According to sources consulted for this paper, there are a minimum of 940,000 artisanal and small-scale gold miners working in Amazon countries (excluding Venezuela), and the maximum well exceeds 1 million. However, it is important to note that there is considerable uncertainty with estimates of total miners and some figures cited are not current. Furthermore, in countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where much of the gold mining sector is concentrated in the Pacific and Andean regions, only a small portion of miners may be working in the Amazon biome. Using data from D.H. Bebbington et al. (2018), the World Resource Institute estimated over 500,000 small-scale miners working in the Amazon but did not include Venezuela in the estimate.


Photo by Tómas Munita

Along with the substantial number of livelihoods dependent on Amazon ASGM, Amazon countries in 2019 officially reported producing 377.5 tons of gold in 2019, worth about $16.8 billion according to the 2019 closing price of gold at $1,393.34/oz. This figure is likely a significant underestimation due to rampant illegality and poor production controls. In several Amazon countries, ASGM constitutes a significant portion of GDP, as is the case with Guyana where ASGM represents about 14% of the total.213 Until there are alternative equitable and sustainable economic opportunities available, ASGM will remain an important economic solution for impoverished peoples in the Amazon.

gold miner
Photo by Ron Haviv

Criminal and guerilla groups play a dominant role in regulating the flow of gold, especially in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. However, this does not signify that illegal miners necessarily belong to these groups. Rather, miners are very often exploited, sometimes receiving only a small share for their gold while having to pay a fee, or vacuna, to the controlling group, often under threat of torture or death.

artisinal mine

Photo by Ron Haviv

This paper identified deforestation hotspots in the Amazon biome from gold mining in Madre de Dios in Peru (65,000 hectares from 2010-2017); the Tapajós River Basin in Brazil (18,300 hectares from 2001-2013); and the forests of the Guianas (60,000 hectares from 2000-2015 in Suriname; 57,000 hectares from 2010-2017 in Guyana). The actual amount of deforestation from gold mining in the Amazon over the last two decades exceeds these totals, as data gaps exist and research for this paper was not exhaustive. Although one source estimated deforestation from illicit mining in Southern Venezuela reaching as high as 280,000 hectares since 2010, this area was excluded as a hotspot because data is sparse and less certain.

When comparing these figures to other sources of Amazon deforestation, it is important to note that the impact of ASGM is considered worse than other land-use activities on a per hectare basis, due to its depletion of soil nutrients, deterioration of water quality, and transformation of riverways (see introduction).

mining map

Map of the Amazon biome with gold ovals indicating approximate areas of deforestation hotspots discussed in this paper.
Source for base map: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-51300515

When accounting for proportional amounts of Amazon forest, estimates of mercury emissions in the Amazon were particularly high in Suriname and Peru, reaching 50 tons and 185 tons per year respectively. Though not exclusively attributable to ASGM (see introduction), elevated mercury levels from fish consumption are widespread in the Amazon, particularly in indigenous communities, which report on average 7.5 times higher than background levels in the general population.214

Primary on-the-ground solutions to reduce the negative impacts of destructive gold mining 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; and creating alternative and diversified livelihoods.

This paper is the first in a two-part series, the second of which will provide an in-depth analysis of gold trade and propose a set of “downstream” market and policy solutions. This multi-stakeholder approach is crucial, as it reduces the burden on miners to change and incentivizes more equitable and sustainable opportunities.

Illicit and unregulated gold mining is one of the fastest growing and most dangerous threats to the Amazon today. Multistakeholder engagement will be needed to create a responsible and transparent supply chain for gold from the ground to the consumer.


213 World Bank, 2019
214 Basu et al., 2018