Overview of the Crisis
Gold, a precious metal that has fascinated and lured millions for centuries with its golden-yellow luster and skyrocketing prices, is today responsible for the death of thousands of precious and invaluable animals and plants of the world, some much rarer than gold itself. In the Amazon rainforests of southern Peru, one of the top producers of gold in the world, in the Madre de Dios region the activity of gold mining is ripping off life from the surface of the earth, depriving thousands of species of native flora and fauna of the right to live. As per estimates, 90 to 98% of these mines are operating illegally employing around 30,000 illegal gold miners. The rapid increase in the rate of deforestation of the Peruvian Amazon by about six folds between 2003 to 2009 is evidence of this fact.
Unregulated Mining Practices
Widespread corruption and poor monitoring and management facilities are responsible for the expansion of illegal gold mining in Peru. While it is relatively easy to obtain a permit for gold exploration in the country, it is difficult to obtain a mining permit which necessitates the need of thorough inspections of the potential mining site by engineers, geologists and environmentalists and a nod on their behalf to proceed with the mining operations. It also demands compensations for the indigenous populations in the area and the forest remediation activities. However, many illegal miners in Peru take advantage of the permit for exploration, when they hold claims over the land where they have discovered the gold deposits but hold are not responsible for the fate of the land. Instead of going through the rigorous process demanding a permit to actually mine on the land, they start illegal mining operations in their claimed land without any regard to the environmental damage caused or the local populations harmed by these operations.
Mercury and Human Health
Though environmental damage caused by these illegal gold mining operations are undeniable, there is also another sinister threat from these operations. The gold mining process in Peru involves the use of mercury to extract gold. After blasting away the top layers of soil by high pressured water at the mining site, the resultant slurry is mixed with mercury and squashed by foot in large oil drums to extract the precious metal. The entire process generates huge volumes of mercury waste that is then discarded irresponsibly into the environment. The drying process of the gold nuggets also releases toxic fumes of mercury into the atmosphere. As we know, mercury is extremely hazardous to human health, with the ability to cause Minamata disease, Hunter Russel syndrome, and acrodynia. Thus, the illegal gold mining in Peru subjects the unsuspecting, mine workers to mercury poisoning. Mercury from the mining site also leaches into the surrounding waterways, entering the food chain via fish to humans, causing devastating effects on human lives in the region.
Effects on Habitat and Biodiversity
The gold mines in the Peruvian Amazon are leaving ugly, gaping holes in the verdurous greenery of the forests, disturbing the entire Amazon ecosystem by the invasion of the miners, their machines, tools, and poisonous chemicals. The forests of Peru are known to conserve some of the most threatened species of flora and fauna in the world but the entry of the miners into the area is putting these species on the brink of extinction. As per reports, the gold mining operations in Peru are expanding deeper into the forests with passing time, making these once pristine habitats extremely vulnerable to threats from logging, illegal poachers, bush-hunters, ranching, and farming. The forest lands are rapidly degrading to human infested lands and the species of the forest are losing their homes at a very fast rate.
Legal Ramifications and Providing Relief to the Afflicted
Since the illegal gold mines in the Peruvian Amazon exist as pockets of cleared land in the depths of the forest, the ground tracking of these mines and their scale of operations is not an easy job and is ridden with hardships and danger, often involving violent incidents. However, aerial tracking of these mines has made it possible to conduct better surveys to gather data about the extent of these illegal mines. As per reports published in National Geographic, the Peru’s Ministry of the Environment (MINAM), is attempting to prosecute the top bosses of these illegal mining operations and impose more harsh jail sentences for these offenders. The ministry also recognizes that most of the laborers hailing from these mines are severely exploited for their extreme poverty. Bonded labor and sexual exploitation of women are also involved as part of this mining racket. The Government thus wants to spare the poor mine laborers and instead focus on the few individuals heading the illegal gold mining operations in the Amazon Basin. Also, the MINAM intends to boost those small-scale mines that are operating within the legal boundaries and provide them with incentives to conduct environmental management in the area. A strict control over the disbursal of mining permits and availability of fuel in the area is also the need of the day.