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How Gold Is Destroying Peru's Rainforests

gold mining
gold mining

Carnegie Institution/Asner

This is the plane that the researchers used to survey the land and map where the mines are.

Years of illegal gold mining in Peru have taken a serious toll on the Amazon rainforest.

No one knew the full extent of the damage until a research team from the Carnegie Institution of Science and Peru's Ministry of the Environment used satellite imagery to map the damage.

Their findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Greg Asner and his team of researchers found that gold mines in Peru increased by 400% from 1999 to 2012. Tons of forest area has to be cleared in order for miners to dig into the Earth and extract gold, and this is a serious problem because the Amazon forest produces about 20% of the planet's oxygen, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It also sucks up carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, returning them to the Earth.

Peru's rain forests sit on top of a wealth of natural treasures, from oil and coal to gold. To get to these riches, miners destroy the forest and mountains that sit atop them. This could be devastating for the Earth, since these forests play such an important part in our ecosystem.

Justin Catanoso, a journalist who just returned from touring the Peruvian rain forests with ecologist Miles Silman, thinks that saving these forests is an integral part of slowing the potentially devastating effects of climate change. One way we can do that, he said, is if richer countries work together on an international level to pay countries like Peru to leave these pristine and important forests untouched and stop the for-profit destruction of these forests.

His fear isn't unfounded, according to the new paper. These miners are already destroying acres and acres of these precious rain forests. An article in The Verge described the process gold miners use: They create craters by digging a few meters and blasting the holes with pressurized water to clear away the soil, completely destroying the forest area.

Asner and his team used a plane outfitted with Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging technology to survey the area. This kind of imaging actually uses lasers to scan areas and creates 3-D diagrams of the land. This kind of satellite imaging is much more sensitive than older kinds, and revealed many more mines than scientists were able to detect in the past.

You can see how much the mining industry has grown along the Madre De Dios river in the southern part of Peru in the image below:

gold mining
gold mining

Carnegie Institute/Asner

Cajamarca, Peru has also seen a steep increase in mining over the years:

gold mining in Peru
gold mining in Peru

Carnegie Institution/Asner

When the price of gold skyrocketed in 2008, miners began clearing forest area much faster. The rate of forest destruction jumped from about 5,400 acres per year to 15,000 acres per year. Thousands of small mines have sprung up in the area, away from main roads so most are undetected from the land, but visible from the air.

Miners have so far been able to resist most government attempts to regulate the industry. Until 2008, Peru's mining regulation decisions were all made by the Ministry of Energy and Mines — a clear "conflict of interest," the researchers said in the paper. Around 50,000 small-scale miners in Peru are mining without permits or any government regulation, according to The Verge.

In addition to forest destruction, the mining in Peru also releases pollutants into the nearby Madre De Dios river. Mercury is used to extract gold from the Earth, and excess Mercury from the mines has polluted the area and made its way into the food chain.

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