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Gold: Buyer Beware

December 4, 2010

Gold mining along the Interoceanic Highway

A journey along the Interoceanic Highway between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado is an incredible opportunity to see the transition from Andes to Amazon – from highlands to lowlands. The forest changes dramatically over the course of 4000 meters and you are able to appreciate the diversity of plant and animal life that exists along the gradient.

We stopped every 30 kilometers to take photos on both sides of the road and marked the points with a GPS unit. I plan to do the same drive in June or July of 2011 so that I can photograph the same spots and monitor any changes in deforestation along the highway.

In addition to photographing the forest, I took images of the gold mining along the highway. Gold mining is one of the major threats to this region of the Amazon. Gold is washed down the rivers from the Andes and is deposited in the river sediment. Alluvial gold is very difficult to extract and deposits are small, but the opportunity for profit far exceeds other opportunities in the area.

Gold mining poses a threat in a number of respects. First of all, to mine the gold, the miners dredge the rivers and destroy forest on the sides of the rivers. They carve holes into the riverbanks and turn over the soil and sediment. Secondly, the method of extraction is extremely harmful to the environment. Miners use raw mercury to extract the gold. The raw mercury adheres to the gold and then the miners burn off the mercury and keep the gold deposits. The mercury that is burnt off is deposited nearby – often in the rivers and streams. It is then taken up by fish and other organisms and it bioaccumulates in the food chain (much like DDT), finding its way into birds and other animals. The negative health effects of mercury on the miners and their families are another issue – the miners inhale the mercury everyday and the water here is contaminated with both mercury and lead. In the United States, there is panic if a thermometer breaks – here your daily bread is poisoned with mercury.

I will cover gold mining further in the coming weeks as I join a gold miner in his mine and learn about the entire process. For now, check out these images of mines along the Madre de Dios River and along the Interoceanic Highway.

Lesson of the day: BUY “GREEN” GOLD that is mined using more sustainable practices.

Gold mine along the Madre de Dios River

Gold mine in the rain along the Madre de Dios River

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