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
- 29 Wildfires Blaze Across the West, Fueled by Drought and Wind ... ›
- Large Wildfires Scorch Forests in Drought-Stricken Southwest ... ›
Accessibility to quality health care has dropped for millions of Americans who lost their health insurance due to unemployment. mixetto / E+ / Getty Images
Accessibility to quality health care has dropped for millions of Americans who lost their health insurance due to unemployment. New research has found that 5.4 million Americans were dropped from their insurance between February and May of this year. In that three-month stretch more Americans lost their coverage than have lost coverage in any entire year, according to The New York Times.
- Trump Plans to End Federal Funding for COVID-19 Testing Sites ... ›
- 'Unfathomable Cruelty': Trump Admin Asks Supreme Court to ... ›
On hot days in New York City, residents swelter when they're outside and in their homes. The heat is not just uncomfortable. It can be fatal.
- Extreme Heat-Stressed Locations Could Increase by 80% - EcoWatch ›
- African Americans Are Disproportionately Exposed to Extreme Heat ... ›
- Extreme Heat Is Killing Americans While Government Neglect ... ›
Fracking companies are going bankrupt at a rapid pace, often with taxpayer-funded bonuses for executives, leaving harm for communities, taxpayers, and workers, the New York Time reports.
- Plunging Oil Prices Trigger Economic Downturn in Fracking Boom ... ›
- Fracking Boom Bursts in Face of Low Oil Prices - EcoWatch ›
- As Fracking Companies Face Bankruptcy, U.S. Regulators Enable ... ›
A report scheduled for release later Tuesday by Congress' non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the Trump administration undervalues the costs of the climate crisis in order to push deregulation and rollbacks of environmental protections, according to The New York Times.
- Under Trump, EPA Workers Seek Bill of Rights to Allow Them to ... ›
- Trump Adds 'Tasteless Insult to Injury' by Pushing Fossil Fuel ... ›
By Kristen Fischer
It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
- Trump Admin Rejects CDC Reopening Guidelines - EcoWatch ›
- How Do You Stay Safe Now That States Are Reopening? - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Breaks U.S. Daily Record With Over 15,000 New ... ›
By Eoin Higgins
Over 300 groups on Monday urged Senate leadership to reject a bill currently under consideration that would incentivize communities to sell off their public water supplies to private companies for pennies on the dollar.
<div id="fea63" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9a6f211c2bc5aedd34837944cb8eeedf"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1281000111481294849" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Water in Illinois is overwhelmingly public. Why is Tammy Duckworth sponsoring a bill that aims to change that? https://t.co/1V36Kkd99s</div> — The American Prospect (@The American Prospect)<a href="https://twitter.com/TheProspect/statuses/1281000111481294849">1594249201.0</a></blockquote></div>
- DNC Ignores Progressive Climate Activists - EcoWatch ›
- Who's a Climate Champion and Who's a Climate Disaster? - EcoWatch ›