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Gold Mining in the Amazon

Long before Columbus made landfall in the Americas, indigenous societies in South America were mining and decorating with gold. While still a display of power, gold in pre-Columbian cultures was used largely for ceremonial and ornamental purposes. By contrast, for Europeans gold held monetary value and symbolized the prospect of individual and imperial mobility. Legends about gold fueled mania in European explorers, leading them into reckless journeys into remote regions and brutal clashes with Amerindian societies. Although the flow of gold in today’s world works very differently than during colonial times, it is also a reiteration of a very old cycle. Not only does mining remain an industry that breeds desperation and violence, it also continues to serve the powerful at the peril of the vulnerable.

The climbing price of gold in recent decades, which increased over 300% from 2000 to 2010, has spurred a new gold rush of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM). Although ASGM has become an important source of income for many in the Amazon, it has also had numerous devastating social and environmental consequences, including increases in deforestation, mercury pollution, criminal activities, human rights abuses, and displacement of indigenous communities.

Photo by Dano Grayson

Artisanal and Small-scale Miners

Globally, 10-20 million people, including 4 to 5 million women and children, work directly in the ASGM sector.1 These miners are typically the poorest and most marginalized in society, and consequently often work outside the formal economy. ASGM produces about 20% of global gold output and contributes up to 90% of the gold mining workforce.2 Consistent with the global gold rush over the past two decades, the number of artisanal and small-scale miners in Latin America has more than doubled in the last 15 years, reaching about 1.5 million individuals today.3

Most artisanal and small-scale miners in the Amazon work illegally, often in protected areas where mining is prohibited. Although mineral wealth can be valuable for sustainable development and economic growth, the unregulated environment of ASGM often leads to clandestine trading practices and deprives the state of significant tax revenue. Gold mining also attracts criminal groups because it holds high value and is easily smuggled. Miners are very often exploited by criminal actors, sometimes receiving only a small share for their gold while having to pay a fee, or vacuna, to the controlling group, sometimes under threat of torture or death. Criminal involvement in ASGM can threaten the rule of law, good governance, and economic stability. In Colombia and Venezuela, where organized crime is strongly linked to illegal gold mining, narco-terrorist and guerilla groups have extorted miners to finance their operations.4 In Peru, criminal activities are less organized, but violence, sex trafficking and forced labor are nonetheless widespread. 5

Artisanal Mining Methods in the Amazon

Most miners in the Amazon mine from alluvial gold (deposits found on land and in rivers and streams). Alluvial mining varies greatly according to the local context, but typically involves some combination of hand panning, sluice boxes, heavy equipment, hydraulic mining, and dredging. In the Amazon, miners commonly clear forest cover and then remove topsoil using machinery and high-pressure hoses to form a mining pit. The remaining mixture of gold-bearing soil and water, known as a “slurry,” is then passed down a sluice system, whereby the denser gold and fine-sediment (concentrate) are trapped. Miners may also work on barges (also known as balsas or dragas) using dredges. This involves the use of hoses to suck sediment and water directly from the bottom of the water body, and then processing the gold using sluices or other equipment onboard the barge.

Miners typically use mercury to separate the gold, forming a mercury-gold amalgam. There are two ways of using mercury in gold mining: concentrate amalgamation, in which miners apply mercury after refining the ore with a concentration technique like those described above; and whole-ore amalgamation, in which miners apply greater quantities of mercury without prior concentration. While relatively uncommon in the Amazon, whole-ore amalgamation is considered by the Minamata Convention on Mercury as a worst practice, to be eliminated.6 Once mercury is mixed with gold-bearing sediment, the amalgam is then heated to burn off the mercury and purify the gold. This process exposes miners and their communities to harmful mercury vapor and methylmercury. Learn more about the impacts of mercury pollution here.

The Impacts of Gold Mining on Climate, Land, and Water

While agriculture and cattle ranching account for more total deforestation in the Amazon, the impact of Amazon gold mining in a given area is considered worse, due to its depletion of soil nutrients, deterioration of water quality, and transformation of riverways. Repeated soil disturbances and the formation of mining pools delays pioneer species growth and complete forest regeneration can take centuries.7 Furthermore, when miners use high- pressure hoses and pumps, they alter water flow patterns and increase sediment loads in rivers more than almost any other land-use activity, a process that severely degrades water quality.8

Amazon ASGM, particularly when unregulated, also contributes to climate change, as the Amazon rainforest is a crucial carbon sink that stores from 90-140 billion tons. One study, conducted in the Peruvian Amazon where illegal mining has been particularly severe, found that in 2017 over 1 million tons of carbon were released in the region of Madre de Dios, equivalent to the emissions of about 250,000 cars in an average year.9 Another study estimated that the slow regeneration of forests degraded by gold mining contributes about 21,000 tons of carbon per year, more than other land-use activities in the Amazon such as agriculture.10

