Amazon Gold Mining More Than Meets The Eye
24th August 2015

Amazon Gold Mining More Than Meets The Eye

Land Use
Laser Scanning

For more than a century, the Amazon Basin has undergone boom and bust cycles with gold miners, leading to enormous ecological damage still observable in regions like eastern Brazil. In this century, however, hotspots of gold mining have emerged in the western Amazon lowlands, in places such as Peru, which harbors the highest biodiversity forests on Earth.

In the past two years, Peru’s gold mining has made news so often, the reports are now highly repetitive, with the same information being provided over and over: Gold mining is destroying Amazonian forests, polluting rivers with sediment and mercury, killing species, making people sick, driving political and social unrest, and fueling an illegal gold industry all the way back to Europe, the U.S. and other gold-hungry economies.

Yet your average non-forest dwelling citizen would likely still not understand the magnitude of the problem, no matter how many reports emerge. Neither satellite imagery nor field observations do justice to the problem in the minds of non-expert viewers.  The ability of the CAO to bring the issue so clearly — seeing the forest and the trees, or a lack thereof — is cause for a summary of our findings over recent years.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the full extent of the gold mining problem was reported, when CAO emerged with it high-resolution maps and analysis, along with WingCam images and videos that shocked most readers and viewers. Here we compile a few of those images and videos to highlight the extreme nature of the ongoing problem of gold mining in tropical rainforests such as in the Amazon.

CAO started tracking gold mining from the air in 2009. By 2013, the team and the Peruvian Ministry of Environment (MINAM) had combined forces to survey the mines in the Madre de Dios region in the Amazonian lowlands, which appeared on Peruvian TV and then went viral on the internet:

However, even these CAO WingCam videos do not show two important aspects of the team’s findings. First, the large mines are severely polluted with mercury-laden sediments shown in red and hot-pink colors in this 3-D spectroscopic image collected over one of the more prominent mines, ironically known as Guacamayo (macaw) Mine:

Second, more than 50% of the total mining damage throughout the Peruvian Amazon occurs in clandestine activities far from roads and river banks, and which are hidden by the forest canopy. Satellites and field work have been blind to this massive additional amount of forest loss and pollution.  Below is a dual-window CAO data video showing what looks like mostly intact lowland Amazonian forest on the left.  The trees are red to indicate that they are alive.  On the right is the same landscape but with the forest digitally removed to reveal large clandestine mining operations that look like pockmarks in the ground underlying for forest canopy.

Tallying up the data from the CAO, and combining it with some satellite data, the full time-sequence of gold mining was revealed by Carnegie and MINAM for Madre de Dios, Peru:

Finally, some of the images from the CAO cockpit dramatically illustrate the severe impacts of gold mining on Amazonian forests. A few examples are shown below.