Amazon slowly eaten away by gold rush's illegal mines

2015-08-13 11:23
An aerial view of the Jamanxim forest in the state of Para, northern Brazil. (AFP file)

An aerial view of the Jamanxim forest in the state of Para, northern Brazil. (AFP file) (Antonio Scorza)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Lima - Seen from above, the Amazon resembles a huge billiards table - a field of intense green pockmarked by brown stains.

These are the sites of illegal mines, and they reveal the scope of a gold rush that threatens the lungs of the planet.

"The loss of our natural resources is incalculable," says Antonio Fernandez Jeri, Peru's high commissioner on illegal mining.

"Each lost hectare represents unique flora and fauna species," he told AFP.

In his country, a new, unprecedented operation has shut down 55 illegal mining sites since mid-July. Those sites are in the Madre de Dios region, where approximately 60 000 hectares of forest have already been lost due to illegal mining.

Peru leads South America in gold production and ranks fifth globally, but authorities there say 20% of its exported gold comes from these clandestine mines.

But this mining, which first began in the 1980s, extends beyond Peru. In every Amazon country, the largest forest in the world is being slowly eaten away by an explosion of tiny, unreported mines.


According to a study published in January, in the British journal Environmental Research Letters, approximately 415 000 acres of tropical forest were cleared for potential gold mining sites in South America between 2001 and 2013.

"Although gold mining deforestation is usually less extensive than deforestation for agriculture, it happens in some of the most bio-diverse tropical regions," said lead author Nora Alvarez-Berrios of the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras.

She says up to 300 different species of trees can be found in a single hectare of Peru's Madre de Dios region. Her study refers to the region as "one of the most biologically rich areas on Earth."

"Like drug trafficking, illegal mining activity is widespread," Fernandez Jeri said. "That's why we need to find strategic allies and do something. We have a technical commission with Ecuador as well as with Bolivia and Colombia. We still need to sort out the question with Brazil."

In Brazil, illegal mining activity is taking place in nine of 26 states. President Dilma Rousseff recently set a goal of achieving a rate of zero deforestation over the next 15 years.

Mercury pollution

In Colombia, flying over the Puinawai reserve, near the Brazilian border, reveals the scope of the damage, as trees are cut and brush torn out to get to the precious metal.

But there is other, less immediately obvious damage as well. To extract one gram of gold, miners have to use two to three grams of another metal: mercury, which then pollutes surrounding soils and streams and threatens those living nearby with "proven cases of infertility and skin and stomach damage," according to Fernandez Jeri.

This deforestation and pollution has destroyed some indigenous lands in Peru, forcing inhabitants to leave their seclusion and search out new food sources, resulting in conflicts with other tribes.

No permits

In Bolivia, mining sites are increasingly operated by cooperatives with their work papers in order but no environmental permits, according to a report from the Peruvian Society of Environmental Rights.

"Mining activity, whether legal or not, impacts the environment," said Alvaro Pardo, director of the Colombia Punto Medio Centre for Mining Studies.

"The problem is that when illegal miners leave an area, they just go, leaving behind huge losses that all of Colombia then needs to pay for," he said.

Mining is nevertheless a critical part of the South American economy, as the region remains one of the world's main sources for raw materials.

"Small-scale mining activity, as the World Bank calls it, or artisanal mining, has to continue to exist. It can't stop," Pardo conceded.

"But it has to be an economic activity that is developed sustainably, without affecting the environment."

In Peru, permit applications for 60 000 mining sites are already filed, but, according to official estimates, there are still 100 000 unreported sites in the country, destroying a little bit more of the forest ecosystem each day.

Read more on:    brazil

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.