The Peruvian Amazon is the world’s fourth largest tropical rainforest and an important biodiversity hotspot. But as usual, people are putting financial gain over preserving endemic and endangered species. As the price of gold has passed $1,700 an ounce, gold miners have swarmed the Amazon rainforest. Some are poor, desperate to feed and clothe their families. Some are downright greedy. Either way, digging up gold is speeding deforestation and other environmental travesties. New photos from the International Space Station show just how bad the rainforest looks.

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Illegal mining in Madre de Dios

Peru is the world’s sixth or seventh largest gold producer, depending on which list you consult. The U.S. alone imports about $2 billion worth of gold from Peru annually. An estimated 20% of that gold is illegally mined in places like Peru’s eastern state of Madre de Dios, which borders Bolivia and Brazil. While mining is illegal in much of the area, it’s not easy to catch the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 small-scale miners prospecting the rich ground of Madre de Dios. The sparsely inhabited state is about the size of Indiana. While mining is legal in some parts of the state, it’s illegal in national reserves and the surrounding buffer zones. But these human-made borders don’t stop people from mining.

Related: Amazon rainforest is becoming a carbon source due to deforestation

“Who is going to stop a poor man from Cuzco or Juliaca or Puno who earns $30 a month from going to Madre de Dios and starting to dig?” asked Antonio Brack Egg, Peru’s former minister of the environment, as reported in Smithsonian Magazine. If a prospector finds two grams of gold a day, he’s made more than he’s used to earning in a month.

The 2008 economic crisis accelerated the price of gold and sparked the gold rush. In 2011, a study in the journal PLOS One already identified gold mining as the leading cause of deforestation. Then things got worse. The building of the Southern Interoceanic Highway became the only road connection between Peru and Brazil. It was designed to promote tourism and trade. Additionally, it cut right through Madre de Dios, making it easy for Peruvians from all corners of the country to access previously uninhabited, gold-rich areas. Lack of local governance made it all the easier for gold mining to take over.

Now entire settlements that serve miners and their families have appeared in what used to be rainforest. And these settlements have become dangerous places full of illicit activity. Illegal mining is just the beginning. Other hazards of Madre de Dios include human trafficking, corruption, hitmen and money laundering. Mass graves have been found in the area.

gold lines running through Amazon rainforest satellite image

Environmental toll

Peruvian gold mining poses many risks to both the environment and human health. The most obvious — especially if you’re looking at the decimated area from space — is the thousands of acres of rainforest that are now a wasteland. Photos taken by the International Space Station show enormous pits of muddy water. These are gold-prospecting pits that have become more common than trees in some parts of the Amazon, a place where you used to find trees that were 1,200 years old. “Each pit is surrounded by de-vegetated areas of muddy soil,” Justin Wilkinson, a grant specialist at Texas State University, wrote for NASA’s Earth Observatory. “These deforested tracts follow the courses of ancient rivers that deposited sediments, including gold.”

Then you have rampant use of mercury. To separate gold from other minerals, miners boil mercury and add sediments. When they’re done with this toxic concoction, up to 50 metric tons of mercury are released into rivers or the atmosphere annually, some leaching into the watershed. The mercury makes its way into fish and, ultimately, into the humans who eat them. According to a 2012 PLOS One study, locals who ate a lot of fish from the mercury-soaked rivers were more than three times as likely to develop mercury poisoning as locals who didn’t eat fish.

While no one knows the exact acreage destroyed by mining, ranching, logging and other invasive industries in Peru, some estimates put it at 64,000 acres. The number might be much higher. Not only is the surface of the planet being stripped away, but the damage goes perhaps 50 feet deep. Habitat loss is further threatening already endangered species, like the maned wolf and marsh deer, and impinging on bird life, such as toucans and red macaws. The Amazon River basin contains about one-quarter of Earth’s terrestrial species. Many insects and plants that live there haven’t even been scientifically identified.

Crackdown on gold mining

In February 2019, the Peruvian government launched Operation Mercury. It declared a state of emergency and sent 1,800 army troops and police to try to stop the illegal gold mining. They set up both fixed bases and field sites, flying over jungle canopy to try to scope out mining operations and coaxing tips from locals. The approach was often heavy-handed, with tactics like setting fire to miners’ huts and possessions. A conviction of illegal mining in protected areas could reap a prison sentence of up to eight years. This kind of intense environmental crackdown was new to Peru, whose government has been better known for corruption than eco-friendliness. After five months, the government reported that deforestation from gold mining was down 90% from the year before. But the recent International Space Station images show that the issue is far from solved.

+ NASA

Via Live Science, PBS and Smithsonian Magazine

Images via International Space Station