GOLD MINING IN AMAZON COUNTRIES: AN OVERVIEW
- Brazil’s rapidly growing ASGM sector is concentrated in the Amazon, particularly the Tapajós River Basin, which represents the largest ASGM district in the world.
- Native communities bear much of the burden for illegal ASGM, with 10,245 hectares lost over three indigenous territories from 2017-2019.
- Brazil’s mercury emissions are among the highest in the world (105 tons/year), though it is difficult to precisely determine ASGM’s contribution.
- Due to relaxed government enforcement, deforestation caused by illegal gold mining reached 10,500 hectares in 2019 alone and is on track to be even worse in 2020.
As of 2014, there were between 200,00064 and 467,00065 artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Brazil. These miners contributed up to 80% of Brazil’s 87.7 tons of exported gold (though the exact figure varies according to the source).66 Official annual gold production has recently increased, reaching 106.9 tons in 2019.67 The Brazilian Federal Public Ministry recently calculated that a kilogram of gold represents approximately 1.7 million reais (over $300,000) in environmental damages.68
Much of Brazil’s gold sector is concentrated in the Amazon, with four of the ten municipalities with highest production in Amazonian states.
ASGM activities in the Tapajós have severely impacted the river through sedimentation as well as mercury and cyanide contamination71 and between 2001-2013 deforestation reached 18,300 hectares.72 Furthermore, with 105 tons released annually, Brazil’s mercury emissions are among the highest in the world.73 Although it is difficult to determine what percentage of this derives from gold mining, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report estimated that ASGM accounts for about 70% of emissions in the Amazon, suggesting about 74 tons / year.74
Large-scale mining has also had a strong environmental and social impact in the Brazilian Amazon. Canadian gold companies in Godofredo Viana in the State of Maranhão (Equinox Gold) and in Pedra Branca do Amapari in the State of Amapá (Great Panther Mining) each produce over four tons of gold per year. In Peixoto de Azevedo, in the State of Mato Grosso, ASGM and LSM have severely disrupted the Peixoto de Azevodo river, an area inhabited by isolated indigenous people.75
Caption: Map created by Lobo et al. (2016) indicating (a) the Gold Mining District in the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon established by the federal government in 1983 and (b) the distribution of mining sites and infrastructure in the four sub-basins.
A Gold Rush in Brazilian Indigenous Territories
Relaxed enforcement of illegal gold mining in Brazil in the past few years, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a loosening of environmental protections under Bolsonaro, has had severe consequences for the rainforest and indigenous communities. The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) reported that in 2019 illegal deforestation caused by gold mining broke a record: 10,500 hectares lost, an increase of 23% over the previous year, with Tapajós the most affected region.77 According to data from January-June, the trend in 2020 appears to be worsening, with 2,230 hectares lost inside conservation units and 1,016 hectares inside indigenous territories, an 80% increase compared to the same period in 2019.78
Indigenous communities are paying the price for this deluge. The Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) of the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) conducted a study across three Amazon indigenous territories (Yanomami, Kayapó, Munduruku) and found that 10,245 hectares were cleared by illegal miners from 2017-2019, with 44% of damage occurring in 2019.79 Elevated mercury levels have been found among Yanomami people living in proximity to ASGM sites.80 Experts also assert that stagnant pools induced by mining activities are increasing incidences of malaria among native and mining populations.81
In mid-June 2020, two members of the Yanomami tribe, South America’s largest isolated indigenous group, were killed, igniting fears of a second “Haximu Massacre,” a bloody 1993 conflict in which miners killed 16 tribesmen and Yanomami killed two miners. After the Yanomami launched the “Miners out, Covid out” campaign, a federal judge ordered the Bolsonaro administration to stop the spread of the pandemic by removing 20,000 invading miners within ten days.82 While this is a victory, some stakeholders fear the ruling will push miners into Yanomami territory in Venezuela. Additionally, it does not address gold mining in the Munduruku and Kayapó lands, which according to MAAP have inflicted even more damage.
- In Madre de Dios, over 100,000 hectares of forest have been lost in the last four decades, at least 5,400 hectares of which have been converted into mining ponds.
- More than 3,000 tons of mercury have been dumped into rivers in the Peruvian Amazon in the last 20 years and elevated mercury levels in local populations are widespread.
- While the Peruvian government’s 2019 Operation Mercury substantially reduced illegal ASGM, the local population has suffered economically and authorities report an expansion into isolated areas, including indigenous territories.
