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All That Glitters Is “Not” Gold


In a society that continuously becomes more materialistic, people regularly fail to consider how these materials were created. For many consumers in developed countries like the US or Europe, Apple products are almost as easy to acquire as picking an apple itself is from a tree, and each day the news will unveil the latest gadget or gizmo sure to attract millions of consumers. But, the behind the scenes action that goes into producing these materials we hold so near and dear to our hearts might create huge problems. Is it possible that the same materials we consider to be accelerating our society are actually crippling it into nearly unfixable conditions?

Metals, to highlight one material, serve a wide variety of purposes, from the structural support in bridges, to the accessory on your wrist that everyone will swoon over. However, most consumers would not consider the impacts of excessive amounts of mining on ecosystems when using a metal pot to cook, or when buying a gold watch. Specifically, mining in the Amazon has been an ongoing problem for centuries, with failed government leading to unregulated mining. Both legal and illegal mining have negative impacts on forest ecosystems. While legal mining concentrates on areas of known mineral richness, illegal mining is less precise and is much more destructive in terms of deforestation in the region (Peterson, 2001). In fact, 20% of mining occurs illegally and is one of the largest reasons why environmental degradation is at a rapid increase (Gardner, 2012). The quantity of gold collected from illegal miners in Peru exceeds all other Latin American counties, making it an especially large issue for the Peruvian environment (Daley, 2016). Unregulated mining has largely contributed to deforestation, river pollution, and mercury poisoning. In addition to its environmental cost, illegal mining has been associated with many ethical issues, including unregulated labor laws and displacement of indigenous people. Many South American countries, Peru being one example, have seen human sex trafficking occurring in illegal mining zones. In an effort to show the strength and severity that the mining industry has on the tropics, we highlight its effects on Madre de Dios, Peru, an area that has suffered the golden curse with unrest.

Figure 1. Mining entrance in the Madre de Dios are. Source:


In 1894, Carlos Fitzcarrald arrived in Madre de Dios, quickly negotiating with the Mashco people for cooperation and land (Anderson, 2016). Eight decades later, a trip to Madre de Dios would reveal a scattering of mines, displacing the Amarakaeri people and encouraging settlers, armed with shovels and picks, eager over the prospect of gold and precious metals (Gardner, 2012). These shovels, however, quickly transitioned to mechanical diggers and dump trucks, as the metals were rapidly unearthed and depleted from the surrounding area. The mineral industry in Peru is centered around arsenic trioxide, bismuth, copper, lead, molybdenum, rhenium, silver, tin, zinc, and gold, with gold being the most commonly mined metal (Gurmendi, 2009).

The government has long benefited from joint ventures in the fuel and mining industry, with international trade agreements supporting the Peruvian economy. In fact, Peru is ranked as the sixth-largest producer of gold in the world, although the issue arises that over 20% of mining is performed illegally. It is estimated that illegal mining is responsible for depriving the government US$305 million in taxes each year (Gardner, 2012). The informal mining operations rarely take into consideration environmental damage or in what condition to leave the mining area once they are done with it. With legal mining already greatly altering the environmental stability of the Amazon, it is of increasing importance to make government regulations more detailed and strict. While legal miners tend to concentrate on specific areas with rich underground collections of gold, illegal miners will sweep over large amounts of territory, cutting down numerous trees and walking away with just enough gold for a single wedding ring. Experts have argued that the amount of damage they leave behind could take up to 500 years to fully recover. Although policies are in place for mining, this only applies to legal mining, and illegal mining continues to be an unmanageable issue.

While metals in general are mined at astonishing rates, the gold rush has persistently been a human demand. Referred to as an aspirational commodity by Lowell Bergman, an investigative reporter from the New York Times, gold isolated from Peruvian mines is typically used in Chinese or American jewelry (Adams, 2005). The demand for gold is maintained by the US government, as well as the fact that gold has been important culturally for many countries. Additionally, gold has been a symbol of financial security for centuries, which could also explain why it is so heavily desired.. So long as people continue to demand gold, it provides an easy way for illegal miners to quickly collect money in the absence of other economic opportunities.

Although the process of mining is rather simple, it is this simplicity that has allowed mining to take over indigenous lands. Mercury is used in mining to separate gold from other metals (Siegel, 2011). When mercury reacts with other metals it forms alloys called amalgams. These amalgams are heated, evaporating mercury in the process, and leaving pure gold. Although mercury is abundant and cheap to use, it is leaked into the environment during the entire mining process via the vaporization and liquid runoff into streams. It is especially dangerous for the miners themselves, who typically hold a large leaf over the burning amalgam to prevent inhalation of the vapors. After, however, the leaf is thrown into the environment and is another way in which mercury can be introduced into the environment. Extraction techniques that did not rely on mercury would be the only way to prevent mercury contamination in the environment. Additionally, mining also draws water from nearby streams, canals, and aquifers thereby reducing the quantity of water available for subsistence agriculture, farming, and personal consumption (Bury, 2002).

