Despite a recent UN report showing that the global deforestation rate has slowed by half, the world is still losing its forests. Since 1990 an area of forestland the size of South Africa has been destroyed. The largest losses have been in South America and Africa.
Illegal loggers are ransacking the “lungs of the Earth”
Among the areas most at risk is Peru’s Amazon rainforest, where aerial images have recently revealed three large-scale illegal logging operations that are being ignored by local authorities. The value of the tropical hardwood already illegally harvested is estimated to be around $30 million.
Images of 20 logging trucks and three 32-mile roads were captured by the Guardian newspaper, which also spoke to Peru’s Environmental Investigation Agency. The EIA explained a dire situation in which illegal loggers can go about their activity, earning millions, which they then launder and avoid paying taxes on.
A 2012 report by the World Bank estimated that around 80 percent of all logging in the Peru is illegal. The country is home to the Earth’s fourth largest rainforest, which covers nearly two-thirds of its entire territory.
All that is gold does not glitter
It isn’t just illegal logging that is destroying the Peruvian Amazon. Peru is one of the largest producers of minerals like gold, silver, copper and zinc.
Gold, in particular, has resulted in both environmental devastation and a human health crisis. Driven by demand in the U.S., Canada and Switzerland — and more recently China and India — Peru’s number one export is now gold. The country is number one in gold production in South America.
According to a study published in January in the British journal Environmental Research Letters, approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest were cleared for potential gold mining sites in South America between 2001 and 2013.
(source: Discovery News)
Some 20 percent of all gold mining taking place in the country is illegal, mainly in so-called artisanal mines. It is these unlawful, small-scale, unregulated operations that are the most environmentally destructive.
While gold mining, much of it illegal, may not cause deforestation on the same scale as logging or land clearing for agriculture, it makes use of poisonous chemicals such as mercury, cyanide and arsenic, which then contaminate local waterways, poisoning vegetation, aquatic animals and people.
Spiritual morality vs. capitalist greed: A clear conflict of interest
In a country that is 75 percent Catholic — many of them devout — it would stand to reason that Peruvians would overwhelmingly support Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment. In this rarest of papal letters, the Pope clearly criticizes capitalism’s plundering of the environment, specifically highlighting deforestation and gold mining.
The ecosystems of tropical forests possess an enormously complex biodiversity which is almost impossible to appreciate fully, yet when these forests are burned down or levelled for purposes of cultivation, within the space of a few years countless species are lost and the areas frequently become arid wastelands. [. . .]
The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.
—Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, ‘On Care For Our Common Home’
Yet in Peru, the short-term economic interests of big businesses and fears over job security seem to be trumping the Pope’s message, though he has strong support among those Peruvians concerned about the environment and social justice. Most politicians, meanwhile, are predictably indifferent.
So while deforestation may be slowing down on a global level, the Earth’s forests are still disappearing and being poisoned. All the while a few, select people are getting rich precisely because of this destructive deforestation.