Researchers led by the Carnegie Institution for Science are using airborne mapping and satellite equipment to show the true extent of the damage that illegal gold mining inflicts on the Peruvian rainforest. The total area affected by mining in the southeastern Madre de Dios region of Peru increased by 400% from 1999 to 2012, while the rate of forest loss has also tripled since the 2008 global economic crisis when the price of gold climbed to new highs. Working alongside Peru’s environment ministry, the study revealed thousands of small, clandestine mines that went unmonitored until now.

Carnegie Institution for Science, 3D rainforest mapping, Carnegie Airborne Observatory, Greg Asner, illegal gold mining in Peru, rainforest devastation in Peru, deforestation in PeruErnesto Raez Luna, Peruvian environment ministry, Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-lite, CLASlite

Gold miners across the region work in thousands of small groups, which means high-resolution equipment is needed to accurately map their activity. Carnegie’s Greg Asner developed the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), a system that uses algorithms to detect changes to the forest in areas as small as 10 square meters (about 100 square feet). This remarkable piece of equipment allowed the team to find small-scale disturbances that a traditional satellite would have missed.

The CAO can determine the location of a single standing tree at a 1.1 meter (3.5 feet) resolution. The plane uses lasers to produce a 3D image, which can be combined with information from field surveys to confirm up to 94% of the mines detected initially by the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-lite (CLASlite). Arner spoke about the team’s findings: “Our results reveal far more rainforest damage than previously reported by the government, NGOs, or other researchers.”

Rainforest devastation increased from 5,350 acres (2,166 hectares) per year before 2008 to 15,180 acres (6,145 hectares) each year after the 2008 global financial crisis, and gold mining has released sediment into rivers which affects the local ecosystem and the indigenous population.

Ernesto Raez Luna, an advisor with the Peruvian environment ministry, outlined how the government plans to use the information: “We are using this study to warn Peruvians of the terrible impact of illegal mining in one of the most important enclaves of biodiversity in the world, a place that we have vowed, as a nation, to protect for all humanity. Nobody should buy one gram of this jungle gold. The mining must be stopped.”

Via The Guardian

Images by Carnegie Airborne Observatory