Gold mining is having serious consequences on the environment in Latin America. The high price of gold has lead to renewed deforestation of the rainforest and rivers are being contaminated with chemicals. But it’s not just the environment that is affected: people are falling ill because of the gold rush. Regine Reibling reports from Quito.
Nora Alvarez will never forget the day that she drove through the Guacamyao goldmine in Peru. “It was awful. There, where an untouched rainforest once stood, was desert, white sand,” the environmental scientist from Puerto Rico told the Spanish daily El País. Together with her colleague Mitchell Aide, she researched the effects of gold mining on the rainforest.
Rainforest must make way for mines
The study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the high price of gold has resulted in a gold rush in South America and is causing increased deforestation of the rainforest. Between 2001 and 2013, around 1,680 square kilometres of rainforest was destroyed.
Guacamayo is at the centre of a new gold fever – and represents the exploitation of nature in the name of profit. The illegal mine is located in southeastern Peru, in the middle of the Amazon region in the Madre des Dios (Mother of God) region, which is famous for its biodiversity. According to 2013 estimates, around 30,000 miners work in the mines in the region – most of them illegally.
Deforestation on the rise
Gold mining is currently the main cause of deforestation in tropical forests in South America, says Alvarez. According to her study, around 377 square kilometres of rainforest was cleared between 2001 and 2006. In the second half of the period studied, from 2007 to 2013, this figure more than tripled: 1,300 square kilometres of forest was destroyed, found the researchers using satellite imagery.
90 per cent of the destruction is concentrated around four regions: the tropical forests in Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana and Venezuela (41 per cent); the southwestern Amazon region in Peru (28 per cent); the region between the Tapajós and Xingú rivers in Brazil (11 per cent); and the Magdalena Valley in Colombia (9 per cent). Particularly worrisome is that one-third was cleared near nature reserves, says Alvarez.
Price of gold has jumped
Over the past few years gold production in South America has increased more than the global average, from 2,445 tonnes in 2000 to 2,770 tonnes in 2013. One reason for this, explains Alvarez, is the financial crisis, which made many see gold as a safe investment again, as well as the higher demand for jewellery in China and India. While the price of gold was around USD 280 per fine ounce in 2000, that figure jumped to around USD 1,300 by 2013.
2011’s skyrocketing prices of between USD 1,500 and 1,600 have not been reached since, but the current price of gold – around USD 1,200 per ounce – is double as high as the average price over the past 30 years.
Mercury harms people
Deforestation is responsible for far more than serious environmental damages. In order to extract gold from the ground, many mining companies use mercury and mix it into an amalgam, which is then heated. A large part of the mercury then ends up in streams, while other toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic contaminate the soil and water.
This toxic mix is having serious consequences on the health of the miners and local population. In Puerto Maldonado, the capital city in the Madre de Dios region, 78 per cent of adults have mercury levels in the body that are well above the recommended limits, found a 2013 study from the Carnegie Institution for Science.