Gold Mining in the Amazon Basin

For Earth/Space Science.


Gold mining of surface deposits begin in the Amazon region


"Gold mining of surface deposits began in the Amazon region as early as the 16th century in the more easily accessible locations near the coasts and major rivers. However, difficulties resulting from location, climate, and political instability kept the region from full exploration of its resources until recently."

Gold is a metal that is yellow when pure. It's found with the transitional metals on the Periodic Table of Elements with the symbol "Au". "Gold has been a valuable and highly sought-after precious metal for coinage, jewelry, and other arts since long before the beginning of history. Gold has also been frequently linked to a wide variety of symbolism and ideologies. A total of 165,000 tons of gold have been mined in human history, as of 2009."

As you will see in this timeline, there are positive and negative effects to mining such a mineral.


Global increase for the price of gold in the 1970's

1970 - 1979

"This is believed to be the start of the most recent gold rush in the Amazon area. Since gold was worth more, many from the Indigenous Tribes surrounding the Amazon River took a hand at gold mining, desperate to support their families. Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing that their desire to survive would lead to the destruction of their homeland."

Gold is discovered along the Brazilian border

1975 - 1979

(This took place in the late 1970's, which is why I dated this event between 1975-1979.)
"In the late 1970s, gold was discovered along the Brazilian border with Venezuela. This sparked off the largest single gold rush in history, which is still going on today."

Types of mining used:
Large scale mining - Mines are owned by companies who will stay at the mining site until all of the mineral deposits in that area have been acquired. These companies may employ thousands of workers from the community. Large machinery is used to dig gold from the soil and mercury is used to amalgamate the gold deposits.

Small-scale mining - Consists of 4 to 5 men who travel around looking for gold. Land and River dredging are the two most popular methods used by small-scale miners.

Land dredging - Done by digging a hole into the soil and then using a high-pressure water source to expose the gold. This water runs off into different locations usually making the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying malaria.

River dredging - Consists of sucking up the ground beneath the river into pipes, which then filter out the gold particles. The displaced ground is then released into different areas of the river."


Over 100,000 prospectors invade the state of Para

1980 - 1989

Conflict: Deforestation

"During the 1980s, over 100,000 prospectors invaded the state of Para when a large gold deposit was discovered, while wildcat miners are still active in the state of Roraima near the Venezuelan border. Typically, miners clear forest for building material, fuelwood collection, and subsistence agriculture." This results in deforestation, which is harmful to the environment.

"Mining areas all over the Amazon are cutting down trees to make way for large machinery and roads to help accumulate the most gold as possible. In an already fragile ecosystem this method is detrimental to the vast variety of flora and fauna that reside in and around the Amazon River.

Deforestation not only puts endangered and unique plants at risk, it also decreases the vegetative buffer zone around the Amazon River. With the removal of trees there is a removal of stability of the riverbank. This land is now more susceptible to erosion; which leads to a higher concentration of sediment in to the river. This sediment then reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water leading to a decline in the survival of the plants and animals that reside in the river. The decline in fish then affects the Indigenous people that depend on the River for food."


Politically, the mining is almost entirely illegal


Political value:

"The work is dangerous and produces a fifth of Peru's overall annual yield of roughly 175 metric tons of gold that make this country the world's No. 5 producer. The mining also is almost entirely illegal.

Taming Peru's illegal mining juggernaut might be possible if gold sales were regulated, but they have been unfettered since 1991, when the government closed what had been the only authorized gold-purchasing bank during a wave of privatizations.

Peruvian law requires every buyer of gold to produce certification proving it was mined legally. The law is universally flouted, however, and there is no identification system that would allow it to be tracked."


Small-scale gold mining is estimated to support the lives of 100 million people


Economic and social value/Conflict: Mercury
People involved in conflict resolution: International organizations

"Gold mining is one of the most rapidly expanding industries in the world. Since 2001, the price of gold has almost quadrupled, thereby offering significant opportunities for social and economic development. Large and mid-scale extraction by international mining corporations has significantly benefited national economies in the South. Small-scale gold mining, in turn, has attracted a large number of impoverished rural populations and is estimated to support the livelihoods of over 100 million people in more than fifty countries, while employing 15 million."

Along with this, small-scale mining in the Amazon does have its negative effects. "The expansion of the sector in many Amazon countries is characterized by disordered occupations of territories, chaotically organized mining operations, and dangerous working conditions. With unprecedented numbers of people entering the small-scale gold mining business, gold mining causes severe deforestation, uncontrolled release of mercury, and the deterioration of soil and riverbeds.

Leading international organizations – such as the United Nations and the World Bank – have invested significant efforts towards developing mechanisms that mitigate the environmental impacts of small-scale gold mining, such as using retorts, returning the top soil or rehabilitating vegetation. In practice, however, these solutions are only rarely implemented with success."


About 15,200 acres of forest/wetlands is cleared at 2 mining sites in the region

2003 - 2009

Conflict: Deforestation

"Placer mining - a method of open-pit mining - is clearing vast swaths of forests, with little chance of regeneration. About 15,200 acres of forest and wetlands was cleared at two mining sites in the [Amazon basin] region between 2003 and 2009."


Mercury imports to Peru rise exponentially


Conflict: Mercury
Resolution to be implemented: Regulate and restrict mercury imports

"'Virtually all mercury imported to Peru is used for artisanal gold mining and imports have risen exponentially since 2003, mirroring the rise in gold prices,' says Jennifer Swenson from Duke University. If mercury imports were restricted and carefully regulated, that may help bring the small mines under better control, and so slow the needless environmental destruction and pollution."


The registered production of gold is almost 300,000 kilos


Economic value:

"Gold mining is one of the most important economic activities in the Amazon basin region, supporting for example the livelihoods of an estimated 12% of Surinam’s population. Peru is the world’s fifth producer of gold, and Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Suriname are all in the top thirty. Moreover, the opening of large-scale mines (Yanacocha in Peru, Gros Rosebel in Suriname) and the recent sharp rise in gold prices, has increased the production in most South American countries. In 2008, registered production of gold in the five countries was almost 300.000 kilo of gold, a figure in which large part of the gold produced by small-scale miners is not even counted."


Studies show that gold has more than tripled in value


Economic and social value:

"'Extracting an ounce of gold costs from $400 to $500 and the profit is $1,000 per ounce,' notes Peru's environment minister, Antonio Brack. In just a decade, gold has more than tripled in value."

Gold is viewed as a symbol of wealth in most societies.