04/27/2011 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2011

Peruvian Gold Rush Wreaking Environmental Havoc

Commodity prices go up; Amazonian forests come down.

The American culture is filled with iconic figures who tell the story of our country's push westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific: the Pilgrims, the homesteaders, the immigrants who built the railroads, and even the bandits who supposedly robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

Gold miners (W.H. Jackson, photographer, USGS/Library of Congress/The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920)

Three men in gulch with a sluice and placer mining for gold circa 1872. (W.H. Jackson, photographer, USGS/Library of Congress/The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920)

Golden Years in America's West

Gold prospectors certainly have a place in that list too, the (mostly) men who flooded California in the mid-19th century Gold Rush carrying all their worldly possessions in a wagon and dreaming of striking it rich by finding that remote, special river bed or mine.

The Gold Rushers' legacy ranges from the story of the heartbroken miner in "Oh My Darling Clementine" to one of the great movies of all time: John Huston's Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) based on the novel by B.Traven and starring Humphrey Bogart as Fred Dobbs, an average-guy-turned-monster by his gold lust, who scours the Mexican desert for gold with two other desperate men. And we mustn't forget the name of San Francisco's football team: the 49ers, a name taken from those California Gold Rushers of 1849.

Today's High Prices for Gold Carry High Environmental Costs

But as iconic as a character like Fred Dobbs may be, one doesn't come across many of these self-employed, so-called artisanal miners in America today. Mining in modern America is a regulated, industrial affair.

But artisanal mining is alive and well in the developing world where rising commodity prices for gold are leading modern-day gold rushers to strike out on their own or in small informal groups in search of their fortunes. (Learn more on artisanal mining in this Youtube video.)

Gold miner, circa 1930, LOC

Gold miners like John Stone (a fiddler and singer) pictured here in Tuolumne County, California, circa 1939, evoke notions of a romantic American past, but the environmental costs of artisanal gold mining then and now are far from romantic. (Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, WPA Sidney Robertson Cowell Collection)

While the image of the artisanal miner may give rise to romantic, nostalgic notions of a simpler time in the United States, there is much about artisanal mining that is far from romantic. For instance, it can lead to widespread destruction of forests and pollution from mine tailings (the detritus left over after the valuable minerals have been separated out) and disposal of mercury used to extract the gold (see here, here [pdf] and here).

Assessing the Environmental Price of Gold

With gold prices on an unprecedented upward trend (a 400 percent increase over the past decade), the rate of artisanal mining and its attendant environmental impacts have almost certainly been on the rise. How much?

To begin to answer that question, Jennifer Swenson, my colleague at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke, and co-authors used a combination of satellite imagery and economic data to assess mining activity from 2003 to 2009 in a 46 x 120 kilometer region in Peru's Department of Madre de Dios. This region of the western Amazon is so biodiverse that Peruvian law proclaims it to be the "Capital of Biodiversity," and it is recognized globally as one of the world's most biodiverse areas providing habitat for more mammal, bird and amphibian species than anywhere else in South America [pdf]. It is also responsible for about 10 percent of all Peru's gold and 70 percent of the artisanal gold produced in Peru, currently the world's sixth largest gold producer on track to become the world's number five producer this year.

By the Numbers: A Look at Some of Gold's Environmental Costs

Swenson et. al. reported their results in a paper published last week in the journal PLoS ONE. Here are some of the sobering highlights:

  • More than 95 percent of all mercury imported to Peru is used in artisanal mining.
  • Between 2006 and 2009 mercury imports rose by 42 percent to about 175 tons per year. Imports are projected to increase to as much as 500 tons in 2011, assuming the rate of increase in the gold price stays constant.
  • Mining deforestation has increased nonlinearly alongside a constant annual rate of increase in international gold price of 18 percent a year over the study interval.
  • Between 2003 and 2009 approximately 6,600 hectares of land (the equivalent of more than 12,000 football fields) were converted from primary forest and wetlands to a vast wasteland of ponds and tailings. Over the same time period, the rate in deforestation increased six-fold from 292 hectares per year to 1,915 hectares per year (i.e., from the equivalent of 545 football fields per year to almost 3,600).

Living in a global economy connects people and places in profound, complicated, and sometimes unintended ways. Concerns about the stability of the dollar lead speculators to bid up the price of gold (and other fine minerals). And as gold prices go up, large swaths of incredibly rich biodiverse forests are torn down in the Amazon and elsewhere. How's that for a golden rule?

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