Gold Mining the Amazon: Deforestation 2.0

Rainforest exploitation is a concept we have been sadly used to for years. Images of deforestation have long been a common sight in tropical countries, as illegal logging of trees and ever increasing pressure from agriculture keep claiming thousands of square kilometers of virgin forest every year. We’ve even grown accustomed to the idea of one forest being “replaced” with another: from rainforest trees to palm oil trees, millions of them. An industrial forest. But while these issues have long been known of, and are now beginning to be tackled by new policies in several countries, a new and increasing threat to rainforests is quickly emerging in the Amazon: illegal gold mining.

A mission by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (operated by Stanford University) was able to witness and record on video the ongoing devastation caused by the practice of “informal mining” in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon forest. The exploration team, led by Professor Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science, didn’t need the highly technological imaging devices at their disposal, to uncover the extent of the damage being caused to this once untouched land.

Tens of thousands of poor people are being drawn to the region in the hope to grab a share of the bounty that lies hidden underground, a classic gold rush that is leaving ever larger extensions of the Amazon not just razed to the ground, but also heavily polluted with the chemicals, mainly mercury, used to harvest the gold.

No vegetation is able to grow where such small-scale mining operations have taken place, leaving instead barren moonscapes dotted with pools of polluted water where once stood the most complex and rich ecosystem known to mankind. Furthermore, pollutants eventually drain into local rivers, poisoning the fish which constitutes a staple food for humans; recent studies (see CAMEP) have indeed revealed high levels of mercury in indigenous populations, particularly children. By comparison, tree logging and agriculture affecting the region almost look like benevolent practices.

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