Since before Cleopatra, gold jewelry has been a prized gift. But gold can also be a curse. “Dirty gold” is gold produced using poor environmental practices, substandard working conditions or illegal dealings. Dirty gold mining uses cyanide and mercury, which are both poisonous chemicals. Over 90 percent of the world’s gold is extracted using these chemicals.
In Peru, the world’s sixth largest producer of gold, approximately a quarter is produced illegally. Gold mining attracts foreign companies who employ thousands of miners. But human and environmental costs outweigh temporary benefits. On November 19, 2021, Peru’s Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez said the government would ban four mines in the southern Ayacucho region from further expansion because of their negative impact on the environment. She also said that the government would close illegal mines as soon as possible.
Gold mining in the Amazon rainforest has increased in recent years, driven by the high price of gold. Jungle mining concessions have been granted by the energy and mines ministry. But these concessions have grown out of control. Aerial images taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station are clear proof of the invasive nature of artisanal mining and the inability of authorities to curb it.
For several years, the mining industry in Peru has been linked to deforestation and pollution of air and rivers. Environmental activists have also lost their lives. OjoPúblico, a digital venue for investigative journalism in Peru, cites data from Peru’s National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH); twenty environmental activists have been killed in the Peruvian Amazon since 2013, including twelve indigenous leaders.
During gold extraction, large volumes of earth are scoured away and searched for trace elements. According to the environmental group Earthworks, to produce enough gold to make a single ring 20 tons of rock and soil have to be dislodged and discarded. The waste from this process carries mercury and cyanide, used to extract gold from the rock. The contaminated erosion products clog streams and rivers and taints marine ecosystems downstream from the mining sites. Gold mining releases hundreds of tons of airborne elemental mercury and compromises air quality.
Mercury contaminates waterways becoming a serious threat to human health. Chronic exposure to mercury causes damage to the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and the liver. Although environmental contaminants affect all members of society, children reflect their impact the most because their immune system and detoxification mechanisms are not fully developed.
In pregnant women, mercury compounds cross the placenta and can interfere with the development of the fetus. Mercury can also cause attention deficit disorders and developmental delays. Aside from the environmental impact, illegal gold mining has significantly increased the number of teenage girls and young women forced into prostitution rings. Young women are brought from all over the country to brothels in mining camps. Many of these women are never seen again.
Mercury is also a toxin to fish. Fish in the area contain three times more mercury than the safe levels permitted by the World Health Organization. The World Wildlife Fund states, “After fossil fuel burning, small-scale gold mining is the world’s second largest source of mercury pollution, contributing around 1/3 of the world’s mercury pollution.”
According to the Amazon Conservation Association, between 30 and 40 tons of mercury are dumped annually into the rivers of Madre de Dios, a rich area in biodiversity in southeastern Peru, poisoning the food chain. If the Peruvian authorities persist in their decision to eliminate excessive and unregulated mining, it will be an important step to protect the Amazon and the lives of those who live there.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant, and the author of Environmental Impact on Child Health, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.