Illegal Gold Mining Activities in Peru and Colombia Spur Mercury Contamination

Rising metals prices are having many ramifications for miners, manufacturers and consumers, but one unwelcome result of rising metal values is also an increase in illegal mining. Just as higher metal prices encourage greater legal scrap generation and recycling, at the same time, it encourages the illegal stripping of lead from church roofs and copper cables from train line and power installations.

Within the mining and refining world, rising metal prices have encouraged a huge increase in capital expenditure and a welcome focus by the major mining companies on organic growth rather than acquisition. But at the same time, the improving returns to be had from rising metal prices have encouraged unscrupulous and even downright criminal elements to invest large sums of money and develop elaborate gangland “ownership around resources in developing countries. Often these resources are in locations too distant for the authorities to readily control what is going on and the consequences, both human and environmental, can be catastrophic.

A more graphic example probably does not exist than the illegal gold mining in the state of Madre de Dios, in Peru’s south-eastern Amazon jungle. Peru is the world’s sixth-largest producer of gold and Madre de Dios ranks as its second-largest gold producing region. While many of the miners are from poor mountainous parts of Peru, local authorities say big private investors from Peru, Mexico, China, Korea, and Brazil have moved in to control illegal mining activities. Tragically, the state of Madre de Dios is also known as the country’s capital of biodiversity. Among tangled vines, giant fig and cedar trees and deep lagoons live more than 200 mammals, 1,000 bird species and 15,000 species of flowering plants, but the illegal mining has left a moonscape of deforestation resulting in widespread soil erosion and poisoned water-filled pits covering an estimated 18,000 hectares.

According to an FT article, the authorities have tried to control mining activities, moving in with force to halt the gangs resulting in the death and injury of several miners. Armed forces blew up 19 river dredges each valued at some $250,000, but 15,000 rioting miners in many cases coerced by the gangs controlling the mines have forced Antonio Brack, the environment minister, to call a halt to the campaign for fear of further casualties. Meanwhile, mercury used in the rudimentary gold separation technology devastated wildlife with levels triple those considered safe in waterways.

In neighboring Colombia, the authorities are facing a similar battle against illegal gold mining that has caused the world’s highest levels of mercury contamination and similar lunar-like landscape of poisoned lakes and soil erosion. As in Peru, poor Colombian miners are controlled by local gangs; peasants employed as miners say they have two choices, illegal gold mining or the growing of illegal coca crops nothing else pays a living wage.

Ignoring environmental degradation for any sustained period can leave a legacy beyond the capacity of the country to repair itself, as South Africa is finding to its cost today, reports Mail & Guardian online. Acid-leached uranium-bearing residues from dozens of gold mine tailings left behind at Witwatersrand Reef from workings up to 100 years old are contaminating ground water and endangering health. Some are so dangerous that local families have had to be moved when radiation levels were recorded at levels higher than the Chernobyl exclusion zone. In fact, the concentration is so high that the ministry for mines has been approached by mining companies keen to re-work the tailings dumps, but, as local environmentalists say, that will result in two contaminated areas for every site, one where the original tailings resided and another where the new dump will be. It is doubtful South Africa will ever be able to afford a full cleanup and will end up with no-go areas around these contaminated tailings heaps.

Unlike Peru and Colombia, the mining in the Witwatersrand was not illegal, but to have allowed the uranium-contaminated tailings to be left in dumps where they could be leached into ground water would be a prosecutable offense today and the legacy of environmental destruction is an illustration of what mercury pollution in those South American mining areas could be creating by way of a legacy for the Amazon.

–Stuart Burns

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