The price of gold has been steadily increasing over the past decade—from $300 per ounce in 2003 to $1,100 per ounce in 2010. This year, gold topped $1,500 per ounce, setting records for both the cost itself and the speed at which the price is rising.
But the growth in the price of gold has also accelerated the pace of deforestation in some of the most pristine parts of the Peruvian Amazon, where miners are cutting down trees in order to extract the valuable natural resource. Jennifer Swenson, a landscape ecologist at Duke University, looked at satellite images of two gold-mining sites in Madre de Dios, Peru, dating back to 2003. Before 2003, the sites were pristine swaths of forest, but from 2003 to 2009, over 15,000 acres (larger than the size of Bermuda) were cut down to make way for gold mining. At times, Peruvian miners were cutting down four and a half American football fields a day of forest.
Not only have deforestation rates spiked by 600% over the past ten years, there has also been an exponential rise in the use of mercury, which miners use to bind to gold in the soil, creating hard chunks that are easier to extract. Virtually all mercury imported into Peru is used for gold mining, and the nation does not have any legal limits to prohibit how much mercury they can use.
“Everyone who lives near these gold mines knows that the fish there are not safe to eat,” said William Pan, an expert in global environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In addition to water contamination, gold miners pollute the atmosphere and themselves when they use blowtorches to burn mercury off of gold.
The situation is particularly complex because even though the price of gold is rising, Peruvian miners are among the poorest members of society. That makes it difficult to influence measures like boycotting gold.
“It’s not like a big, bad company is doing this,” Swenson said. “It’s a bunch of really impoverished people that don’t have alternatives.”
In addition to dangerously high mercury exposure, gold miners face high risks of malaria and other diseases while working 12-hour shifts for six days at a time. A typical yield is just one gram (0.04 ounces) for every 24 hours of work. And groups of four miners split just 10% of the cost of whatever they find. Nonetheless, the small profit is enough for miners to continue to clear the Amazonian forest in search of gold in the soil.
“This clearly shows that demand for gold and gold pricing might be another driver—and a major driver—of deforestation,” Pan said.