Illegal gold mining is destroying Peru’s forests
Gold mining in Peru is responsible for the loss of 62,500 hectares of forest in the last 4 years, according to the newest report from the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). For calculating the forest loss MAAP used high-resolution satellite images.
Most of the deforestation happened in the region known as Madre de Dios, but it also extended to adjacent regions of Cusco and Puno, reported MAAP. It was caused by artisanal and small scale gold mining.
Even if the rate of deforestation was 42% lower than when gold mining was at its peak (2010-2012) almost half of it occurred within the buffer zones of three protected areas in the Tambopata National Reserve, Bahuaja Sonene National Park and Amarakeari Communal Reserve. Altogether illegal mining razed 6,406 hectares of forest in these areas.
Buffer zones are designed to boost the conservation value of the areas they surround but instead, gold mining counters have been responsible of clearing forests, changing the course of rivers and altering biological communities in the region.
More so, buffer zones lack incentives for monitoring and enforcement by government agencies, as Mikaela Weisse, Research Analyst at the World Resources Institute told Mongabay. Instead, Peru’s National Protected Areas Service SERNANP is able to shut down operations and levy fines in protected areas.
But the impact of gold mining extends beyond deforestation.
“Habitat fragmentation and degradation by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) operations has affected the composition of animal communities, and accelerated the extirpation of some species. In addition, ASM operations could alter species behavior (e.g. displace animals deeper into the forest) and have been linked to bushmeat hunting and consumption,” said a study published earlier this year in Tropical Conservation Science.
Also, the activity can have serious consequences for human health. Mercury is still largely used to collect flecks of gold and after it is burned it leaves toxic vapor behind. It can also enter the ecosystem through bacteria and accumulate in organisms like fish that are then consumed by humans.
Mercury contamination can cause tremors, insomnia, memory loss, among other symptoms and it has been already detected in Peruvian communities living close to illegal mining sites. Actually, the Madre de Dios region had a 60-day state of emergency earlier this year after studies revealed toxic levels of mercury in local communities.
Even if MAAP’s data suggests there’s been a decrease in the deforestation rate thanks to local officials operations there is still a lot of work to be done. Researchers recommend the implementation of “green gold” marketing strategies to avoid the commercialization of illicit gold, similar to the conflict-free diamonds.
Nonetheless, poverty is still at the heart of the problem, as most of the people doing this job do so because they don’t have an alternative.