Mining for Gold in the Amazon

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Artist Natalie Jeremijenko, who visited the University of Virginia this spring, posed a question to a group of us during the course Environmental Art Activism: do you have anything on your person for which you can describe the origins of all the materials, and the people who made it? Most of us looked down at our clothes, our shoes, our bags, and came up empty. I was shocked, actually, as I’d never considered this before. It made me very aware all of a sudden of just how far removed I am from the processes that produce the things I use every day. Jeremijenko has her students research extensively about one object they own. They must talk to real people about every step of the production of the object. One major lesson students learn is that there are shocking conditions or major inefficiencies at certain phases in the generation and distribution of goods.

 

A former miner turned boat captain Gregorio on the Madre Dios river.
A former miner turned boat captain Gregorio on the Madre Dios river. 

Photo by Ron Haviv, VII Agency

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This question, and the sobering realizations that it carries, came to mind when I began to learn about gold mining in the Amazon.

Like many consumers, I never really gave much thought to where gold comes from. Of course, in school I learned about gold rushes in 17th century Brazil by European colonists, and in 19th century California, among others. I knew, in a vague sense, that gold mining still happens today, I was unaware that there is, in fact, a new gold rush happening right now in the Amazon Rainforest.

Amazon Aid’s Amazon Gold film opened my eyes to the ruthless forest destruction that is happening right now to satisfy the ravenous global appetite for gold. The figures are staggering: an average of 1,915 hectares are demolished per year, in Peru alone, of some of the most beautiful, diverse environment on the planet, due to the rise of gold prices to over $1400 per ounce.[i] The work is more lucrative than alternatives for the miners; they earn roughly $70[ii]-$230[iii] a day, which is much more than they would make as farmers in the region. Since it’s often the best option for these people, rates of small-scale, illegal, unregulated mining have increased greatly in the past decade.i  This makes law enforcement and mining regulation very difficult for governments in the Amazon.

Rainforest loss isn’t the only effect of gold mining, though. Miners use mercury, which binds to gold, to help them separate it from soil and rocks beneath the rainforest vegetation. This mercury ends up in the water, poisoning fish in the rivers and the people who eat them. Small-scale gold mining in the Amazon releases about 1000 tons of mercury into the environment each yeari!

Río Alto Madre de Dios, at the base of the Andes
Río Alto Madre de Dios, at the base of the Andes

Photo by Adrian Tejedor, 2007.

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Drawing by Julia Loman, 2015.

I look at gold a little differently now. It seems a bit stained to me, a bit tainted, with the bitter loss of this incredible habitat. The veil over the processes that bring us goods is so thick, that when it’s lifted back a little, we’re astonished. But rather than hide from these issues, it’s important that we learn as much as we can about them, so that we might take steps to make things better. Check out the articles below if you are interested in becoming more informed about gold mining in the Amazon.

 

Further reading:

 

Gold mining in the Amazon Rainforest surges by 400%, by Rhett A. Butler

http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1028-amazon-gold-mining.html

 

The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush, by Donovan Webster for Smithsonian Magazine

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/the-devastating-costs-of-the-amazon-gold-rush-19365506/?all&no-ist

 

High gold price triggers rainforest devastation in Peru, by Barbara Fraser

http://news.mongabay.com/2011/1011-fraser_gold_mining_peru.html

[i] Swenson, J. et al. “Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Global Prices, Deforestation, and Mercury Imports.” PLoS ONE 6(4): 2011. e18875. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0018875

 

[ii] Webster, Donovan. “The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush.” Smithsonian.com. 2012. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/the-devastating-costs-of-the-amazon-gold-rush-19365506/?all

 

[iii]Cannon, John. “Amazon gold rush destroying huge swaths of rainforest.” Mongabay.com. 2015. http://news.mongabay.com/2015/0114-gfrn-cannon-amazon-gold-rush-destroying-rainforest.html

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