Global demand for gold is putting some of the most remote and pristine tropical forests at risk, especially in South America, a study published in Environmental Research Letters shows.
Around 1,680 sq. km of rainforest south of Mexico was lost to mostly illegal and artisanal gold mining from 2001 to 2013, the study conducted by University of Puerto Rico researchers found. Most of the deforestation for mining occurred after 2007, when gold demand increased following the financial crisis as investors sought a safe haven for their money.
Forest clearance for gold mining has been concentrated in four main areas — the moist forests of French Guiana and nearby countries, the Tapajós–Xingú region of the Brazilian Amazon, Magdalena Valley-Urabá in Colombia and the Southwest Amazon in Peru.
The total amount of forest lost wasn’t huge—at the 1,600 sites mapped, only about 650 square miles of tropical moist forest was lost to mining, the team found. That’s a relatively slow pace compared with other deforestation causes. Brazil, for instance, lost about 400 square km (155 square miles) of Amazonian forest to loggers and farmers in just one month last year.
And while the loss detected was less than 1% of the total, much of it (90%) was tracked to regions with high biodiversity, near conservation areas.
That doesn’t mean gold mining should continue to be overlooked, the researchers warn. The removal of vegetation and development of roads and railways can have long-term impacts.
“Much gold-mining deforestation is occurring around and within protected areas, even when they have a strict protection designation,” says one of the authors, Nora Alvarez-Berrios.
Global gold production has jumped from about 2,445 tonnes in 2000 to roughly 2,770 tonnes in 2013. Despite the ups and down of the metal price, mining for gold in areas such as the soil beneath tropical forests remains a profitable activity.
Artisanal gold mining is also related to pollutants, such as mercury, which can enter rivers and the atmosphere with poisoning consequences.
The researchers conclude it is crucial to encourage more responsible ways of mining gold by helping miners to extract in a more efficient way that reduces deeper damages to the forests.