The Madre de Dios, or “Mother of God” region, of southeastern Peru, where the Amazon rainforest meets the eastern slope of the Andes, is one of the most critical biodiversity hotspots on Earth. This area is the headwaters regions of the Amazon River which carries 20% of our planet’s fresh water to the sea. In addition, there are at least 18 different indigenous groups known to reside in this region and have dwelled there for centuries. The huge tracts of lowland rainforest and high elevation cloud forests harbor more than 1,000 bird species, several thousand plant species, untold numbers of insects, and more than 100 mammal species, with countless species yet to be named by science. Some of Peru’s most emblematic animals such as the national bird, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, and the jaguar are found in Madre de Dios.
Unfortunately, illicit and unregulated gold mining activity poses a serious threat to the health and stability of this critical region. Gold mining, now one of the largest drivers of deforestation in the western Amazon, uses mercury in the process, releasing approximately 100 tons into the Amazonian ecosystem annually. Research has shown that seventy-six percent of all people tested in Madre de Dios have mercury levels at least 3 times above the maximum healthy limits recommended by the World Health Organization, with indigenous children the most affected. In May 2016, a state of emergency was declared in Madre de Dios, as well as 10 other Amazonian regions, over mercury contamination.
Follow this video story-telling of how gold is found in alluvial deposits on riverbanks along tributaries of the Amazon.
The Madre de Dios region of Peru, the rainforest adjacent to the Andes, contains one of the most important reserves of biodiversity in the world. This area, however, has been a recent target for illicit and unregulated gold mining.
After locating gold deposits, miners cut down forests in the area to access the soil.
This destroys habitat for rainforest plants and animals, and the runoff from the clearing process flows into rivers and negatively affects aquatic species.
After the trees are cut down, miners burn the remnant trees, a process that releases large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Deforestation and the burning of trees is the source of 15% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
In industrial-scale mining operations, heavy equipment is brought in to clear the area completely and move the soil.
Dump trucks are filled with dirt from the riverbanks which is then dropped into a large sluice. Hoses are used to filter the soil and separate the tiny gold flecks from the rocks and clay.
The sluice acts like a sieve to break up larger pieces of clay. It carries the smallest pieces of soil towards a series of mats where laborers await.
Once the dirt reaches the bottom of the sluice, miners shake it onto specialized mats in order to filter out the tiny gold flecks.
The remaining mud is handled by miners and placed into barrels containing mercury and river water.
Mercury chemically binds to the gold, and by stirring the mixture, miners can accelerate the binding process.
When the gold and mercury congeal into a solid, it is removed and the toxic mercury waste-water is poured back into the river. Over 100 tons of mercury are poured into Amazonian rivers each year. Mercury is known to cause neurological damage to humans, especially children and the elderly, and also harms aquatic species that are sensitive to heavy metals in their environment.
The gold and mercury conglomerate is placed in a small vessel and heated with a blowtorch to burn off the mercury, leaving a purified gold nugget. This process releases harmful mercury vapors into the atmosphere which later enter the food chain during rainstorms.
Once the mercury is burned off, a pure gold nugget remains. This is taken to a casa de oro, a gold trading post, where it can be sold at up-to-the-minute prices. The prices of gold have increased exponentially during recent years, which accelerates this process and the destruction of the pristine rainforest.
Areas which were once covered with lush rainforest have been turned into barren and toxic wastelands – all for the price of gold.