Global gold rush is killing the world's rainforests

After a short holiday-season hiatus, ALERT is now back in action.  Here, we examine the alarming impact that illegal gold-mining is having on rainforest environments around the world.

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia  (photo by William Laurance )

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

The rise in illegal gold mining has two main causes.  First, the price of gold is skyrocketing, in part because investors see it as a safeguard against unstable economic conditions.  Second, new roads are proliferating across the tropics, opening up once-remote areas to invasions of illegal miners.

For example, a recent study by Nora Alvarez-Berríos and Mitch Aide documents the escalation of illegal gold mining in South America.  They found that gold mining has accelerated significantly since 2OO7, following a rush by investors to find havens for their money following the global financial crisis.

Mining can have huge impacts in certain areas.  Alvarez-Berríos and Aide found that mining was especially severe in four general regions of South America: the Guianas, the Southwest Amazon, the Tapajós–Xingú area of the western Amazon, and the Magdalena Valley in the Colombian Andes.  This shocking video shows just how badly miners are decimating the Southwest Amazon in Peru following construction of the Inter-oceanic Highway there.

Around 17O,OOO hectares of forest was destroyed outright in these four regions, but even worse was the broader-scale impacts on aquatic ecosystems and water quality.  Gold miners cause enormous siltation of streams and rivers as well as water pollution by toxic mercury, which they use to separate gold from river sediments. 

Gold miners also often have conflicts with local indigenous groups and poach wildlife.  For instance, armed miners in French Guiana murdered two park guards there, who were attempting to defend the park.

The scourge of illegal gold mining is by no means limited to Latin America.  It is escalating rapidly across vast expanses of Africa, Asia, and many other regions of the tropics. 

It's become stylish to talk about 'blood diamonds', but let there be no mistake -- 'blood gold' is even more environmentally deadly and is a growing threat to the world's rainforests.

 

The blight of illegal gold mining

If you want a shock, take 30 seconds to watch this video--filmed from a airplane flying over the Peruvian Amazon.  The narration is in Spanish but it won't matter...

Gouging the earth for gold... illegal miner in Suriname (photo by William Laurance)

Gouging the earth for gold... illegal miner in Suriname (photo by William Laurance)

if this were just happening in Peru it'd be one thing, but 'blood gold' has turned into a global crisis.  Especially in developing nations, the combination of high gold prices and too many poor people is creating almost unstoppable pressures for miners to invade parks, wildernesses, and anywhere else that alluvial gold occurs.

Mining moonscape... illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Mining moonscape... illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Completely unregulated, the environmental impacts of illegal mining are many--destruction of riparian habitats, massive increases in river sediment loads, and toxic mercury pollution among them. 

And that's not to mention the human toll that the miners take on indigenous groups and rural communities trying to survive in areas ravaged by mining, when the fish are gone and the only source of drinking water is now tainted.

The take-home lesson: Too much of the gold we buy comes with a big, hidden price tag...