Illegal Gold Mining Is Laying Waste to the Amazon
By Marlene Cimons
Last summer, scientist Maria Rodriguez traveled to the Peruvian region of Madre de Dios, once the home of lush rainforests, meandering rivers and thriving wildlife. But her destination was anything but picturesque. She'd come to study several sites ravaged by illegal gold mining that had left a legacy of destruction and mercury poisoning. One area, in fact, resembled a lunar landscape, rather than a rainforest.
"No more trees, very dry, full of sand and rocks," she said. "We couldn't believe what our eyes were seeing. How did this happen?"
It happened because small-scale artisanal gold miners had been defying the law by working there, using toxic mercury to separate gold from the soil and river sediments. They extract the sediments from the river, pile them on the riverbanks, and then add mercury. Finally, they burn the mix, isolating the gold and releasing most of the mercury into the air. The remaining mercury stays in the soil, or ends up in the water, threatening wildlife, plants — and people.
At one point, Rodriguez and her colleagues traveled 45 minutes through the fog by riverboat, spotting small boats at the river banks, dredges that remove the sediments from the river.
"Miners were working under these black plastic roofs and some of them inside the river or at the riverbanks," she recalled. "We even saw families with children. This was very frustrating because we knew they were polluting this beautiful environment, and also contaminating themselves. The mercury can affect the nervous system after exposure, especially in children."
A mining site in the Amazon.
Rodriguez, a University of Maryland environmental engineering doctoral candidate in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, went to Peru with faculty mentors Natasha Andrade and Alba Torrents to assess the mercury damage there. The field trip was the start of a long-term project sponsored by the school and by CINCIA, the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, which is working on the ground in Peru to reforest degraded areas in Peru. Rodriguez hopes the partnership will help restore the Peruvian region which, she says, already has lost nearly 250,000 acres to artisanal gold-mining in the last two decades.
While most recent attention has focused on wildfires that have been raging in the Amazon rainforest, which soak up carbon pollution and are often described as the "lungs" of our planet, other serious threats exist in the region, illegal gold mining and its use of mercury chief among them.
In Peru, the illegal mining is performed by individuals and small companies, many of the workers poor people from Andean regions, Rodriguez said. "But their activity is controlled by criminal organizations," she said. "The artisanal activity has been performed in the Peruvian Amazon from the 1980's but has increased in recent decades due to the high price of gold in the international markets."
A former mining site in the Amazon rainforest.
Because mercury is destroying soils and foliage in the area, the scientists' goal is to rejuvenate the forest by planting new species of vegetation that can withstand exposure to the poisonous element. Rodriguez hopes to determine the toxic threshold of mercury for the new-growth plants, species that include achiote, cocona and yucca, so that they can be planted safely and not pose a danger to people who later consume them.
Through tests and analyses, the researchers hope to figure out whether the new plants will grow in the contaminated soil, and how much soil needs to be cleared to eliminate the hazard. The findings also will help them predict whether new trees will grow there.
Latin America illegally extracts the world's highest percentage of gold, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, with Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru topping the list.
"All the Amazonian countries in South America are suffering the impacts," she said. "This is gold mining conducted by individual miners or small enterprises with limited capital investment and production. They don't use safety protection or procedures to prevent environmental pollution." A 2018 report cited more than 2,000 Amazon locations with unregulated mining, she said.
Dredge in Madre de Dios river.
The definition of "illegal" differs by country, she added. "For example, in Peru, mining in national parks and their surrounding area is forbidden," she said. "It's also forbidden in rivers. In Brazil, artisanal mining in rivers is allowed. Some miners perform the activity in non-forbidden areas, with a permit from the government, but they use procedures that increase deforestation and contaminate soil, air and water with mercury."
The Peruvian government has tried fighting it with its military, the most recent operation in February, she said. "They expelled the miners from the mining sites in the national parks and installed military bases there," she explained. "But the maintenance of these bases is expensive. In similar operations in the past years, once the military left, the miners went back to the sites."
Moreover, ending these activities is made more difficult because gold is bought and sold by a network of middlemen who provide false receipts, allowing export companies to buy the gold, which is refined abroad, she added.
A former mining site in an indigenous territory in the Amazon.
The World Gold Council, the global trade organization for the pure gold mining industry, won't comment on illegal mining. "However, we do work closely with our mining members on [environmental, social and governance] initiatives," said Iya Davidson, a spokeswoman for the organization. The organization recently released Responsible Gold Mining Principles, a framework for consumers, investors and the supply chain, which, among other things, urges "respect for the environment."
Miles Silman, a Wake Forest University biologist and CINCIA's associate director of science, stressed the importance of good governance. "The profit from mining can be very large, so if a society decides to do it, they should make sure it is governed in a way where the benefits of the activity are worth the environmental destruction," he said.
Rodriguez pointed out that the public likely knows little about controversial gold mining practices. "I think consumers are not aware of this problem because they are not even aware that they are consuming gold," Rodriguez said. "Gold is not only use for jewelry or gold bars, but also for electronic devices, like cellphones. I'm sure that campaigns like the ones about blood diamonds could help to reduce the extent of illegal gold mining."
While in Peru, Rodriguez visited the indigenous communities of San Jacinte and Kotsimba — home to the Shipibo and Harakbut people, respectively — where mining had left dead soil behind where nothing can grow. "The indigenous don't want the miners to work in their territory but can't do anything about it," she said. "This is a common issue in this region."
Many of the indigenous people asked about the possibility of soil treatments and other efforts that could help regenerate the forest, hoping to encourage ecotourism, she said.
"They wondered whether anyone will come to visit this ugly landscape," she said. "They want their forest back. We felt very sad knowing that the forest will take hundreds of years to recover."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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