In 2019, Peru was the largest gold producer in Latin America and the tenth largest in the world, officially exporting about 143.3 tons.
In 2019, Peru was the largest gold producer in Latin America and the tenth largest in the world, officially exporting about 143.3 tons.83 While the numbers vary, the Peruvian government estimated between 300,000-500,000 artisanal and small-scale gold miners working in Peru as of 2014.84
In recent decades, Peru has experienced an explosion in ASGM in the Amazonian region of Madre de Dios, particularly around La Pampa, a city of about 25,000 in what is known as the “Buffer Zone” of the Tambopata National Reserve. The high price of gold ($1,300-$2,000/oz) has attracted thousands of migrants, particularly from the Andes, most of whom turn to mining to escape extreme poverty and unemployment. While estimates of illegal miners in the region vary considerably, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) stated in 2018 that half of the population of Madre de Dios was involved in ASGM, or about 70,000 people.85
Although this gold rush brought some economic benefits (illegal mining constitutes about 60% of the region’s economy86), it has left many negative impacts on the environment and human health. A 2018 study of the Peruvian Amazon concluded that 100,000 hectares were deforested due to ASGM activities over the last 34 years, with about 65,000 hectares deforested from 2010 to 2017.87 Despite strict laws protecting the Buffer Zone around the Tambopata Reserve, illegal miners have cut down over 20,000 hectares of forest since 2016 and converted an area roughly the size of Manhattan into pools contaminated with mercury.88 Furthermore, in the last 20 years, more than 3,000 tons of mercury has been dumped into the Peruvian Amazon, with about 185 tons released per year.89
A 2018 study of the Peruvian Amazon concluded that 100,000 hectares were deforested due to ASGM activities over the last 34 years, with about 65,000 hectares deforested from 2010 to 2017.
Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon has also resulted in the expansion of criminal activity and labor abuses. As with neighboring Colombia, gold has surpassed cocaine as Peru’s most valuable illicit export. Since 2010, at least 50,000 children have been forced to work in illegal gold mines or subjected to sex trafficking in mining camps and in 2017 Madre de Dios police uncovered a mass grave with 20 burned bodies thought to be laborers from illegal mining camps.93 Thousands of women and children are vetted to work in bars that also serve as brothels and then have few options to escape. In 2016, local police estimated up to 4,500 trafficked girls in Peru’s La Riconada region alone.94
This photo of numerous gold prospecting pits in eastern Peru was taken by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Operation Mercury and its Aftermath
Responding to global outcry and local unrest, the Peruvian government launched Operation Mercury in 2019, forcibly expelling and arresting thousands of illegal miners in La Pampa. As a result of this operation, the MAAP project reported that deforestation from gold mining in 2019 was reduced by 92% compared to 2018.95 Although the region’s current governor is making bold efforts to regulate mining and generate tax revenue, the decrease in ASGM activity plunged the region into a recession and precipitated a rise in crime that has hurt the local ecotourism sector.96
Furthermore, evidence suggests illegal mining has expanded in isolated areas in the region, particularly in indigenous communities. Boca Pariamanu, one of the multiple native communities in Madre de Dios, has seen a 70% increase in 2020 around its territory.97 As a result of contamination of the nearby Pariamanu river with mercury from these operations, the Amahuaca people stopped eating fish and installed new drinking water systems. Additionally, indigenous leaders from the 4,000-hectare Amarakaeri Communal Reserve report expelling illegal miners and are concerned that activities will go unchecked amid Covid-19, a period of heightened vulnerability to illegal incursions.98
- The artisanal gold mining sector in Colombia is among the fastest growing in Latin America and mercury pollution is among the severest in the world.
- About 87% of Colombian gold production comes from the informal and illegal sector, 50% of which is associated with criminal groups.
- As of 2019, about 52% of alluvial gold mining operations took place in protected areas and 88% in the non-Amazonian departments of Chocó, Antioquia, and Bolivar
- In the bioverse, tropical region of Chocó, alluvial gold mining has impacted over 35,000 hectares of land.
Gold mining in Colombia is characterized by its unusually high association with organized crime, with about 50% of all illegal gold linked to criminal groups.
