos, Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and other countries. It was a great adventure. Now I Just got back from Nicaragua where I ran over a puma on the highway, but I have also ran into a rhino in Zimbabwe.
BVA –A How do you make the miner aware of the risks of the improper handling of mercury?
MV–A I always try to engage the miner in a way that makes him feel more confident about the process and our advice so that he starts to use cleaner methods, but there is no way to radically change his convictions without education, technical support, and capital. Those are the three pillars, but unfortunately not many governments in the world understand this.
Marcello Veiga
BVA –A What is the biggest challenge of your work?
MV–The biggest challenge is to make the miner aware of the risks. He burns mercury, intoxicates his neighbours, himself, and most times dies due to renal complications but does not believe that mercury exposure was to blame, so I tell them that mercury causes erectile dysfunctions. I don’t know if mercury really causes erectile dysfunction, but it is the only way for them to pay attention. We put on a Romeo and Juliet play in the streets of Zimbabwe and Romeo had erectile dysfunction because of exposure to mercury, so this way they start to pay attention.
BVA –A Is there artisanal mining in Canada?
MV–A Yes, there is, I know many places including the Fraser River, Texada Island… They use mercury but are more conscientious. I have talked to Canadian and American miners who come (to UBC) to learn how to safely handle mercury.
BVA –A What do you like most: the work you do on location in the mining communities or in the classroom?
MV–A I like both. There cannot be teaching without research. The guy who teaches without being involved in research simply reads the book before the student. Those who are involved in research speak with authority.
BVA –A What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue an academic career in Canada?
MV–A It’s very hard to break into a career in academia in Canada without a Canadian credential. It’s possible, but I think that having a PhD from Canada is important.
BVA –A What are your projects for the future?
MV–A This year we are founding a new institute in the area of social issues relating to mining, this is the area I like to work in. What is destroying this planet is poverty, not the contamination from mercury. (The contamination) is just the outcome. I see myself working even more to alleviate poverty.

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