Rising Gold Price Fuels Destruction of the Amazon

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"There is no big 'Goliath' mining company to blame: Artisanal mining is the major culprit."

Ellen Silbergeld, professor at Hopkins and editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Research knows that gold's meteoric rise is really bad news for the Amazon.

Deforestation and Mercury contamination are the most pressing environmental concerns.

That is what's happening now. Researchers from North Carolina, France and Peru, using Landsat satellite images, have found that deforestation in an area of southeastern Peru called Madre de Dios, has increased six-fold in recent years.

The researchers reported their findings April 19 in the online journal PLoS ONE that some 7,000 hectares (about 12,500 acres) of pristine tropical forest and wetlands were cleared between 2003 and 2009.

Jennifer Swenson, assistant professor of the practice of geospatial analysis at Duke University, said the deforestation was taking place mainly in two mining areas and in scattered sites, mostly along the rivers. The deforestation now is growing more than 26% a year.

The miners now are clearing an area equal to four-and-a-half football fields a day, she said.

While the deforestation for mining is not yet a major factor in damage to the huge Amazon basin, the mercury is.

Mercury is used when gold appears as tiny flakes as opposed to nuggets. The process is called artisanal mining because it can be done on a small scale.

"These are small-time miners; there is no big 'Goliath' mining company to blame," Swensen said.

That mercury is present in dangerous amounts is not debatable. One study by the Peruvian Ministry of Production found mercury in the rivers three to 25 times the legal amount. Tests have found many fish contaminated.

The safer ways to extract the gold costs money, Silbergeld said.

"There's just enough gold to make people what to get it, but not enough to do it seriously," she said.

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