The Cost


Deforestation is the loss of forests through clearing, destroying, burning, or otherwise removing trees. The loss of trees has the ability to impact the climate, habitat for animal and plant species, resistance to flooding, as well as cause soil erosion and desertification. While agriculture and logging are the lead drivers of  deforestation, unregulated mining and the rising price of gold have also been tied to increased deforestation.[16] The informal and illicit gold sector has most notably taken a toll on the Amazon rainforest, where unprecedented levels of deforestation, are tied to the gold trade. Scientists now believe that the Amazon is at a tipping point where the effects of deforestation will soon be irreversible.

More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. If nothing is done to curb this trend, the entire Amazon could well be gone within fifty years.

One of the places where unregulated artisanal and small-scale gold mining is compromising a resource of global value – the Amazon Rainforest


The Amazon Rainforest is a massive carbon sink. This means that it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits and through photosynthesis, produces oxygen. The Amazon absorbs around 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Researchers say that the Amazon now absorbs half as much carbon dioxide as it did 20 years ago.[17] The burning of forests worldwide contribute 20-30% of carbon released yearly, which is more carbon released than all cars, trains, ships, and planes combined.

Trees in the Amazon contain nearly 11 years of global carbon emissions.


The Amazon carries 20% of the planet’s freshwater to sea. The Amazon also plays an important role in carrying precipitation to other parts of the world. Trees in the Amazon make their own rainfall and release approximately 20 billion tons into the atmosphere daily.  As deforestation reduces the amount of water in the atmosphere, precipitation patterns are affected which can cause droughts in the Amazon and around the world.

The Amazon contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. 


Approximately 20 million indigenous peoples live in the nine Amazonia countries. The Amazon is also one of the most biodiverse places in the world, home to more than 5,000 animal species and 40,000 plant species.[18] Deforestation is threatening the habitats for species and indigenous  peoples.

Many species will go extinct before they are discovered.

The Hercules beetle, found in the Amazon, is the strongest creature on earth, capable of carrying 850 times its own body weight.

Land Degradation

The damage of gold mining goes beyond deforestation. Several techniques are used to mine gold depending on where the gold occurs. ASGM miners tunnel when gold is embedded in rock. When it is found in alluvial deposits (on land and in rivers and streams), they use panning, sluicing, and sometimes hydraulic mining to access the small particles of gold. Hydraulic mining is especially destructive. After trees are cleared, miners then use pumps and high powered hoses to blast away river banks and turn the soil into a slurry where they can then access tiny gold flakes in the sediment. With no major gold deposits, this approach of alluvial mining means that miners must find a way to capture the tiny bits of gold. As a result, large amounts of mercury are mixed with the bits of gold creating an amalgam which is then heated, vaporizing the mercury to obtain the gold.[19]

Areas which were once covered with lush rainforest have been turned into barren and toxic wastelands – all for the price of gold.

Mercury Pollution

The use of mercury in recovering gold is a widespread practice, especially in artisanal and small-scale mining. With about 10-15 million unregulated gold miners operating in 70 countries around the globe, artisanal small-scale gold mining is the largest source of mercury pollution in the world after the burning of fossil fuels.[20] The increasing prices for gold have been tied to in mercury imports in Peru.[21]

Mercury is a highly toxic substance and when it is not handled properly it can have extremely damaging – even fatal – effects on humans, animals, and the environment. Mercury is difficult to contain and can be dangerous even in small doses. Unregulated use of mercury results in mercury vapor being released into the air and mercury being released into soil and bodies of water, contaminating drinking water. Mercury can travel long distances by air or water, eventually making its way into food chains.

When mercury released from mining sites combines with naturally occuring bacteria in water and soil, it forms a powerful neurotoxin called methylmercury.[22] Methylmercury can cause damage to the nervous, immune, and digestive systems. Expecting mothers exposed to mercury are also susceptible to giving birth to babies with congenital diseases. In sub-saharan Africa, most of these risks are experienced by women.[23]

People tested for mercury in rural indigenous communities in the Madre de Dios region of Peru have been found to have concentrations of mercury three times higher than non-native city dwellers and the children of these villages were found to have mercury levels 3.5 times higher than average.[24] In Ghana, concentrations of mercury in fish, a dietary staple for local people, were three times higher than levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.[25]

According to the United Nations Environment Programme artisanal and small-scale gold mining is now the number one release of mercury in the world.


The Numbers

  • There are an estimated 5 million people directly engaged in some form of artisanal mining as of 2017.[26]
  • ASGM makes up 20 percent of global gold output and contributes to 90 percent of the gold mining workforce.[27]
  • It is estimated that more than 150 million people depend indirectly on the gold mining sector.[28]

The statistics above reflect just how vast the artisanal gold mining sector really is. In addition to millions of miners, many other people, families, and communities are reliant on this trade for daily survival.

