- Illegal gold mining has been ramping up in southern Peru for years, spurred by high gold prices and difficult enforcement.
- Researchers discovered gold mining had entered Tambopata National Reserve late last year; by July, it had led to the deforestation of more than 350 hectares.
- The deforestation has reached Tambopata's untouched tracts of primary forest.
- Efforts by the government to stamp out the illegal mining have met with little success.
Illegal gold mining is a major issue in southern Peru, even in the country’s protected areas. A recent analysis finds that the quest for the precious metal has pushed even further into Tambopata National Reserve, displacing hundreds of hectares of Amazon rainforest in its wake.
As gold prices continue to hover at a two-year high on the international market and regulation enforcement remains lax, illegal mining in Peru’s Madre de Dios Department shows little sign of abating. Satellite data show large swaths of forest felled for extraction near Puerto Maldonado; imagery shows rivers widened and sullied.
Just south of the Madre de Dios River lies Tambopata National Reserve, home to hundreds of species of mammals and birds, among other wildlife, as well as Indigenous communities. For the past few years, researchers at the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) watched through satellites as mining-related deforestation inched closer and closer to the reserve. Then, late last year, they observed it crossing the Upper Malinowski River that forms Tambopata’s northern boundary.
Since then, they’ve found gold mining activity has cleared more than 350 hectares of rainforest – an area equivalent to around 480 soccer fields.
Data from Global Forest Watch show that this mining-related deforestation is occurring in an Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) in Tambopata. Comprised of particularly large, continuous tracts of primary forest, IFLs contain their original levels of biodiversity and are considered hallmarks of a pristine environment.
Gold mining affects more than just forest. Mercury is often used to separate ore from sediment and easily escapes downstream and into the atmosphere. The heavy metal reverberates and accumulates in toxic levels up the food chain. A study by Duke University last year found mercury concentrations in fish 350 miles downstream from Madre de Dios mining sites exceeded the World Health Organization’s safe consumption levels. Eating too many high-mercury fish has been linked to neurological disorders. Children and developing fetuses are particularly sensitive to the effects of mercury.
Rivers, too, are also threatened by the quest for gold. A previous analysis by MAAP found that the mining occurring along the Upper Malinowski River has shifted its course and degraded its water quality. Biologists familiar with the area warn this could threaten fish that have evolved to live in the river’s previously clear water.
Peru’s government has acknowledged the situation and attempted to stop illegal gold mining activities near Tambopata. In January, an intervention was launched that destroyed mining equipment and thousands of gallons of fuel. However, it didn’t seem to have much of an effect, with MAAP observing a subsequent ramp-up in mining activity in Tambopata in February. An April installment of a control post in the area was followed by a drop-off in the deforestation rate in June, but El Comercio reports the post has since been abandoned for lack of resources.
- Novoa S, Finer M, Olexy T (2016) Gold Mining Deforestation within Tambopata National Reserve exceeds 350 Hectares. MAAP: #39