Is Gold the New Conflict Diamond?

A new report shows how a South American gold rush is devastating remote rainforests.

An aerial view of a wildcat gold mine on a deforested plot of Amazon rainforest. (Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Jan 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

What’s destroying the South American rainforest?

Most people would point to agriculture, cattle operations, and a booming population. But researchers are starting to recognize another threat: gold mining.

According to a new study, gold mining razed 650 square miles of tropical forest in South America between 2001 and 2013. That may not sound like a lot—the area is about the size of Hong Kong—but the devastation is far greater than just the loss in forest cover, said Mitchell Aide, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico and an author of the report.

“The impact of mining in tropical forests is much bigger than that area because sediment and mercury go down the rivers; people come in and settle and need food,” said Aide. “There could easily be lots of hunting going on in the intact forests. So the footprint of gold mining is much bigger.”

“These forests are famous for high diversity of flora and fauna,” Aide said. "When deforestation occurs the trees and animals are lost in these mining areas, and large mammals and birds are often hunted in the surrounding forest.”

The demand for gold around the globe has shot up over the past decade, driven by the global financial collapse of 2008. The price of gold increased from $250 an ounce in 2000 to $1,300 an ounce in 2013 after reaching a high of $1,900 an ounce in 2011.

That price pushed prospectors deep into South American rainforests seeking gold deposits that wouldn’t have otherwise been economically viable to recover.

“When it wasn’t profitable, people didn’t go there—but with the new conditions, people are willing to go a couple days down a river to a remote area,” said Aide.

South American gold isn’t typically found underground but in a river plain, which means that lots of soil is affected when people are trying to separate the metal out of the silt and sand using toxic mercury.

Gold prices are driven by strong demand for jewelry in India and China but even more by the financial meltdown. When trust in the financial system plummets with the stock market, people choose to put money in gold, creating an intense demand for the precious metal.

“The global impact is huge, and this is just one more case showing how the increasing demand for gold, and the loss of confidence in the dollar and euro can have a real impact on forests,” Aide said.

“It’s a profitable product so people are going to find out where to get it,” said Aide.