Until recently, little was known about the extent of gold mining activities in Peru. A recent video shot by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) revealed much of the evidence pertaining to gold mining activities in the southern part of Madre de Dios, Peru.
Madre de Dios is known for its pristine rainforest, biodiversity and rich wildlife, but this reputation is at risk now that Landsat satellite images have shown the devastation from expansion of mining activities. Satellite images from 2000, 2005 and 2010 detail the areas of widespread, wildlife-rich rainforest lost at the expense of extractive industry.
The forest area lost in the southern region of Madre de Dios is estimated to be more than 50,000 hectares, about the same size as over 93,000 American football fields or the city of Albuquerque, according to Greg Asner of the Carnegie Department of Global Ecology. As evident in figure 1(A) below, streams that were barely visible in the year 2000 and 2005 transformed into muddy ponds carrying heavy metals and affecting public health. Mercury used in separating pure gold from impurities is a major concern not only for the directly exposed population living downstream of the rivers, but the population as a whole through fish consumption. According to a recent study by Katy Ashe (2012), total mercury found in human hair samples of Madre de Dios residents were higher than neighboring regions, with fish consumption and location of residence (predominantly in the mining zones) being significant indicators of higher mercury levels. In other words, the more closely connected a person is to the mining zones and rivers used for runoff, the higher the mercury levels in their body.
The question thus arises, what is driving the deforestation in the Madre de Dios region of Peru? Poverty and the global demand for gold are the main drivers of deforestation in this particular region, but ineffective government institutions and environmental regulations fail to properly address these drivers. Gold mining in Peru employs between 100,000 and 150,000 people and is valued at roughly $640 million USD per year. According to Swenson et al. 2011, deforestation from mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru is increasing at a much faster pace than the constant annual rate of increase in international gold prices (around 18%/year), suggesting that this region aims to greatly expand its gold production. Accordingly, the study also reveals exponential increase in Peruvian mercury imports over time, as well as almost every type of material used for gold mining.
Figure 1: Satellite images (Landsat)
of mining activities in; (A) Guacamayo
along the Interoceanic Highway (IOH)
that links Brazil and Peruvian ports and
(B) Colorado-Puquiri in the buffer zone of
Amarakaeri Communal Reserve
Ashe K (2012) Elevated Mercury Concentrations in Humans of Madre de Dios, Peru. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033305
Swenson JJ, Carter Ce, Domec J-C, Delgado CI (2011) Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Global Prices, Deforestation, and Mercury Imports. PLoS ONE 6(4): e18875. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018875