Growing blight on the Amazon rainforest

Moonscape. 

That's the term that springs to mind when one sees this growing scourge across the Amazon.

Death knell to rainforests  (image by Greg Asner)

Death knell to rainforests (image by Greg Asner)

In Peru.  In the Guianas.  In Brazil's Amazonian states of Amapá and Pará.

The blight is illegal gold mining, and it's imperiling ever-greater swaths of the world's greatest rainforest.

ALERT has reported on illegal gold mining in the world's rainforests before -- see here, here, and here -- but it is a story worth repeating, because it is an environmental crisis that continues to escalate.  In Peru, for example, the pace of forest destruction from illegal mining has tripled since 2008.

In the Amazon, as elsewhere, gold mining doesn't just threaten rainforests.  It is a severe threat to aquatic ecosystems, drowning streams and rivers with dense sediments and toxic mercury. 

The mercury builds up in aquatic food chains -- increasing from aquatic plants to small animals to fish to larger predators -- with some Amazonian people now having 14 times the accepted level of mercury in their bloodstreams. 

As gold mining expands, so does its threat to indigenous peoples -- such as the Yanomami tribes in northern Brazil, the Kayapo people in the southern Brazilian Amazon, and many other remote tribes in Peruvian Amazonia.

Amazon moonscape

Amazon moonscape

Few areas are safe.  Miners have invaded many Amazonian parks and indigenous reserves, poached wildlife, corrupted indigenous peoples, spread infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and murdered park guards

There are some who characterize small-scale illegal gold mining as 'artisanal' and relatively benign environmentally -- but don't be fooled.  It's impacts on rainforests and native peoples like those in the Amazon are severe and growing rapidly.

 

Good news: Deforestation slowing in some countries

While there are plenty of environmental concerns to fret about, it's also important to recognize good news.  And some of the best news recently is this: A number of nations have had real success in slowing rampant deforestation.

Conservation strategies really are helping  (photo by William Laurance)

Conservation strategies really are helping (photo by William Laurance)

At the Bonn Climate Conference, the Union of Concerned Scientists has just released a report detailing how some nations are winning the battle to slow forest loss or encourage reforestation. 

Some of the key strategies include:

- Carbon trading, with REDD+ financing benefiting forests in Guyana, Brazil, Kenya, Madagascar, and Costa Rica

- Payments for ecosystem services, which have been successful in various countries, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Vietnam

- Improving governance and law enforcement, which has aided forest protection in central Africa and Brazil

- Temporary moratoria on forest clearing, which have benefited forests imperiled by the massive beef and soy industries in Brazil

- Notably, most success stories include examples of empowering local communities and decentralizing forest-management decisions

Globally, the rate of forest loss fell by a fifth between the 1990s and 2000s.  Perhaps the most remarkable story of all is the Brazilian Amazon, where the deforestation rate has plummeted by nearly 80% over the last decade.

What these examples reveal is that actions to conserve forests really can produce meaningful results.  The message for conservationists: take note and take heart.