Blood Gold: Amazon Illegal Gold Mining

The Amazon which is called the lung of the planet occupies more than half of Earth’s tropical rainforest. It serves as a treasure house that contains more than 10% of the animals and plants on Earth and produces more than 20% of Earth’s oxygen. Unfortunately, the Amazon is suffering from illegal gold mining.

A significant amount of copper, tin, nickel, iron, bauxite, manganese, and gold lie under the Amazon rain forest. In Latin America, Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining [ASGM] has been a living source for rural families for centuries. However, due to COVID-19, the economy became unstable and gold prices soared. In recent years, the government has pledged for mining industry as a key for national development strategy and encouraged investment for it, leading to a reckless gold rush. Now, it is hard to find indigenous peoples who used landing nets or plates to collect gold with their own hands. As various companies and criminal organizations began to indulge in large-scale mining, it brought about numerous social and environmental destruction such as deforestation, mercury pollution, crime, human rights violation, and increase in migration of indigenous communities.

Environmental Destruction Caused by Illegal Gold Mining

Illegal miners use airplanes to move to their workplaces in the intense jungle. For this, they cut down trees while illegally constructing 320 runways. In addition, when gold is mined with heavy equipment, it pollutes the rivers, causing deforestation, soil erosion, and destruction of habitats for indigenous creatures. As a result, mammals and reptiles lose their habitats or their lives. Fish die from toxic substances, and all insects and microorganisms die, too. Rivers lose their vitality, and forests become ruined. Furthermore, it poses a great threat to indigenous peoples who depend on forests for their livelihoods.

During deforestation caused by gold mining, 12.5 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of gold produced. According to Instituto Socioambiental [ISA], a non-governmental organization in Brazil that aims to protect indigenous peoples and the environmental rights, about 2,400 hectares of forest (the area equivalent to 500 soccer fields) in the Yanomami land were destroyed in 2020. Between August 2019 and July 2020, a total of 11,088 square kilometers [1,108,800 hectares] of Amazon rainforest was destroyed, which is the highest level since 2008.

Crime Increase Through Illegal Gold Mining

Since the Amazon is a rainforest where it is difficult to be inspected, criminal organizations are committing various crimes in addition to engaging in illegal gold mining. They are not abiding by the legislation on gold mining, committing crimes such as tax evasion, smuggling trade, use of forged documents, accounting fraud, money laundering, trafficking in weapons, drugs, and wildlife. In May 2021, the PCC, the largest criminal organization in Brazil, had a shootout with the police, causing casualties, and the murder rate and crime rate soared in the area where they were stationed.

In addition, the lives of indigenous peoples are being destroyed due to the atrocities committed by criminal gangs who illegally occupied the native reservation.

The Hutukara Associação Yanomami, the representative body of the indigenous peoples of Yanomami, published a report titled Yanomami Under Attack in 2022. According to this report, illegal mining increased by more than 3,350% in the land of Yanomami from 2016 to 2020, causing crimes in the native reservation such as sexual violence, rape of children and juveniles, organized crime, forced labor, and murder.

On top of that, they spread a new disease which the indigenous people are not immune to, and restricted medical staff from having access to them, causing health crises such as malaria and malnutrition in children. As a result, 273 indigenous communities containing more than 16,000 people, have been affected.

The Tapajós River, the largest river among the clean tributaries in South America, flows over 2,100 km [1,305 ml] and is connected to the Amazon River. It is called as the Blue River due to its clear water. However, as illegal miners discarded seven million tons of sediment such as trees and mud in the river every year, the color of the river has become turbid for hundreds of kilometers, and the resorts along the river were polluted, making it impossible for tourists to approach them.

In addition, while mercury is used to extract gold, a huge amount of mercury is wasted. Mercury emission from gold mining accounts for more than 35% of global mercury emissions. When mercury is released, it is vaporized and released into the atmosphere, causing fatal damage to the nervous system of living organisms. In particular, if mercury that is infiltrated into living organisms is concentrated through the food chain, it poses a great threat to humans, the top predators. Although research has been conducted on the influx of mercury in marine ecosystems, we need more research on how mercury works in terrestrial ecosystems like the Amazon. This means it is difficult to predict when and where problems will occur.

In a test conducted by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation [Fiocruz] in cooperation with the World Wide of Nature [WWF] in Brazil, hair samples from the Munduruku people in Brazil were analyzed. Among the hundreds of people who were tested, 60% had unsafe mercury levels. Also, a test of 52 Munduruku children under the age of six showed that nine of them had neurological symptoms related to mercury contamination, including memory deficit and learning difficulties.

Why We Should Pay Attention to the Pain of Amazon?

The tragedies unfolding in South America is heartbreaking, but those living far away, caught up in their busy daily lives, might not have great interest in it. However, tainted with blood and sweat, gold is being used in our mobile phones, jewelry, and in electric cars. It is important to recognize that this is an act of conspiracy that violates human rights and irrevocably destroys the ecosystem.

According to the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples [APIB] and Amazon Watch, it has been confirmed that the gold supply chain of global IT companies and automobile brands, such as Apple, Tesla, Samsung, Microsoft, Intel, Sony, Volkswagen, and Ford, can be contaminated by the illegal gold mining in the territory of the indigenous in the Amazon.

On the other hand, almost all of gold smelters in the countries that import most of Brazil’s gold (Canada, Switzerland, and Italy) are included in the supplier list, implying that their products may contain the contaminated gold which is the subject of dispute. It is estimated that 47% of Brazil’s gold exports are from illegal source.

The Brazilian gold industry, with its intricate network of relationships and violent production processes, requires a robust international investigation. We need to listen to the pain of the Amazon, and raise our voices against the explosive growth of illegal mining and the threat it poses to the forest and the future of its inhabitants.