Mineral wealth can be a valuable asset for sustainable development in regard to stimulating economic growth and has played a substantial role in many developing economies. In Ghana, for example, gold mining makes up about 9.1% of the GDP.[29] Many mining residents live in impoverished areas and rural settings lacking potable water and basic services such as healthcare. The trade of gold can provide government revenue for social infrastructure and community development under the right conditions.  In practice, the unregulated environment of informally-mined gold leads to clandestine trading practices in which buyers do not pay tax to the gold-producing states and therefore, the states miss out on important sources of revenue.

Despite its potential to support the social and economic wellbeing of communities, artisanal and small-scale mining remains extremely hazardous. Informal operations often have poor infrastructure and involve uncontrolled digging, which has led to mine collapses and deaths of local workers. Beyond short term injuries and loss of life, mining has long term health impacts such as cancers and respiratory conditions including silicosis and asbestosis caused by inhalation of fine dust particles from drilling and blasting.[30]

Indigenous communities and their territories are increasingly threatened by deforestation, mercury poisoning, and those seeking to benefit from the natural resources that exist in their environments. Illicit mining sites have been found within at least 37 indigenous territories and near or surrounding another 78 indigenous territories in the Amazon as of 2018.[31] The encroachment of gold miners on indigenous land has led to land grabs and the killing of indigenous leaders.[32] A changing political landscape in Brazil is putting indigenous protections at risk at an accelerated rate and actively working to reduce enforcement of policies.

Of the indigenous groups that were known to exist in 1900, one-third of these groups are now extinct.

Criminal Activity

Most artisanal and small scale gold mining happens informally – meaning the groups are not licensed or operating within the confines of the law. In some cases, being formal and operating formally may not be financially or practically feasible for ASGM groups. Most ASGM takes place outside of a legal framework and in many cases it is tolerated by governments. There are situations where informal mining, though technically illicit, occurs with a high degree of legitimacy at the local levels or are mining operations in the process of formalization.

There are also other scenarios where the informality and opacity of ASGM contributes to illicit activities. ASM cannot be considered legitimate when “it contributes to conflict and serious abuses associated with the extraction, transport, and trade of minerals.”[33] Conflict and serious abuses include any form of cruel and inhuman treatment, any form of forced or compulsor labor, the worst forms of child labor, war crimes, and other growss human rights violations.[34]

Gold holds high value in small amounts and is easily smuggled – making it a desirable resource for illicit groups. The informality and lack of transparency in ASGM enables corruption and criminal activity to flourish. Such groups can foster violence and threaten political and economic stability.

Miners often have few options and are reliant on illicit groups to access materials and trade their product. This can further impede sustainable development as once the miners are associated with criminal actors, it can be more difficult to access the financial and legal means necessary to formalize. The combination of the informal environment being favorable to criminal groups and mining being a poverty-driven activity creates an environment where people of mining communities are vulnerable to violence, exploited or forced labor and human trafficking.[35] Furthermore, when gold is traded through illicit financial flows – countries miss out on important formal revenue streams that could contribute to sustainable development. The effects of criminal actors benefitting from ASGM are far reaching- threatening human security, the rule of law, good governance, and economic stability.

Gold as a resource and channel for criminal activity varies in its applications. A series of case studies found instances where:


  • Gold as a vehicle for money laundering. Dirty money from illicit cannabis sales in France were used to purchase gold jewelry and ingots in Belgium. The gold was then sent Dubai using false invoices and fake companies before being taken to India and declared to customs using the false invoices. The gold was then sold in India and the money paid back to the drug traders.[36]
  • Private companies engaged in criminal activity. In exchange for access to gold in the Shabunda territory in eastern Congo – a private Chinese company, Kun Hou Mining, gave AK47s to insurgents operating in the area and ordered them to secure access to the deposits. Members of the armed groups also earned up to $25,000 per month by illicitly taxing local artisanal miners under direction of the company.  The company then sold that gold internationally, including to Dubai.[37]
  • Gold was used to finance terrorism. A narco-terrorist group in Colombia takes control of a territory where a gold mine is in production. They gain control of the mine by extorting the mine owners and forcing the community to transfer ownership titles to the group by way of violence. The group then uses the mine and sells part of the gold to a legal business with the transaction paid in cash. The cash is then used to buy materials to support the narco-terrorist group, such as medicine and munitions.[38]
“Follow the Money: Financial Flows linked to Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining” – A Tool for Intervention

by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Levin Sources, and GIZ

Complexities in Gold Sourcing

A 2019 investigation found a large Swiss refinery – Metalor Technologies, credited by LBMA, suspected of buying gold from illicit sources. The company has not been charged but is accused of purchasing gold from a Peruvian company – Minersur – that prosecutors say was “established in order to collect gold of illicit origin” from the Madre de Dios region – where informal gold mining is rampant.

Metalor responded to the investigation, saying that they had stopped all imports from Minersur the same month that the Peruvian customs seized 91 kilograms of gold destined for the refinery in Switzerland. Metalor stated that as part of Peru’s effort to formalize the mining sector in 2014, they gave the company a 3-year contract. Under the contract, Minersur has to file reports on every gold shipment and undergo independent audits.