Figure 2. Elaborate mining operation in the Madre de Dios region. Source:

Not only does mining accelerate environmental damage, it has led to unrest within indigenous communities who have little voice in the matter. In a case study completed in the Peruvian highlands of Cordillera Huayhuash, Newmont Mining Corporation’s gold mining activity commenced in 1993, and today the region has the largest gold mine in Latin America (Bury, 2002). Here, protests involving the indigenous people were studied to better understand the effect of global mining companies on local populations. At the Cordillera site, protests began at the Pallca Project mining operation of Mitsui Mining and Smelting in 1999. The relations between the miners and rural communities had changed drastically when the mining company punctured a large aquifer, polluting the community’s water source. Violent conformation broke out as natives desperately tried to remove mining companies from the area, all with no success. Similar protests have occurred throughout Peru, another one being at a stretch of highway referred to as the Devil’s Curve (Renique, 2007). On June 6 of 2007, police opened fire onto indigenous protesters, leaving so many dead or injured that the incident has been termed genocide by many. Protesters were fighting against policies that President Garcia had in place to give transnational companies unfettered access to Amazonian riches, such as mining. Argued as indigenous property rights, natives are willing to protest for land that is theirs. Although illegal mining poses such a large threat, these two case studies illustrate legal mining encouraged by the government and show how this is arguably just as large of an issue. A look at the current status of Peruvian mining also reveals that little has changed since protests began.

Current Status

Unregistered and illegal mining in Peru has increased 540% from 2005 to 2016, while legal mining, which brings tax revenue to the government, decreased by 28.5%. In the Madre de Dios region in particular, the geographic extent of gold mining increased 400% from 1999 to 2012 (Asner et al., 2013). These rates of gold mining are much higher than previously expected and show how fast the industry is growing in the Madre de Dios region, especially illegal and artisanal mining. Additionally, deforestation in the Madre de Dios region tripled after the 2008 financial crisis, up to 6,145 hectares a year, and this was closely associated with an increase in gold prices (Asner et al., 2013). Madre de Dios was recently put under strict Peruvian government regulation, in which mining was banned outside a 500,000 hectare corridor (Gardner, 2012). Miners have to formally register, a year long process which requires the design of a structured plan that considers the environmental impacts of the project. Through this system, the government hopes to regulate the industry as well as to protect the lands of indigenous peoples. This plan only applies to legal mining however, and does little to address the issue of illegal mining in the region.

Although government initiatives to reduce illegal mining have been put in place, they have not been very successful. Most government efforts follow a similar pattern of destruction of illegal mines by police force and then subsequent restoration by miners. In one example, 1300 police broke into over 40 illegal mining camps in La Pampa, but the camps were quickly restored in the following months (MAAP, 2016). Government officials are struggling to balance the fine line between economic wealth and environmental safety. According to the Peruvian Economy Institute (IPE), the Madre de Dios region had significant economic growth in the second trimester of 2015, with a growth rate of 29.7% compared to 2.4% in the first trimester (MAAP, 2016). This corresponded with reduced government regulation of illegal mining, showing how many in the region depend on the illegal mining to make money. A New York Times article recently published a story highlighting the tedious and ugly process of forcefully removing miners from illegal areas. One ranger described hiking over nine hours through water the color of milky coffee, polluted from miners that are scattered along the Amazon River (Daley, 2016). Illegal mining has become so large of a problem in Madre de Dios that environmentalists argue that this precious little area of diversity may not be able to withstand the amount of damage it has been subjected to.

Large scale mining is often associated with foreign corporations that do not pay any of the localized costs of pollution and environmental degradation. In La Oroya, Peru, an American-owned smelter has been polluting the city since 1922. Lead contamination has elevated blood levels in 99% of the children, and 35,000 people total have felt some negative impact in response to the mining. These lead levels were triple the WHO limit and although smelter emissions have been reduced, the expended led will remain for centuries with no plan to clean it up (Walsh, 2007). Heavy levels of pollution such as this have negative economic impacts due to the cost of cleanup efforts, medical costs, etc. Another example occurred in Brazil, where a dam holding wastewater from mines burst, which eliminated aquatic life for 600 kilometers downstream and contaminated drinking water (Escobar, 2015).