Between 2014-2019, alluvial gold mining in Colombia impacted over 145,000 hectares of land and, in 2019, resulted in the loss of about 7,000 hectares of forest cover with “high environmental value,” as defined by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). As of 2019, about 52% of alluvial mining operations took place in protected areas and 88% in the non-Amazonian departments of Chocó, Antioquia, and Bolivar.107 In the tropical forests of Chocó, which boast over 50,000 species, alluvial gold mining impacted over 35,000 hectares of land.108 Although about 35% of Colombia in land mass is Amazon rainforest, 1% or less of alluvial gold mining took place in Amazonian departments as of 2019. Nonetheless, the national natural park most affected109 (75 hectares) by alluvial mining in 2019 is located in the Amazonas region (the Puinawai National Nature Reserve) and about 138 hectares of the Amazonia Forest Reserve have also been affected. Mercury pollution in Colombia is among the worst in the world, with 50 to100 tons of mercury released into rivers each year.110 Due to mercury and cyanide contamination from mining operations, the Atrato River in Chocó has become the most polluted river in Colombia.111
Figure 1. Map of alluvial gold mining distribution in Colombia, with bronze dots indicating land operations and red dots indicating evidence of river operations.
Source: UNODC 2020 https://www.unodc.org/documents/colombia/2020/Octubre/Informe_EVOA_2019_ESP_B.pdf
2.4 The Guianas
- Gold mining is the greatest threat to forests in the Guianas, accounting for over 70% of deforestation in Guyana and Suriname and over 120,000 hectares of loss since 2000.
- Guyana is a regional hub of mercury trade, importing about 22 tons per year, while in Suriname about 50 tons are released into the environment per year.
- Elevated mercury levels have been recorded in Amerindian and Afro-indigenous populations (Maroons) in all three countries.
The gold sector in Suriname, a multi-ethnic country with the highest percentage of forest cover in the world, is particularly significant. With over 80% of its income from gold exports,119 Suriname reached an annual official production of 32.8 tons in 2019,120 making it the tenth largest gold producer in the world relative to country size. French Guiana is a French territory with a better standard of living than other Guiana countries and more effective government enforcement. Nonetheless, despite official production rates of around 2 tons of gold per year, other estimates have found that actual total extraction counting illegal activities is closer to 10 tons, worth about a half billion dollars.121
It should be noted that roughly 60-75% of gold miners in Suriname and French Guiana are Brazilians who crossed the border illegally and a large share of mining takes place on the lands of the Maroon People, an Afro-Indigenous group with members directly and indirectly active in the mining economy.122
In Guyana, an impoverished nation where gold mining is more formalized than most other Latin American countries, small and medium-scale gold mining account for about two-thirds of gold production and in 2014 artisanal mining supplied about 14% of total GDP.123 As the only country in the Guianas that still imports licensed mercury, Guyana also functions as a hub of illegal mercury trade to Suriname and Brazil. Since Guyana joined the Minamata Convention, annual imports of mercury have decreased, though the average annual import since 2014 of over 22 tons per year is still substantial.124
Mercury released into the environment from ASGM, which primarily enters the Guianas through Guyana and China, reaches up to about 50 tons per year in Suriname, where gold production is highest.134 Elevated mercury levels, occurring primarily from methylmercury exposure through fish consumption, have been found in Amerindian tribes and Maroon groups in Suriname,135 French Guiana (Wayana tribe),136 and Guyana.137 Furthermore, immigrant Brazilian miners in French Guiana, a marginalized population with poor health and access to social services, have triggered malaria outbreaks and experts fear their strenuous lifestyle in remote areas may encourage the spread of additional zoonotic illnesses.138
- While the total mineral extraction area (>1,000,000 ha) and number of small-scale miners (~100,000 miners) is high compared to other Amazon countries, existing datasets do not report significant Amazon deforestation.
- According to research published in 2016, the Bolivian gold mining sector emits about 93 tons of mercury per year, 7-20 tons of which end up in the Pantanal and Amazon lowlands.
- When Peru banned mercury imports, Bolivia’s mercury imports skyrocketed, becoming the second largest importer in the world and hitting a peak of almost 40 tons in 2015
- Data gaps exist in documenting Bolivia’s total environmental degradation and mercury exposure of affected populations.
