A flurry of gold mining has caused rapid deforestation of tropical rain forests in South America, raising concerns about the environmental impacts and sustainability of mining the world’s most popular metal.
A study published in Environmental Research Letters, a journal by IOP Publishing, uncovered the shocking extent of deforestation taking place in South America as a result of increased gold production.
Conducted by researchers from University of Puerto Rico, the study showsed that between 2000 and 2013, close to 650 square miles of indigenous rainforest was lost due to gold mining in South America. Of the lost amount, the highest depreciation in forest cover occurred just after the 2007 financial crisis, indicating a relationship between increased gold exploration and financial crises.
The report also highlighted the areas prone to the highest rates of deforestation. These were the Guianan forest, the Tapajos-Xingu forest, the Magdalena Valley and the Southwest Amazon, all major tropical forest sites and representing 89 per cent of the areas that have faced deforestation.
According to Nora Alvarez-Berrios, lead researcher of the study, “Although the loss of forest due to mining is smaller in extent compared to deforestation caused by other land uses, such as agriculture or grazing areas, deforestation due to mining is occurring in some of the most biologically diverse regions in the tropics. For example, in the Madre de Dios Region in Perú, one hectare of forest can hold up to 300 species of trees.”
The increased tree cutting has been as a result of a consistent rise in the demand for gold worldwide. To meet this demand, production of gold rose from 2445 metric tons to 2770 metric tons over the same period. The price of gold over the years has reflected its increased demand, shooting from $250 an ounce in 2000 to $1300 for the same ounce in 2013.
Stimulated mining activities have seen tropical rainforests replaced with mines and vegetation with roads for transporting the precious mineral. This has created grave environmental impacts in South America including the consistent loss of biodiversity, release of carbon dioxide, inhibited vegetation growth and altered rainfall patterns.
Awareness must be spread to protect the tropical rainforests and the environment from complete depletion. According to the researchers, the best way to do so is to sensitize gold products purchasers on the social impacts of sustained purchasing on tropical deforestation.