Forest loss due to mining is now the largest cause of deforestation in the region, even greater than agriculture and logging (Asner et al., 2013). Mining severely harms the soil structure, making it impossible for vegetation to grow in some areas. Forest recovery following mining is slow and inferior to forest recovery from other land uses, such as agriculture. In fact, large patches remain as bare ground, grasses, or standing water, rather than recovering to forest (Peterson & Heemskerk, 2001). In other regions of the Amazon, negative impacts on animal life have been documented. In one study, 50% of small mammal species at sampling sites were positively impacted by distance to mining sites, meaning that their numbers decreased with closer proximity to mining (Ardente et al., 2016). Additionally, 35% of species showed no effect and 15% were negatively impacted by distance. This shows that mining can affect species communities and distributions.

Mercury is one of the main components of illegal gold mining, and mercury imports to Peru increase exponentially with increases in the price of gold (Asner et al., 2013). Since mercury is used in illegal mining, there is no regulation of how much of the contaminant is released into the air, water, and soils of the region. Studies have shown that mercury contamination may be widespread in the Madre de Dios region because of mining. One study of a mining town in Madre de Dios showed that 91% of participants had detectable blood methylmercury, and that 13% reported having kidney dysfunction or a neurological disorder. Mercury levels were higher in those who participated in gold mining, and among fish consumers (Yard et al., 2012). Another study showed that mercury levels in people were significantly higher in mining regions than in non-mining regions (Ashe, 2012). A third study showed that mercury concentrations in fish were higher downstream of mining than upstream, and at concentrations that presented a public health risk. This study made clear that communities hundreds of kilometers downstream can even be impacted by dietary mercury consumption (Langeland, 2015).

Figure 3. As mining area and gold price increases, there is an increase in mercury exports. Mercury is still highly relied on for mining and contributes to mercury poisoning in the local water systems. Source: Swenson et al., 2011.

Aside from environmental and human health issues, there are other kinds of human cost that most people fail to realize. Illegal mining has introduced an unprecedented level of sex trafficking in the area of Madre de Dios. Girls as young as 12 work in brothels and bars that surround the mines, and the numbers continue to increase. In one mining area, known as Delta 1, around 2,000 sex workers are employed in 100 brothels, and 60% of them are children (Moloney, 2016). The increase in gold prices has brought a swell of illegal crime organizations looking to benefit off of the billion-dollar industry. The girls and women, who are often poor and uneducated, unknowingly enter the sex industry, as they are promised jobs as cooks or waitresses. To make matters worse, most of the trafficking industry goes unnoticed since police or labor workers do not monitor remote areas of the jungle. Here, we observe the absence of human rights that has been associated with mining. This is a major issue in itself and must be approach separately from environmental degradation.

Local and Global Initiatives

Madre de Dios, an area that has been burdened by the gold rush, was recently put under strict Peruvian government regulation. By establishing a specific mining area, the government hopes to regulate the industry as well as protect the land of the indigenous people. However, most government efforts have proved more challenging than beneficial. Since most issues regarding mining in the tropics stem from global organizations and illegal miners, initiatives must be focused on addressing these organizations as opposed to further restricting legal mining practices.

The Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), an international NGO, works with its Peruvian sister organization the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA) in the Madre de Dios region to mitigate the impacts of gold mining (ACA, 2013). They work to provide sustainable economic options to the local mining communities such as agroforestry, aquaculture, and ecotourism. These alternatives allow miners to move away from illegal mining and participate in industries that are less harmful to ecosystems and communities. The ACA and ACCA also assist those whose land is taken over by illegal miners, and provide education to local communities about the harms of mercury and illegal mining. Furthermore, these organizations provide technical and scientific assistance to decision makers in the Peruvian government, and provide this information to the public to ensure transparency of the issue. Finally, these organizations undertake reforestation efforts, encourage the creation of more conservation areas to preserve forest, and work to establish a broad coalition of conservation partners to advocate for a regional mining strategy. Additional initiatives have focused on reducing the human sex-trafficking that the mining industry attracts. The organization PROMSEX was founded as a society free of discrimination and violence, in which women and men can voice their opinion to the public. By increasing the community’s awareness of safe sex practices, gender based violence has been reduced and citizenship expanded. In a society largely dominated by government corruption, initiatives such as PROMSEX help to improve human rights as well as to combat the trafficking industry that mining undoubtedly brings.

Figure 4. Illegal mines are assembled frequently because it is an easy and profitable form of labor. Source:

On a more global scale, in 2009 a free trade agreement between Canada and Peru granted privileged access to Peruvians to exploration and exploitation of Canadian owned mines in Peruvian territory. The goal was to illustrate that the mining industry is capable of supporting the development of Peruvian society. However, to date, companies that are expanding still struggle to fuel sustainable development in the regions that they mine in (Lemieux, 2010). A recent study piloted an approach for large-scale conservation of freshwater systems using the 160,000-km2 drainage basin of the Madre de Dios River (Thieme et al., 2007). Scientists identified areas of river that remained intact by overlaying digital maps of population centers, roads, deforestation, and mining with drainage and subbasin maps. This method of surveying the Amazon is a practical approach towards determining where regulation efforts should be concentrated as well as to aid international companies in understanding their environmental impact.