So – despite this refinery being credited by LBMA and having formal reporting policies in place with its vendor in Peru – it was still part of the supply chain that fuels illicit and unregulated gold mining and the nefarious activity that comes with it. Creating transparent and responsible gold supply chains is a difficult process. In attempting to rectify the problem, Metalor immediately banned sourcing gold from small-scale mines in Colombia and Peru. While it’s true the conditions and circumstances under which informal mining occur can be horrendous, if other large refineries follow this approach, it is likely to harm people more than help them – 80% of the gold labor force is made up of artisanal miners relying on the gold trade for their livelihood. Furthermore, if responsible refineries refuse to use artisanal gold, it will likely still be traded – but to other refineries with poor regulations and little concern for compliance. [39]

Every year, illicit and unregulated gold mining activity is responsible for dumping approximately 30 tons of mercury into the Peruvian ecosystem.

Large-Scale or Industrial-Scale Gold Mining

In 2004 the No Dirty Gold campaign called attention to the social and environmental impacts of gold mining, especially large-scale gold mining (LSGM). These mines, located all over the world,  are highly mechanized, are predominantly open pit and use cyanide heap leaching to extract the gold from the ore. LSGM degrades the environment, often displaces communities – including indigenous communities, requires perpetual pollution monitoring even after mining operations end, consumes large quantities of water and energy, and multi-story earthen dams that retain millions of cubic meters of mine tailings can collapse.[40] Of the officially reported, newly mined gold that enters the global market each year, an estimated 80% is from LSGM facilities. An estimated 20 tons of waste rock, rock that has no economic value, are produced to retrieve enough gold to produce one gold ring.[41]

Until recently efforts to establish responsible mining criteria for LSM have come from inside the mining industry via trade organizations and individual companies. In 2018, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), published its Responsible Mining Standard developed by five multi-stakeholder groups: mining, purchasing, organized labor, NGOs, and mining affected communities, thus setting new expectations for industrial scale mining operations. Mine sites can be certified against the standard.


[16] Espejo, J. C., Messinger, M., Román-Dañobeytia, F., Ascorra, C., Fernandez, L., & Silman, M. (2018). Deforestation and Forest Degradation Due to Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: A 34-Year Perspective. Remote Sensing, 10(12), 1903. doi: 10.3390/rs10121903

[17] Council on Foreign Relations. (2016). Deforestation in the Amazon. Retrieved from http://on.cfr.org/29334so

[18] Council on Foreign Relations. (2016)

[19] Environmental Protection Agency. (2018, November 21). Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Without Mercury. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/artisanal-and-small-scale-gold-mining-without-mercury

[20] United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), 2017. Global mercury supply, trade and demand. United Nations Environment Programme, Chemicals and Health Branch. Geneva, Switzerland. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/21725/global_mercury.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[21] Swenson J, Carter CE, Domec J-C, Delgado CI (2011) Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Global Prices, Deforestation, and Mercury Imports. PLoS ONE 6(4): e18875. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018875

[22] Wyss, J. (2018, January 16). How U.S. demand for gold jewelry and bullion is poisoning children in the Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article196933579.html

[23] Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). (2017)

[24] Weaver, Jay, et al. “How Drug Lords Make Billions Smuggling Gold to Miami for Your Jewelry and Phones.” Miamiherald, Miami Herald, 24 Jan. 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article194187699.html

[25]Emmanuel AY, Jerry CS, Dzigbodi DA. Review of Environmental and Health Impacts of Mining in Ghana. J Health Pollut. 2018;8(17):43–52. Published 2018 Mar 12. doi:10.5696/2156-9614-8.17.43

[26]Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). (2017)

[27]Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). (2017)

[28]Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). (2017)

[29] Emmanuel AY, Jerry CS, Dzigbodi DA. (2018)

[30] Emmanuel AY, Jerry CS, Dzigbodi DA. (2018)

[31]Darlington, S. (2018)

[32]Phillips, D. (2019, July 28). Amazon gold miners invade indigenous village in Brazil after its leader is killed. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/28/amazon-gold-miners-invade-indigenous-village-brazil-leader-killed

[33]OECD (2013), OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas: Second Edition, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264185050-en

[34]OECD (2013), OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas: Second Edition, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264185050-en

[35]Hunter, M., Smith, A., Levin-McNally, E., Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, & GIZ. (2017, March). Financial Flows linked to Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining. Retrieved from https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/illicit-financial-flows-linked-to-artisanal_06.03.17.compressed-1.pdf

[36] FATF and APG (2015), Money laundering and terrorist financing risks and vulnerabilities associated with gold, FATF, Paris and APG, Syney www.fatf-gafi.org/topics/methodsandtrends/documents/ml-tf-risks-and-vulnerabilities-gold.html  

[37] Pickles, S. (2015, January 5). River of Gold. Global Witness. Retrieved from https://www.globalwitness.org/it/campaigns/conflict-minerals/river-of-gold-drc/

[38] FATF and APG (2015)

[39]Swissinfo.ch. (2019, June 18). Boycotting artisanal gold miners is not the answer. Retrieved from https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/opinion_metalor–mark-pieth-gold/45037966

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