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.

 

Using old smart-phones to fight eco-crimes

Guarding nature is tricky... there's a lot of nature out there and many illegal loggers, poachers and gold-miners who are eager to pillage surviving natural areas.  What are we to do?

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

Smart phones get a new lease on life -- helping to save nature.

One innovative solution might be to use old smart-phones to detect illicit encroachers in the act.  A nonprofit group called Rainforest Connection has begun using the phones to set up monitoring stations in endangered forests -- keeping a sharp ear out for growling chainsaws or the bang of a poacher's gun.

As reported on the leading environmental website Mongabay, the group has tested out their system in Sumatra, Indonesia.  It worked a treat, allowing authorities to catch illegal loggers in its first two weeks of operation.

Now Rainforest Connection is scaling up.  Partnering with the Zoological Society of London, they are using 30 of the devices with solar-power units to monitor 10,000 hectares of vulnerable forest in Cameroon. 

Rainforest connection reckons their devices work far faster than monitoring of forests by satellite.  Their system can alert authorities within just 5 minutes of detecting illegal activity, they say, whereas satellite systems can take a week. 

It's heartening to see good minds working on creative solutions for serious environmental issues.  Let's hope the old smart-phones can do the trick.

 

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...