A root cause of the illegal mining in Madre de Dios is a lack of economic opportunity in the region. High unemployment forces people to make a living in any way they can, and illegal mining is one of the more accessible options available. Remediation efforts should be concentrated then, on improving economic opportunities in the region for the people who have to resort to mining. First, efforts should be made to educate the local communities. In conjunction with education, more economic opportunities must be introduced to the Peruvian population. Ecotourism and sustainable forestry offer other opportunities for jobs and environmental protection. An innovative approach could involve a combination of education and economic opportunity. Training young people in school to give them specific, marketable skills could help them find jobs other than mining. Combining this training with education about how illegal mining is bad for the region could motivate young people to avoid the industry while simultaneously giving them actual opportunities to do so.

However, many people mine because it is simply a more profitable industry than ecotourism or sustainable forestry, and as long as a small piece of gold is worth more than several weeks of salary in these industries, people will continue to mine. It appears that substantial change will have to occur from outside Peru in order to create any change inside Peru itself. Demand for gold in developed countries must decrease in order for the price of gold to experience a corresponding decrease, making it reasonable to ask people to work in other industries. While it may be extremely difficult to lower the demand for gold in electronics such as cell phones and computers, it seems more practical to focus on the use of gold in jewelry. Similar to the ASPCA campaign about shelter animals, a commercial campaign about the negative externalities of gold consumption could be very effective. Most people in the developed world have no concept of negative impacts of gold mining in the Amazon, and purchase excess gold jewelry. An ad campaign involving pollution, deforestation, human trafficking, and other problems caused by gold mining will help educate people in developed countries. In the absence of education about the many issues caused by mining, people will continue to live in the disillusioned world in which “all that glitters is gold”.

Literature Referenced

Adams, Noah. “The curse of inca gold: mining Peru’s wealth.” NPR. October 25, 2005.Accessed March 21, 2017.

Anderson, John Lee. “An isolated tribe emerges from the rain forest.” The New Yorker. August 8 & 15, 2016. Accessed March 21 2017.

Ardente, Natália Carneiro, et al.  “Diversity and Impacts of Mining on the Non-Volant Small Mammal Communities of Two Vegetation Types in the Brazilian Amazon.” Plos One 11, no. 11 (November 28, 2016).

Ashe, Katy. “Elevated Mercury Concentrations in Humans of Madre de Dios, Peru.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 3 (2012).

Asner, G. P., W. Llactayo, R. Tupayachi, and E. R. Luna. “Elevated rates of gold mining in the Amazon revealed through high-resolution monitoring.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 46 (September 30, 2013): 18454-18459.

Bury, Jeffrey. “Livelihoods, mining and peasant protests in the Peruvian Andes.” Latin AmericanGeography. 2002. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Daley, Suzanne. “Peru scrambles drive out illegal gold mining and save precious land.” New York Times. August 23, 2016. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Escobar, H. “Mud tsunami wreaks ecological havoc in Brazil.” Science 350, no. 6265 (December03, 2015): 1138-1139.

Gardner, Elie. “Peru battles the golden curse of Madre de Dios.” Nature. June 20, 2012. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Gurmendi, Alfredo. “The mineral industry of Peru.” US Department of Interior and Geological Survey. August 2009. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Langeland, Aubrey L. “Mercury Levels in Human Hair and Farmed Fish near Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Communities in the Madre de Dios River Basin, Peru.” 2015.

Lemieux, Emilie. “Peru: challenges of local development in mining regions.” FOCAL. 2010. Accessed March 21, 2017

Moloney, A. “Sex trafficking ‘staggering’ in illegal Latin American gold mines: researchers” Reuters. March 30 2016. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Peterson, Garry D., and Marieke Heemskerk. “Deforestation and forest regeneration following small-scale gold mining in the Amazon: the case of Suriname.” Environmental Conservation 28, no. 02 (June 2001)

Siegel, Shefa. “Threat of mercury poisoning rises with gold boom.” Yale Environment 360. January 3, 2011. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Swenson, JJ., Carter, CE., Domec, J., Delgado, C. “Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon: global prices , deforestation, and mercury imports” PLOS ONE. 2011. 6 (4): 1-7.

Thieme, Michele; Lehner, Bernhard; Abell, Robin; Hamilton, Stephen; Kellndorfer, Josef. “Mining News Watch #18.” MAAP – Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project. January 31, 2016. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Walsh, Bryan. “The World’s Most Polluted Places.” Time. September 12, 2007. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Yard, Ellen E., et al. “Mercury Exposure Among Artisanal Gold Miners in Madre de Dios, Peru: A Cross-sectional Study.” Journal of Medical Toxicology 8, no. 4 (December 2012): 441-448.

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