On the Trail of Illegal Gold Miners

Small-scale 'artisanal' mining is destroying rainforests, poisoning rivers, and threatening endangered wildlife around the world.
Aug 29, 2014·
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Massive open-pit coal mines in the United States, Australia, and other countries are magnets for activists who want to stop their outsize contribution to global climate change and the destruction of local landscapes. The Australian government, for instance, recently approved a mine that will produce enough coal to exceed the carbon emissions of 52 nations.

At the same time, illegal, small-scale mining is destroying rainforests, poisoning rivers, and endangering rare animals around the world. Some call it “artisanal” mining, which puts a Brooklyn-esque spin on a destructive practice that happens largely out of sight and out of mind.

A team of conservationists is tracking down illegal gold miners wreaking havoc on Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park. The story appears in the latest episode of The Operatives, a new television series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. (A preview is above.)

Corcovado, a vast preserve on Costa Rica’s West Coast, is home to a Noah’s ark of critters, including jaguars, ocelots, anteaters, sloths, river otters, and crab-eating raccoons. As the price of gold has soared over the past decade, small groups of miners have invaded Corcovado, contaminating rivers and streams with toxic mercury used to extract gold from other minerals.

Ghana is another hot spot for illegal gold mining. A 2013 study found that the West African nation, which is the world’s second-largest gold producer, faces an environmental crisis as a result of illegal mining.

“Illegal miners have caused and continue to cause irreparable havoc to the environment especially water bodies which serve as sources of water for domestic, industrial and irrigation purposes,” wrote Amankwah Emmanuel, a researcher at Ghana’s Wa Polytechnic university, in the paper, which was published in the Journal of Earth Sciences. “Pollution of soil and water bodies with mercury, sludge and other chemicals, destruction of farms and farm lands, degradation of land and vegetation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, encroachment of forest and game reserves among others have been the order of the day due to illegal mining.”

Emmanuel noted that the miners’ indiscriminate logging contributes to climate change, and that mercury pollution of one river became so severe that the local authorities were forced to shut down a water treatment plant.

Not all miners are environmental outlaws, and gold mining in a poor country like Ghana provides desperately needed income, according to Emmanuel. “The illegal mining engages a lot of the youth thus creating employment,” he wrote. “This situation improves quality of lives in the communities and prevents rural-urban migration. The mining business also contributes to the national economy through gold export which generates foreign exchange for the country.”

He recommended that the government crack down on illegal miners and ensure that registered miners comply with environmental laws.

In China, illegal mining in the Southwest threatens the rare Guizhou golden snub-nosed monkey, according to researchers at San Diego State University. Last year, the government shut down 112 illegal mines after toxic runoff polluted the water supply of 30,000 people and killed fish, Bloomberg reported.

But catching rogue gold miners is easier said than done, as The Operatives’ team of eco-commandos discovered.

“This illegal mining in Corcovado needs to stop, or this international treasure will be lost,” said Operatives leader Pete Bethune.