There never seems to be any good news coming out of the Amazon. Last week it was the season’s apparent shifting and now it’s gold mining. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that previous estimates of damage from gold mining to the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon were woefully underestimated. According to their work, the area has seen mining operations grow from below 10,000 hectares (38.61 square miles) in 1999 to 50,000 hectares (193.05 square miles) in September of 2012 (it’s worth noting that Madre de Dios is known for its exceptionally high biodiversity, with a single hectare holding up to 300 tree species along with other flora and fauna; so losing 50,000 hectares is a pretty serious hit).
Since the global economic recession in 2008, when gold prices began rising steadily, the rate of mine expansion has tripled from 2,166 hectares per year before 2008 to 6,145 hectares per year between 2008 and 2012. These new findings dwarf previous estimates of deforestation from gold mining, most notably a similar study from 2009 which estimated around 15,500 hectares of deforestation and damage. For the same time period, this new study found more than double that amount of forest loss, a devastating 32,371 hectares
This immense difference emerges from which mines each group examined. The 2009 study, and most any other study whether governmental or nonprofit, looked at the three largest mines of the region, the Huepetuhe, the Guacamayo, and the Delta-1. This new study took into consideration the thousands of small-scale, largely illegal mining operations which are scattered throughout the Madre de Dios region, which account for roughly half of the total damage from the Amazon’s gold mining (meaning their collective impact matches that of the three largest mines that comprised the 2009 study). Mining in Madre de Dios is largely prohibited by the government, with only a few operations being allowed to extract the area’s precious resources. Despite this, the region supplies over 70% of the annual gold reserve for Peru.
The effects of gold mining are much more widespread than just those of deforestation (such as canopy damage and loss of carbon sequestration). All that digging and uprooting dislodges dirt and rock which makes its way into the water, which then disrupts aquatic ecosystems further downstream. The study didn’t examine how far down these effects can extend, but they are expected to reach hundreds of kilometers into the forest. The study also didn’t examine the effects that mining had on the spread of human settlements surrounding these smaller mines, and the impact they would have, which could be pretty serious as well.
Given that mining practices in the tropics don’t vary all that much, it may be that we need to re-evaluate how we’ve estimated global mining damage to the tropics. Just a thought.
Original article: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/46/18454.full