Mining and deforestation in South America: All that is gold does not glitter
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Mining and deforestation in South America: All that is gold does not glitter

While a gold rush may be associated with booming wealth, the vast majority of money generated by gold mining is reserved for a select few, with minimal leftovers for the workers who do the dirty, dangerous work. Particularly in the developing world, this is coupled with poisoning of local water, soil and air as well as deforestation. Small scale, so-called “artisanal” mining is largely unregulated, poorly paid and backbreaking work and miners risk poisoning from hazardous chemicals.

Yet some 15 million people are engaged in this type of mining in 50 countries around the world. While overall global gold production has risen only modestly, the real boom has been in Latin America.

Gold rushes aren’t just precipitated by sudden discoveries of large reserves of the precious metal, but largely by rising international gold prices coupled with the cost-effectiveness in a given region. Over the past few years, the increasing value of gold has contributed to environmental devastation and a human health crisis in Peru. Gold became the country’s number one export, with most of the product heading to wealthy countries like the United States, Canada and Switzerland. Yet according to a new study, the major factor driving the gold boom is actually the personal consumption of gold jewelry in China and India.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, puts things into perspective and focuses on the largely ignored phenomenon of deforestation due to gold mining. While deforestation from mining occurs on a smaller scale than land clearing for agricultural and logging purposes, it uses more poisonous chemicals, such as cyanide, mercury and arsenic, which spread throughout the surrounding area via waterways. These chemicals contaminate the water supply, harming aquatic animals and people, and slow the growth of local crops.


Sunction dredge mining for gold in the Madre de Dios River, Peru. Photo: Steve Kessler, USDA Forest Service.

The current boom is mostly affecting certain forested regions in South America: the Southwestern Peruvian Amazon, the Tapajós-Xingú region of the Brazilian Amazon Basin, the moist forest eco-region of Guyana and northern Colombia’s Magdalena Valley.

From the Guardian:

Much of the destruction occurred in environmental protection areas, most notably near Itaituba in the Tapajós basin, which the authors describe as the most important gold producing region of Brazil. About 200,000 people are believed to be employed by small-scale mining in the Brazilian Amazon, following a 10-fold rise between 1990 and 2010.

The only way consumers can combat gold-driven deforestation is to refrain from buying gold that is not marked “fair trade” or by purchasing vintage gold jewelry, rather than new. Fortunately, there is a movement in Peru’s highlands towards fair trade gold mining. The small but growing company Sotrani, working together with Lima-based NGO Cooperacción, has achieved fair trade certification from FLO, the international fair trade labeling organization.

From the Ecologist:

The FLO classification involves rigorous and regular checks over such matters as the company’s relations with its workforce, the benefits it brings the local community and its impact on the local environment.

The involvement of Cooperacción stemmed from a campaign to stamp out child labour in the mining industry. It is common for artisanal miners to use their children as workers, a practice that the ILO has sought to eliminate.

In addition to its high level of worker participation, Sotrani does not use mercury and captures and recycles any other toxic chemicals it uses for processing.

At present, fair trade gold makes up only a small portion of the global gold market, but hopefully environmental awareness and human rights concerns will prompt consumers to choose fair trade, thereby increasing its market share.