Illegal Gold Miners Spur Mercury Contamination

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"High metals prices encourage criminal mining in Peru, Colombia."

Rising metals prices are having many ramifications for miners, manufacturers and consumers, but one unwelcome result of higher metal values is an increase in illegal mining.

In the mining world, rising metal prices have encouraged a huge capex increases; but at the same time, the improving returns have encouraged unscrupulous and downright criminal elements to invest large sums of money and develop elaborate gangland 'ownership' around developing countries' resources. Often these resources are in locations too distant for the authorities to readily control and the consequences—both human and environmental—can be catastrophic.

Peru is the sixth-largest gold producer globally; Madre de Dios is its second-largest gold-producing region. While many miners are poor Peruvians, local authorities say big private investors from Peru, Mexico, China, Korea and Brazil have moved in to control illegal mining. Tragically, Madre de Dios is also known as the country's capital of biodiversity. Among tangled vines, giant fig and cedar trees and deep lagoons live more than 200 mammals, 1,000 bird species and 15,000 species of flowering plants—but the illegal mining has left a moonscape of deforestation causing widespread soil erosion and poisoned water-filled pits covering an estimated 18,000 hectares.

Authorities have tried to control mining activities, moving in with force to halt gangs effecting the death and injury of several miners. Armed forces blew up 19 river dredges, but 15,000 rioting miners—often coerced by gangs controlling the mines—have forced Environment Minister Antonio Brack to halt the campaign for fear of further casualties. Meanwhile, mercury used in the rudimentary gold-separation technology devastated wildlife with levels tripling those considered safe.

In neighboring Colombia, authorities are facing a similar battle against illegal gold mining that has caused the world's highest levels of mercury contamination and similar lunar-like landscape of poisoned lakes and soil erosion.

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