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Carbon emissions from Peruvian gold mining ‘alarming,’ experts say

Amazon landscape scarred by open pit gold mines Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • According to a new study, small-scale gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon is contributing to the climate crisis.
  • The study developed a novel approach toward measuring carbon emissions through deforestation, drawing on Earth imagery from a network of nanosatellites.
  • In 2017, gold mining in one part of the Madre de Dios region emitted as much carbon as nearly 250,000 cars do in an average year.
  • The study’s authors say their new approach will help global efforts to monitor forest destruction and carbon emissions.

Gold mining in just 23,613 hectares (58,349 acres) of the Peruvian Amazon forest — an area about twice the size of the city of Paris — emitted as much carbon as nearly 250,000 cars between 2017 and 2018, according to a new study. The research covered the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru, a heavily forested high-biodiversity area that’s become the site of a gold rush.

In the past decade, prospectors have flooded into Madre de Dios from other parts of Peru hoping to capitalize on high gold prices.

Published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on Jan. 14, the study used a novel approach to assess forest damage, combining data from aircraft flyovers with images from a network of nanosatellites capable of providing detailed daily updates. The network is operated by Planet Labs Inc., a company that specializes in Earth imaging, and is comprised of more than a hundred Dove satellites, each about the size of a coffee table.

“The critical thing is that there are so many Planet satellites in orbit that they pass over all tropical forests every day,” Greg Asner, one of the report’s co-authors, said in an interview. “That’s a huge breakthrough technologically that nobody had yet hooked up to the issues we’re trying to address with forest conservation and management.”

According to experts, gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon picked up steam after the 2008 financial crisis, when gold prices began to skyrocket. In 2012, a major international highway connecting the coasts of Brazil and Peru was completed, making things worse by providing easy access to the Madre de Dios region for small-scale gold miners.

“The mining is mostly artisanal, which means it’s on the low end of the technological spectrum,” said Luis Fernandez, executive director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation. “We aren’t talking about large companies, we’re talking about something more similar to what happened in the [California] gold rush in the 1850s.”

Fernandez, who was not involved in the study, said migrants from other parts of Peru can earn “tens or hundreds” of times what they’d typically make in a month in just a single day of successful gold mining.

The Madre de Dios region is home to a number of indigenous communities, including the Ese’eja, who have frequently clashed with miners and loggers operating illegally on their land. It also contains the Tambopata National Reserve, a world-renowned biodiversity hotspot. 

According to the new study, gold mining in the region was responsible for 100,000 hectares (247,100 acres) of deforestation between 1984 and 2017 — 10% of which occurred in 2017 alone. That year, 155 metric tons of gold was removed from the Peruvian Amazon overall, at a current-day market value of almost $10 billion.

Damage caused by gold mining in Madre de Dios is so extensive that it can be seen from space and has encroached into Tambopata as well as the park’s surrounding buffer zones. In addition to the immediate environmental damage caused by mercury poisoning and deforestation, the study points to the contribution gold mining is making to another problem as well: climate change.

By combining satellite and aircraft imagery with a “deep learning” computer model, the authors were able to provide estimates for carbon emissions being caused by gold mining in Madre de Dios. In one heavily trafficked 23,613-hectare sector, an “alarming” 1.12 trillion grams of carbon was released in 2017 — the equivalent of over a million metric tons.

Researchers also found evidence of incursions into protected forests and crucial buffer zones, blaming “a lack of coordination between responsible agencies, corruption problems and inadequate funding.”

In early 2019, the Peruvian government launched Operation Mercury, a massive police and military operation in Madre de Dios intended to bring a halt to illegal gold mining. The operation has been tentatively heralded as a success, with early indications of a sharp drop-off in deforestation.

“I’ve seen data that shows a 90 or 95 % reduction of mining in [the La Pampa] focus area,” Fernandez said. La Pampa began as a small mining camp in Madre de Dios but grew to become a “gold rush” town of 25,000 people.

But, he added, since the operation at least some of the mining activity has simply shifted to adjacent areas where there is less enforcement: “The Peruvians call it the balloon effect. If you squeeze the balloon in one part it kind of pops out at the other.”

The study’s authors note the methods they developed to measure carbon emissions in the region will enable scientists and policymakers to have a clearer picture of conservation and forest management needs across the globe.

“One of the biggest problems is monitoring,” Asner said. “This is a huge breakthrough because it’s going to be harder for people to game the tropical forest system as these measurements from Earth’s orbit become more and more detailed.”

Asner said the team behind the study will soon be releasing data from Borneo that further demonstrates the value of their new approach.

“We know it worked well there too, so now we’re ready to take it global,” he said.

Banner image: Plane view of Amazon landscape scarred by open pit gold mining. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.


Csillik, O., & Asner, G. P. (2020). Aboveground carbon emissions from gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters15(1), 014006. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ab639c

Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist with expertise in international development policy, human rights, and environmental issues. His work has been featured in Al-Jazeera, Vice News, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @unkyoka.

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