Open-pit gold mines in the heart of Amazon. The intensive but above all illegal and destructive extraction of gold in the Amazon is a scourge. If they can be called marvellous or unreal, images of the American space society are the scars of a much less glowing reality.
For more than a decade, profit-seeking and unscrupulous companies have been destroying large plots of this immense forest. They are veritable golden trenches that we can now observe, slashing Madre de Dios’ region in south-eastern Peru.
Yet gold mining from the heart of the world’s largest forest is banned under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). It requires anyone who wants to exploit the Amazon rainforest to consult local communities beforehand. This prerogative is often used as a weapon against destructive exploitation. But this type of practice is also singled out by many environmental associations. Thousands of hectares of the Amazon disappear every year.
Open-pit gold mines: Shadow Practices
Until then, images showing very clearly the impact of searching for the precious nuggets were almost nonexistent. Hidden in the heart of the forest, the gold miners unearthed tons of the precious metal hidden from the eyes of the world. It is precisely the reason why the publication of these aerial photographs, immortalized in December 2020 thanks to favourable weather conditions and relayed by the BBC, could constitute an additional piece of evidence in the fight against illegal gold mining in this region.
While the price of an ounce of gold had increased almost sevenfold at the start of the past decade, from $ 270 to $ 1,800, a real gold rush has occurred in the region. De Madre de Dios, wherein 2016 it was estimated that nine out of ten gold mines were illegal. With an impoverished population, this province is teeming cheap labour and eager to work, no matter the conditions, to fill its plate. The gilded metal market has become a real refuge for the needy populations.
Open-pit gold mines: Health and Environmental Consequences
Suppose gold mining allows an entire population to work, its consequences. These harmful effects are much more numerous, both for the environment and for local people. The vast quest for gold is responsible for much of the Amazon’s deforestation, which is slowly disappearing. Between 2000 and 2018, an estimated 513,016 square kilometres of forest in this region were lost, which is equivalent to Spain’s area.
During the process of extracting the nuggets, the workers in these surface gold mines resort to mercury. After use, this chemical ingredient is discharged into rivers and poisons local populations. It includes indigenous peoples already particularly threatened by the depletion of the Amazon rainforest.
The fish that live in these rivers are also impacted by this chemical matter in which they evolve, which directly affects the populations of the towns located around these rivers. In 2016, for example, it was estimated that 78% of the inhabitants of the city of Porto Maldonado recorded an alarming level of mercury in their body. Suppose this may seem anecdotal given the presence of many chemical elements in the diet in the 21st century. In that case, mercury in the body can promote the emergence of many symptoms such as sleep loss, headaches or even predispositions to cancer.
In 2012, gold production reached 18 tonnes per year in Madre de Dios province. At the time, it was estimated that between 110,000 and 150,000 Peruvians were engaged in illegal mining, while a thousand children were at the same time sexually exploited in the region.
So past the wonder, the images from NASA could open the eyes of many people and make us relativize the way we look at our most precious jewels.