Demand for gold pushing deforestation in Peruvian Amazon
Deforestation is on the rise in Peru's Madre de Dios region from illegal, small-scale, and dangerous gold mining. In some areas forest loss has increased up to six times. But the loss of forest is only the beginning; the unregulated mining is likely leaching mercury into the air, soil, and water, contaminating the region and imperiling its people.
Using satellite imagery from NASA, researchers were able to follow rising deforestation due to artisanal gold mining in Peru. According the study, published in PLoS ONE, Two large mining sites saw the loss of 7,000 hectares of forest (15,200 acres)—an area larger than Bermuda—between 2003 and 2009.
"We present recent evidence of the global demand for a single commodity and the ecosystem destruction resulting from commodity extraction, recorded by satellites for one of the most biodiverse areas of the world," the researchers write.
Jennifer Swenson, lead author from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, says in a press release that such mining is "plainly visible from space." There are also "many scattered, small but expanding areas of mining activity across Madre de Dios that are more difficult to monitor but could develop rapidly like the sites we've tracked over time," adds Swenson.
Swenson and her colleagues clearly link the rise in unregulated mining to rising gold prices.
"Over the last decade, the price of gold has increased 360% with a constant rate of increase of [around] 18% per year. The price continues to set new records, rising to over $1400/oz at the time of this article's publication. As a response, nonindustrial informal gold mining has risen in developing countries along with grave environmental and health consequences," the authors write.
Beyond forest loss, the mining also impacts wildlife and people in the region due to mercury pollution. Miners use mercury to amalgamate with the metal, but unregulated the dangerous toxin also poison the ecosystem. According to Peru's Environment Minister fish in the area have mercury levels that are three times higher than the amount approved by the World Health Organization. These toxins make their way up the food chain. People dependent on fish, game animals, and river water in the region are likely to be impacted as well. The miners, who are often poor, uneducated, and marginalized, are most at risk given their direct handling of mercury. After fossil fuel burning, small-scale gold mining is the world's second largest source of mercury pollution contributing around 1/3 of the world's mercury pollution.
The illegal gold trade also produces numerous social problems, according to the BBC, including drug trafficking, indentured labor, and child prostitution.
Recently, Peru has begun a campaign to stamp out these illegal mines. In February, Around a thousand Peruvian soldiers and police officers destroyed seven and seized thirteen boats used by illegal gold miners in the region. The operation aims to destroy 300 pieces of illegal mining. But given the high price for gold its questionable whether this will work in the long-term.
Swenson says Peru should also think outside the box and consider limiting the importation of mercury.
"Virtually all mercury imported to Peru is used for artisanal gold mining and imports have risen exponentially since 2003, mirroring the rise in gold prices," she says. "Given the rate of recent increases, we project mercury imports will more than double by the end of 2011, to about 500 tons a year."
Citation: Jennifer J. Swenson, Catherine E. Carter, Jean-Christophe Dome, Cesar I. Delgado. Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Global Prices, Deforestation, and Mercury Imports. PLoS ONE. 2011.