The golden curse of the Peruvian Amazon

by Cesar Chelala

Madre de Dios, the name of a region in southeastern Peru bordering Brazil and Bolivia, is a common designation for the Virgin Mary, meaning Mother of God in Spanish.

In real life, however, the name exemplifies what intense and unregulated gold exploration and extraction are doing to this until-now privileged area in Peru.

Madre de Dios is a region rich in cotton, coffee, sugarcane, cacao, Brazil nuts and palm oil. But plentiful gold has attracted tens of thousands of illegal miners whose activities are having a deleterious effect on precious species in the environment as well as on the health and quality of life of both native and new populations in the region.

Alluvial gold mining in Peru’s Amazon rainforest has rapidly spread in recent years, driven by the high price of gold. Although many jungle mining concessions have been granted by the energy and mines ministry, the informal sector has grown out of control, and it is estimated that almost a quarter of the gold produced in Peru, the world’s sixth largest producer, is illegal. The majority of this illegal gold comes from the Madre de Dios region.

Local nongovernmental organizations believe that there are up to 30,000 miners in the area.

Gold deposits are mined by both large-scale operators and small-scale miners who use hydraulic mining techniques and heavy machinery to expose potential gold-yielding gravel deposits.

Gold is extracted by a sluice box, gold-prospecting equipment that has been in continuous use for over a hundred years. The sluice box is used to separate heavier sediment, and mercury is also used for amalgamating the precious metal.

Several studies have shown that small-scale miners are less efficient in their use of mercury than industrial miners. As a result, 2.91 pounds of mercury is released into waterways for every 2.2 pounds of gold produced. It is estimated that more than 40 tons of mercury are absorbed into the rivers of Madre de Dios, poisoning the food chain.

Mercury not only contaminates waterways and becomes a serious threat to human health but is also a dangerous toxin to fish. Fish in the area contain three times more mercury than the safe levels permitted by the World Health Organization.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “After fossil fuel burning, small-scale gold mining is the world’s second largest source of mercury pollution, contributing around one-third of the world’s mercury pollution.”

Mercury contamination is not the only drawback of small scale mining, however. Another significant problem is the significant amount of deforestation it produces through clearing for the construction of roads to open remote areas to transient settlers and land speculators. In addition, deforestation is the result of cutting trees to obtain building material and fuel wood.

The enormity of the damage has been documented in a study by American, French and Peruvian researchers published in the peer-reviewed magazine PLoS ONE. According to the study using satellite imagery from NASA, researchers were able to assess the loss of 7,000 hectares of forest due to artisanal gold mining in Peru between 2003 and 2009. This is an area larger than Bermuda.

Jennifer Swenson, lead author of the study, says such enormous deforestation is “plainly visible from space,” and suggests that Peru should limit the importation of mercury.

In addition to these problems, illegal gold mining has significantly increased the number of 12- to 17-year-old girls and young women drafted into prostitution rings. These young women are brought from all over the country to brothels that have sprung up in mining camps. Many of the women that fall into these prostitution rings are never seen again. Miners also bring diseases to local indigenous populations.

While Peruvian authorities have sent a nearly 1,000-strong security force to destroy river dredgers used by illegal gold miners in the Madre de Dios region, more drastic measures are needed such as stricter vigilance and regulation.

At stake is the survival of what has been recognized as one of the most biologically rich areas in the world.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is the author of “The Environmental Impact on Children’s Health,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.