Enviro Monday: How gold is killing the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants

The Gold rush in the Amazon is laying waste to Madre de Dios one of the most biodiverse and pristine regions in the world.

The price of gold reaching $1 000 an ounce in 2009 unleashed a modern day gold rush with tens of thousands of men from the poorest corners of Peru flocking to Madre de Dios in Peru, one of the most pristine pieces of Amazon rainforest left on Earth.

Much like other gold rushes across the globe about 150 years ago, these miners are using primitive methods involving toxic mercury.

It is clear that they don’t fully understand that mercury is toxic to every form of life in the Amazon. They fish the same waters they mine, not realizing that the mercury can end up in their bloodstream, causing a variety of health problems.

Become a gold miner in a few hours


To learn to be an illegal gold miner takes only a few hours. Groups of three or four work together, using a crude system of pumps and hoses to turn river banks into a muddy slurry in order to extract the gold.

The sediment is sifted and then poured into barrels. Barefoot miners or their children then pound this toxic mix of mud and mercury with their feet until a small, ball of gold and mercury amalgam remains at the bottom. Thousands of men and boys repeat this process countless times daily.



High gold price and poverty created a Wild West

Illegal mining has turned more than 1 554 square kilometres of pristine Madre de Dios rainforest into a treeless, toxic wasteland. The effect is easy to see from satellite images from 2016.



“It’s a perfect storm,” said Luis Fernandez, the executive director of the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation. “High prices of gold, tremendous poverty, high biodiversity and very vulnerable tribes that aren’t used to outsiders. And so it’s like the Wild West.”

The gold price and deforestation

In his years with the US Environmental Protection Agency, Fernandez noticed how mercury poisoning and deforestation trends spiked every time the gold price spiked.

Fernandez and his colleagues at Wake Forest University, built the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, the first research centre in the jungle to study the effects of illicit gold mining on everything from human health to deforestation impacts.

Unfortunately a full crackdown would drive tens of thousands of subsistence miners into hunger, while the cash-strapped Peruvian government struggles to control a multi billion dollar black market.

It has now spread from the south to Peru’s northern Amazon

Until about three years ago gold was only being mined in the Madre de Dios and Puno regions in the south of Peru. It has now spread to the River Santiago in Peru’s northern Amazon.

The miners have been cutting down trees, destroying river banks and putting mercury into the water – effectively destroying what was until recently a healthy river.

Indigenous tribes doomed

About 70,000 indigenous Awajúns and Wampís are at risk from this type of mining because of the impact it has on the forests, biodiversity and rivers on which they depend for their livelihood.

The indigenous population does not have running water. They use the river and streams for everything – washing, drinking and fishing. The trees are being chopped down and the flora and fauna are disappearing.


Caxton Central

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