Illegal gold mining is a scourge throughout the Amazon, causing severe environmental damage and affecting the health and wellbeing of the indigenous populations living in that region. Gold mining is the biggest producer of deforestation in Venezuela, and one of the largest in Bolivia. Like the other countries affected by it, Peru, the largest producer of gold in Latin America and sixth largest in the world, is experiencing a surge in illegal gold mining.

Although many jungle mining concessions in the country’s Amazon rainforest operate under government grants, the growth of the informal sector is such that estimates place it at almost a quarter of the total gold mining activity. The invasion of indigenous lands by illegal miners has led to increased deforestation and the displacement of local communities. According to RAISG, the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information, there are 4,472 localities where illegal gold mining is carried out in the Amazon region.

Indigenous communities depend on the forests to maintain their way of life in terms of food, medicine, building materials and cultural resources. Because many of those indigenous communities are located in remote areas, they already suffer from lack of basic health services. Indigenous lands hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.

Illegal gold mining has also led to contamination of the rivers with mercury, a substance highly toxic to humans, especially children. A report by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project states that the mercury level of children in native communities is more than five times higher than the safety limit.

According to the World Health Organization, mercury produces serious neurological and psychological changes in adults; in children, it provokes delays in their physical and mental development. Because children are still growing and their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms are not fully developed, toxic or infectious agents and air and water pollution have a more serious impact on them than on adults.

In Peru, much of the mining activities take place in the southeastern province of Madre de Dios, that borders Brazil and Bolivia which is known for its biodiversity. Madre de Dios is a region rich in cotton, coffee, sugarcane, cacao, Brazil nuts, and palm oil. However, the abundance of gold has attracted tens of thousands of illegal miners whose activities are detrimental not only to precious species in the environment but also to the health and quality of life of native and new populations in the region.

Several studies have shown that small-scale miners are less efficient in their use of mercury than industrial miners, with 2.91 pounds of mercury used in the mining processes released into waterways for every 2.2 pounds of gold produced. More than 40 tons of mercury are absorbed into the rivers of Madre de Dios, poisoning the food chain. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “After fossil fuel burning, small-scale gold mining is the world’s second largest source of mercury pollution, contributing around 1/3 of the world’s mercury pollution.”

Mercury not only contaminates waterways but is also a serious threat to human health. It is also a dangerous toxin for fish, which in the area contain three times more mercury than the safe levels permitted by the World Health Organization. An analysis by The Nature Conservancy, an organization created to protect the environment, states that there are at least 2,600 freshwater fish species in the Amazon rivers, 1,260 of which are endemic.

Small-scale mining causes other negative effects. Because the trees of the rainforest act like an umbrella that regulates the temperature, deforestation results in drastic temperature variations that can be lethal to many species, while a greater amount of greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere. Deforested areas have less water in the air to be returned to the soil. This causes dryer soil, hindering the ability to grow crops.

The enormity of the damage has been documented in a study by American, French, and Peruvian researchers published in the peer-reviewed magazine PLOS ONE. According to the study, using satellite imagery from NASA, they were able to assess the loss of 7,000 hectares (15,200 acres) of forest due to artisanal gold mining in Peru between 2003 and 2009. This is an area larger than Bermuda. Jennifer Swenson, the lead author of the study, says that such enormous deforestation is “plainly visible from space.”

In addition to its negative environmental effects, illegal gold mining attracts organized crime groups who extort, kidnap, and create prostitution rings, whose activities are a constant source of concern for governmental authorities. While they have sent security forces to destroy river dredgers used by illegal gold miners in Madre de Dios, more drastic measures are needed, including stricter vigilance and regulations. Approaches that focus on environmental protection while addressing human rights concerns are also needed. The survival of what has been recognized as one of the most biologically rich areas in the world is at stake.