Bolivia contains the third greatest amount of Amazon landcover and about 100,000 artisanal and small-scale gold miners.139 The small-scale mining sector is organized into cooperatives, which produced about 90% of the country’s 30-ton total official gold production in 2018.140 Roughly 30% of gold production is illegal in Bolivia, a moderate figure when considering that there are very few large-scale mining operations active in the country.141 Due to its sophisticated organization and political influence, the mining sector in Bolivia is less associated with violent conflicts and labor abuses, although cases of exploitation of miners by cooperative leaders do exist.142
As with many other Amazon countries, ASGM and medium-scale gold mining have increased in Bolivia over the last two decades, especially in the departments of Pando and Beni, which intersect the Amazon biome, and in Santa Cruz.143 However, according to available data, deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon from ASGM is relatively mild, with principal hotspots in 2018 related to agricultural activities.144 145 According to RAISG (2018), Bolivia has among the highest mineral extraction areas of any Amazon country (1,129,103 hectares), but a relatively small percentage (<1%) of active mining in proportion to total area of Amazon rainforest.
When Peru banned mercury imports, Bolivia’s mercury imports skyrocketed, becoming the second largest importer in the world and hitting a peak of almost 40 tons in 2015.
According to the World Resource Institute, illegal mining affects 16 indigenous territories in Bolivia. Along the Bolivian Madre de Dios river, miners’ relationship to five overlapping indigenous communities (the Esse Ejja, the Machineri, the Cavineño, the Tacana and the Yaminahua) reportedly range from symbiotic to hostile.150 Although research on mercury poisoning in Bolivia is scarce, one study on the Beni River basin found lower levels than typical Amazonian populations, but higher concentrations in more remote tribes, such as the Esse Ejja.151
- Precipitated by economic collapse and the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc in 2016, Venezuela has the highest percentage of illegal gold production in Latin America (~90%).
- Mining concessions in Venezuela cover a higher percentage of land in the Amazon basin and more total area in indigenous territories than any other Amazon country.
- Estimates of total miners and deforestation in Southern Venezuela vary considerably, ranging from 250,000-500,000 miners and 80,000-280,000 hectares.
The recent increase in gold mining is in large measure due to the “Orinoco Mining Arc,” an area the size of Portugal, established in 2016 by the Maduro Regime, containing one of the world’s largest gold reserves.157 The Arc is an effort to offset losses from the collapse of the oil industry, hyperinflation and international financial pressure. Although the majority of gold is smuggled outside of the country, state-run enterprises both mine and purchase illegally mined gold, which is then diverted to Venezuela’s Central Bank and either deposited or exported.158 The country reported producing about 28 tons in 2019159 and internally purchasing 9 tons in 2018,160 though rampant illegality makes these estimates suspect.
Crime, violence, and human rights violations are prevalent in the Orinoco Mining Arc, which has been identified as a security threat to the United States.
The Orinoco Mining Arc contains over 190 indigenous communities. Over 6,000,000 hectares in indigenous territories are designated for mining, significantly more than any other Amazon country.164 It is difficult to determine what portion of this mining is invasive. In some cases, armed cartels and miners exploit or even enslave indigenous people, as in the case of members of the Yanomami tribe, some of whom were found with identifying numbers tattooed on their shoulders.165 Elsewhere, indigenous groups like the Pemon people, who occupy a nature preserve in the State of Bolívar, have been engaged in gold mining and a series of armed land conflicts, in order to survive amid the collapse of the tourist industry.166
Satellite images confirmed illegal gold mining in Canaima National Park near Auyantepui (Angel Falls) pictured on the previous page.
- Illegality and the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector are significant, accounting for about 85% and 77% of total gold production, respectively.
- Gold production is highest in Southern Ecuador, with hotspots in Nambija in the Amazonian Province of Zamora-Chinchipe, Ponce Enriquez in the Province of Azuay, and Portovelo-Zaruma, in the Province of El Oro.
- A 2015 mercury-use ban resulted in some reduction but coincided with increased cyanide-use, posing environmental and health risks via mercury-cyanide complexes.
- Data gaps exist in documenting Ecuador’s total environmental degradation and mercury exposure of affected populations.
ASGM accounts for 85% of total production in Ecuador, with estimates ranging from 90,000-200,000 miners.
Although Ecuador banned mercury in 2015, the majority of gold mining processing centers continue using it and many have also expanded the use of cyanide.