Gold Mining and Indigenous People

In Latin America, illegal gold mining frequently occurs around protected areas, especially in protected indigenous territories A recent report published by the World Resources Institute found that about 6% of total indigenous land in the Amazon (about 14,300,000 hectares) directly overlaps with active mining concessions or ongoing illegal mining activities.11 In some cases, indigenous peoples will participate or profit from mining. This situation often results from a lack of economic alternatives, especially after mining has spread in the region and impacted natural resources. Whether or not indigenous people engage in mining, they often demand the expulsion of miners operating without consent on their land, as is the case with the recent campaigns of the Munduruku and Yanomami in Brazil

Even when mining does not take place directly on their territory, indigenous peoples are often disproportionately affected by nearby mining activities because they are susceptible to the spread of disease and are typically more reliant on forest resources for survival. The accumulation of methylmercury in fish poses an especially large risk to indigenous people, as fish consumption tends to be an essential component of their diet. Numerous studies reveal elevated mercury levels in indigenous Amazon communities and fish consumption is widely believed to be the primary exposure source. One review paper examined studies on 46 indigenous populations in the Amazon and found mercury exposures on average 7.5 times higher than background levels in the general population. 12

Be Part of the Solution

In the Amazon and globally, governments, the United Nations, NGO’s, companies, and individuals are working to reduce the negative impacts of destructive gold mining. Some important solutions include international agreements, such as the Minamata Convention on Mercury; raising awareness through environmental and health monitoring; promoting cleaner mining practices; formalizing miners to bring operations under government control; designating protected areas and strengthening indigenous rights; creating alternative or diversified livelihoods; and increasing transparency and traceability in gold supply chains.

To learn more about gold mining in the Amazon, read the report Tracking Amazon Gold. To become part of the solution, you can join the Cleaner Gold Network, become a better consumer, and many other initiatives.

Works Cited

  1. United Nations Environment Programme, (n.d.) Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM). https://web. unep.org/globalmercurypartnership/our-work/artisanal-and-small-scale-gold-mining-asgm
  2. Swenson JJ, 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
  3. United States Agency of International Development. (2019). Small-Scale and Artisanal Mining: Impacts on Biodiversity in Latin America. https://www.land-links.org/issue-brief/small-scale-artisanal-mining-impacts-on-biodiversity-in-latin-america/
  4. Prepared Statement of Carrie Filipetti. Hearing before the: Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy,
  5. Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC). (2016). Organized Crime and Illegally Mined Gold in Latin America. https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/organized-crime-and-illegally-mined-gold-in-latin-america/
  6. United Nations Environment Programme (2014).Minamata Convention on Mercury. http://www.mercuryconvention.org/Convention/tabid/3426/Default.aspx, accessed 30 August 20147.
  7. Peterson, G., & Heemskerk, M. (2001). Deforestation and forest regeneration following small-scale gold mining in the Amazon: the case of Suriname. Environmental Conservation, 28(2), 117–126. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892901000121
  8. Lobo, F., Costa, M., Novo, E., & Telmer, K. (2016). Distribution of Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining in the Tapajós River Basin (Brazilian Amazon) over the Past 40 Years and Relationship with Water Siltation. Remote Sensing, 8(7), 579. doi:10.3390/rs8070579
  9. Csillik, Ovidiu & Asner, Gregory. (2020). Aboveground carbon emissions from gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters. 15. 014006. 10.1088/1748-9326/ab639c. S0376892901000121
  10. Kalamandeen, M., Gloor, E., Johnson, I., Agard, S., Katow, M., Vanbrooke A., Ashley, D., Batterman, S., Ziv, G., Holder-Collins, K., Phillips, O., Brondizio, E., Vieira, I., Galbraith, D. (2020). Limited biomass recovery from gold mining in Amazonian forests. J Appl Ecol. 2020; 57: 1730– 1740. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13669
  11. Vallejos, P. Q., Veit, P., Tipula, P., & Reytar, K. (2020, October). Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/publication/undermining-rights12.
  12. Basu N, Horvat M, Evers DC, Zastenskaya I, Weihe P, Tempowski J. A State-of-the-Science Review of Mercury Biomarkers in Human Populations Worldwide between 2000 and 2018. Environ Health Perspect. 2018 Oct;126(10):106001. doi: 10.1289/EHP3904. PMID: 30407086; PMCID: PMC6371716.

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