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Illegal mining in the Amazon ‘not comparable to any other period of its history’

  • A new study produced jointly by six Amazonian countries calls illegal mining in protected areas and indigenous territories of the Amazon rainforest “epidemic” due to its rapid expansion across the basin and lack of government planning to contain it.
  • The report features an interactive map, produced from satellite imagery and a suite of experts and published materials, showing more than 2,300 mining sites and 30 rivers destroyed or contaminated by illegal mining activities.
  • The vast majority of mining sites in the report were in Venezuela, followed by Brazil and Ecuador; the Madre de Dios department in southeastern Peru experienced the Amazon’s highest degradation caused by gold mining.

Illegal mining has become an “epidemic” in the Amazon rainforest, destroying naturally protected areas and threatening indigenous territories, according to a new joint study by six Amazonian countries.

The crux of the report is an interactive map that identifies at least 2,312 sites, 245 areas and 30 rivers affected by illegal mining across the Amazon. It was released by Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network, known as RAISG, earlier this month.

Initial damage from small-scale gold mining, adjacent to cleared forest along an Amazonian tributary. Mining strips the area bare, making restoration of abandoned mining sites difficult. Image by Sue Palminteri/Mongabay.

Illegal mining “is expanding into a powerful driver of destruction and contamination of the Amazon,” reads the report’s English storyboard, released the same day. The report also includes videos and interviews of affected communities.

While illegal mining in the Amazon has been a problem for decades, the new data shows levels that are “not comparable to any other period of its history,” the report reads.

Environmental organizations from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela contributed data, using various sources including satellite imagery, to map the mining sites. The research team also compiled data from experts, local communities, published news and scientific papers, and maps produced by government and civil society organizations.

Screenshot of the scope of RAISG’s illegal mining map. Users can click on individual mines to learn about the location, types of minerals, contaminants, and other issues related to the site. Image from RAISG’s illegal mining website.

Users of the map can click on a site to see information on the country, types of materials being mined, and the method or contaminants (such as mercury) used to access them. Where available, the map also provides the source of the information, as well as the mine’s social and environmental impacts, including deforestation, damage to conservation areas and loss of wildlife in rivers, forests and other natural ecosystems. RAISG will continue to update it as new data become available.

Beto Ricardo, head of RAISG, stated in the report that researchers “have decided to make it an issue for continuous monitoring” and will update the map periodically, since it’s an issue that’s not well known or documented and poses a major threat to Amazon ecosystems.

Close-up aerial view of a open-pit mine in the Amazon rainforest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Of all the sites mapped, the vast majority of cases appeared in Venezuela, followed by Brazil and Ecuador. The Peruvian department of Madre de Dios is considered the area with the highest degradation caused by gold mining in the whole Amazon.

According to researchers, major drivers of this illicit activity include the surging price of gold and the high global demand for other minerals, such as aluminum, iron, titanium, and niobium.

The mercury used to separate the grit from gold is of particular concern for indigenous people, since the toxin leaks into local rivers, contaminating their water supply and the fish they consume.

The expansive reach of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon affects rivers, surrounding forests, and the species that depending on them. This overhead view shows the Rio Huaypetue gold mine southeastern Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

One of the communities most affected by this contamination from gold prospecting is the Aracacá community in the Yanomami territory, which stretches across Venezuela and Brazil. Researchers found that 92 percent of all hair and fish samples they collected from the community had high levels of mercury. In communities farther from mining, mercury levels were significantly lower.

The report identifies 78 indigenous territories where illegal mining was taking place and affecting communities, the majority of which are located in Peru.

Intact riparian vegetation along the Madre de Dios River in southeastern Peru. Image by Sue Palminteri/Mongabay.

Researchers also pointed out that illegal mining often overlaps with areas where large-scale legal mining projects are underway.

Salvador Quishpe, an indigenous leader and politician of Ecuador’s southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, noted in the report that the problem stemmed from lack of government planning. That means that “mining concessions are given anywhere,” and then anyone can start to look for gold.

Small-scale gold mining operation along the Madre de Dios River in southeastern Peru. The miners scour the banks and bottom with high-powered water hoses, suck up the muddy mix, extract the gold from the sediment using mercury, and deposit piles of sediment along the sides of the river. The process dislodges the substrate, disturbs animals living at the bottom, releases chemicals and sediment into the water.
Small-scale gold mining along Peru’s Madre de Dios River. The miners scour the underwater substrate with high-powered water hoses, suck up the muddy mix, extract the gold from the sediment using mercury, and deposit piles of unwanted sediment along the sides of the river. The process dislodges the soil, disturbs animals living at the bottom, and releases chemicals and sediment into the water. Image by Sue Palminteri/Mongabay.

“So, the biggest problem is the lack of any determination as to which area is for what,” he told researchers, adding a caveat. “Whether mining is legal or illegal is not the issue, because as far as contamination is concerned, we do not see any difference, the effects of pollution are the same.”

Researchers have long called for better government coordination and monitoring of mining activities in the Amazon. But some environmentalists are skeptical this will happen, especially after Brazil’s recent election of the far-right wing Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to stop the protected demarcation of indigenous lands and end the system of fines imposed on companies that violate environmental laws.

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