Katy Ashe: What gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon looks like on the ground

By Katy Ashe / Mongabay

On the back of a partially functioning motorcycle I fly down miles of winding footpath at high-speed through the dense Amazon rainforest, the driver never able to see more than several feet ahead. Myriads of bizarre creatures lie camouflaged amongst the dense vines and lush foliage; flocks of parrots fly overhead in rainbows of color; a moss-covered three-toed sloth dangles from an overhanging branch; a troop of red howler monkeys rumble continuously in the background; leafcutter ants form miles of crawling highways across the forest floor. Even the hot, wet air feels alive.

Suddenly, the forest stops. Bone dry, dusty air burns my nostrils. The harsh equatorial sun, no longer filtered through layers of canopy and understory vegetation, beats down with full force. We are in a vast expanse of sandy desert, the tree line barely visible on the other side. The scar of deforestation reaches miles into the horizon.

An apocalyptic scene unfolds. Enormous muddy craters pepper the sandy terrain, filled with makeshift mining rigs. Illegal gold-miners in tattered clothing stand beside deafening rickety motors sucking earthen slurry through large hoses. Their faces are covered in motor oil and dirt, and they slump wearily from eighteen-hour days. Packs of men holler from the pits as I pass, misinterpreting me as a new prostitute for the camp.

This is the scene I pass through each morning on my way into the illegal gold-mining zones of Madre de Dios, Peru. Being a Stanford University graduate student in environmental engineering, I came to this region of the upper Amazon to study the mercury levels in the human population. These illegal mines use mercury to scavenge tiny flecks and pebbles of gold dust out of the slurry.

Mercury is being released in quantities of around 40 tons each year in this region. The detrimental toxin makes its way into the food, water and air that sustains the diverse peoples and animals found here. It is touching all life in this basin; poisoning even those that have no part in the mining industry and live nowhere near a mining zone. I was intent on determining the extent of mercury poisoning caused by the dramatically increasing mining activity.

Located in the western Amazon Basin, this is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. Home to some of the most unspoiled tracts of Amazon Rainforest remaining; it is a vibrant sanctuary of species. Unfortunately, it is rapidly disappearing as artisanal gold-mining has become a booming industry in the past several years. The global market price for gold has doubled in the past year alone, with skyrocketing prices fueled by fear during the global economy crisis.

Record high prices for gold have led to a boom in illegal gold mining in Peru; employing 100,000 people nationally and valued at $640 million a year. A poor migrant population, typically from the Peruvian highlands is flocking predominantly to this region of the Amazon Rainforest; there are approximately 300 new arrivals to the region each day, typically looking for work in gold mining. The government verifies that 2,000 square miles (over 500,000 hectares) of rainforest in Madre de Dios have been destroyed to date due to mining, but the environment groups on the ground claim the figure is actually threefold. The exact number is hard to pin down as the rate of deforestation has more than tripled in the last three years.

The mining zones are the Wild West in the worst possible way. The seemingly endless winding avenues of shanty towns sprawl out across the center of the mining zones; filled with makeshift abodes, brothels, restaurants, night clubs all constructed of black and blue tarps. Cities set up nearly overnight, and by morning the residents are hastily destroying one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.

The immediate devastation is obvious: slash and burned forest, river channels with heaping rubble, sluiceways through which thousands of tons of Amazon soil are blasted with high-pressure water hoses.

Drunkards stumble down the main corridors at all hours of the day. Women sit out front of the brothels in plastic lawn chairs, lazily advertising their respective tents. Infants splash in the mercury-contaminated mining ponds as children throw rusted metal objects at each other. I grab a jagged, rusty, iron hoop from a toddler boy, only to be reprimanded by his mother for stealing his toy.

I come from a world where a broken mercury thermometer in my high school classroom spurred evacuation for the afternoon and extensive cleaning by people in hazmat suits. This child lives in a world where mercury is often viewed as an acceptable laxative–the incredible weight of mercury essentially pushes everything out of your digestive tract.

Mercury has been used in gold mining since the time of the Inca. But the releases that we are seeing now are devastating. Unfortunately, there is little knowledge in the mining camps about how to properly use mercury. They hold mercury in their bare hands and mix the toxic metal into buckets of dirt with their bare feet. Once they’ve recovered the mercury-gold mixture from the dirt, they heat the mercury off of the gold in a frying pan over an open flame, causing it to turn into a vapor form that is incredibly dangerous to breath. Local superstitions have led to rejection of mercury recycling technologies. The fact that mining this way is an illegal activity makes it nearly impossible to intervene with educational programs.

Read more from Mongabay: http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0315-ashe_goldmining_peru.html

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