By Bill Tressler
Photo courtesy of Crustmania.
In recent years, environmental issues have become an ever-present topic of discussion in the US and abroad. Managing the planet’s finite water sources, protecting endangered species, and curbing the effects of global warming are all hot button issues–albeit ones that many people are unwilling to accept. A number of global-warming critics cite a lack of evidence to support the existence of this phenomenon.
A lesser-known environmental crisis, however, is currently taking place in South America. Nevertheless, a copious amount of evidence exists that proves the growing issue: deforestation and ecosystem destruction brought on by excessive gold mining.
The plight of the rain forests–and of general deforestation as a global environmental issue–has been known for some time. The Brazilian Amazon, which makes up about one-third of the world’s total rain forest cover, experiences massive deforestation. Consisting of over four million square kilometers in 1970, that area has since decreased to under 3.5 million.
Most of the Amazon’s destruction can be attributed to cattle and subsistence agriculture. The combined demand for land that can be grazed by livestock and/or farmed by villagers has led to massive losses of rain forest coverage in Brazil. Up to 75 percent of the total forest lost there can be attributed to these two agrarian factors.
Compared to livestock and agriculture, gold mining results in relatively little forest loss. Images collected from the MODIS satellite show that between 2001 and 2013, 1,680 square kilometers of South American rain forest were leveled in gold mining operations. The rate greatly increased during the 2007 to 2013 period, during which the global price for gold more than doubled.
Nearly 90 percent of this deforestation took place in four main regions, but mostly occurred in the Guianan moist forest and the southwest Amazon regions of Peru. Much deforestation fell inside of or within 10 kilometers of protected swaths of land.
The problems presented by gold mining are two-fold. The first issue is that the mining operations are destroying forest areas, albeit at a slower rate than other variables. The second (and much more harmful) fact is that these operations utilize toxic chemicals that do irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
The gold mines in South America not only require massive amounts of energy and water to run, but they also require one of two very harmful chemicals: mercury or sodium cyanide. The ore that is mined typically contains less than one part per million (ppm) of actual gold metal, which needs to be stripped from the ore and refined. The ore is ground up and mixed with one of these chemicals so that the metal is stripped cleanly from the ore.
Miners work deep in the forest and such remote conditions may leave them with few options for proper disposal. As a result, miners may dump toxic waste in places where it can drastically alter the ecosystem.
The acidic aftermath of this process often entails devastating effects on surface and ground water. Several researchers have investigated the consequences of mercury runoff from gold mining operations in Madre de Dios, Peru, part of the Peruvian Amazon. Their results showed that the mercury polluted ground and surface water to the point that humans and fish tens of kilometers away contained heightened mercury levels. One study even discovered such effects hundreds of kilometers away.
Residents who regularly eat fish pulled from the regions surrounding these mining sites are shown to have the highest concentrations of mercury in their bodies. The correlation suggests that bodies of surface water well away from these mining sites are being contaminated beyond safe levels.
The full extent of the effects of this mercury poisoning have yet to be determined, but perhaps further testing will show more specific results. However, back in September 2013, it was reported that 76.5 percent of Madre de Dios residents had unacceptable amounts of mercury in their bodies. The problem is drastically worse for indigenous communities, who eat much more contaminated fish than their urban-dwelling counterparts. Mercury, a neurotoxin, is especially debilitating to children. In 2013, 12 children living in the Huepetuhe district of Madre de Dios were found to possess 77 times the allowable level of mercury in their bodies.
Mercury poisoning is a debilitating affliction that can result in stunted growth and learning disabilities in youth. Adults risk vision and memory loss, increased blood pressure, decreased fertility, and tremors caused by exposure to mercury.
The rate at which this contamination is increasing is alarming for South America, both for the ecosystem and health of the citizens.
While the international demand for gold may be increasing, so too is the demand for environmental protection. A group of Brazilian non-governmental organizations recently announced an effort to completely halt the cutting of the Amazon rain forest in an effort to prevent further increases of greenhouse gas emissions. The group also intends to help preserve the incredible biodiversity that the region hosts.
If the persistence of preservative projects continues–and is combined with the increased visibility of studies showing the extent of the damage that mining is causing–perhaps such efforts will encourage policy changes to halt to the drastically destructive practice of illegal gold mining.