Indigenous groups in the Ecuadorian Amazon have historically been greatly affected by and resistant to the aggressive expansion of the oil and mining industries. Following a series of illegal incursions, the Kofan people of Sinangoe won a landmark case in 2018, halting the development of over 52 mining concessions along the Aguarico River and protecting nearly 32,000 hectares of land.185 Furthermore, the Shuar peoples, one of the largest indigenous groups in the Amazon, along with other non-indigenous farmers, have recently appealed to the Constitutional Court of Ecuador and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) to contest a large-scale, multinational mining project (Mirador). Mirador is currently an open-pit copper mining operation, which resulted in forced evictions and the loss of up to 120 hectares from 2010-2015.186 While currently copper-focused, Mirador also sits on 3.4 million ounces of gold and 27.1 million ounces of silver.187
63 Azevedo-Ramos & Moutinho, 2018
64 Kolen et al., 2013
65 Fritz et al., 2018
66 USAID, 2019
67 Gold Hub, 2020
68 Semana Sostenible, 2020
69 Lobo et al., 2016
70 Sousa et al., 2011
72 Alvarez-Berríos & Aide, 2016
73 USAID, 2019
74 Dalberg & WWF, 2018
75 Semana Sostenible, 2020
76 Sonter et al., 2017
77 Semana Sostenible, 2020
78 Gonzaga, 2020
79 Finer, 2020
80 Vega et. al., 2018
81 Langlois, 2020
82 Branford, 202083 Workman, 2020
84 United States Agency of International Development, 2020
85 GEF, 2018
86 Catanoso, 2020
87 Caballero Espejo, et al., 2018
88 Caballero, 2020
89 Dalberg & WWF, 2018
90 Carnegie Amazon Mercury Ecosystem Project, 2013
91 Centro Nacional de Epidemiología, Prevención y Control de Enfermedades, 2017
92 Ashe, 2012
93 Testimony of Richard H. Glenn
94 GIATOC, 2016
95 Villa & Finer, 2019
96 Catanoso, 2020
97 Villa & Finer, 2019
98 Salcedo, 2020
99 Bebbington et al., 2018
100 PlanetGOLD, (n.d.)
101 Verdad Abierta, 2017
102 UNODC, 2018
103 Castilla et al., 2015
104 UNODC, 2020
105 Castilla et al., 2015
106 Verité, 2016
107 UNODC, 2018
109 UNODC, 2020
110 Sarmiento, et al., 2013, 46-67
111 Gillingham & Valenzuela, 2019
113 OECD, 2017
114 UNODC, 2020
115 Guarnizo, 2018
116 Press, 2019
117 Ebus & Leeuwin, 2020b
118 Dezécache et al., 2017
119 Ebus & Leeuwin, 2020a
120 Goldhub, 2020
121 Douine et al., 2018
122 Heemskerk & Olivieira, 2004
123 World Bank, 2019
124 Ebus & Leeuwin, 2020b
126 Goldhub, 2020
127 IGF, 2017
128 Ebus & Leeuwin, 2020b
129 Douine et al., 2018
131 Popkin, 2019
132 Guyana Forestry Commission, 2018
133 Dezécache et al., 2017
134 Ebus & Leeuwin, 2020a
135 Ouboter et al., 2018
136 Fréry et al., 2001
137 Watson et al., 2020
138 Douine et al., 2018
139 Bebbington et al., 2018
141 Verité, 2016
142 Hendus, 2020
143 Salman et al., 2013
144 Ortega, 2015
145 MAAP, 2019
146 Ebus, 2020
147 WWF, 2016
148 UN Environment, 2017
149 Caballero Espejo, et al., 2018
150 Salman et al., 2013
151 Bénéfice et al., 2009
152 No Ciation
153 Zuñiga, 2019
154 Vallejos et al., 2020
155 Montiel & Benezra, 2019
156 Despacho del Comisionado para la Organización de las Naciones Unidas (DCONU), 2019
157 Testimony of Carrie Filipetti
158 Rendon et al., 2020
159 Goldhub, 2020
160 Costa, 2020
161 Testimony of Carrie Filipetti
162 United Nations Human Rights, 2020
163 Transparencia Venezuela, 2019
164 Vallejos et al., 2020
165 Wagner, 2016
166 Transparencia Venezuela, 2019
168 Testimony of Carrie Filipetti
169 DCONU, 2019
170 Efecto Cocuyo, n.d.
171 Ebus, 2019
172 Sos Orinoco, 2019
173 Ibarra, 2017
174 Human Rights Watch, 2020
175 Thomas et al., 2019
176 Bebbington et al, 2018
177 Banco Central del Ecuador, 2018
178 Goldhub, 2020
179 Gonçalves et al, 2017
180 United Nations Comtrade, 2019
181 Thomas et al., 2019
183 RPP Noticias, 2020
184 González-Merizalde et al., 2016
185 Mainville, 2018
186 Vallejos et al., 2020
187 Llangari, 2019