The Peruvian Amazon is a delicate ecosystem composed of unique geological characteristics, high biodiversity, and a home to native and indigenous forest dwellers. Yet, this exceptional ecosystem has become vulnerable to destructive industries, especially resource exploration and extraction. Most recently, prospecting and mining for gold in the Peruvian rain forest has drawn tens of thousands of illegal miners to protected areas in search of these precious resources. Exploration and mining processes panning for gold in rivers is detrimental to plant and animal habitats, and threatens the quality of the water supply due to runoff of dangerous chemicals. In addition, indigenous forest people risk losing their homes, health, and livelihoods due mining industries. While ranching and agriculture remain the primary cause of deforestation, exploration has created a new pressure on the rain forests, angering conservationists, NGOs, and governments working to protect the Peruvian Amazon
One byproduct of gold mining, mercury, is an environmental menace as a pollutant to both air and water. “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” (WWF, 2002). Mercury, which is used for its chemical properties to separate gold flakes from sediments, “is being released directly into waterways and sediments, and is carried to biological channels through methylation and subsequent bioaccumulation and magnification” (Swenson, 2011). It is not only a threat to water quality and human health, but is a dangerous toxin in fish. “Contact with water can convert metallic mercury into organic mercury, an even more dangerous toxin for its ability to move through the food chain” (WWF, 2002). According to Peru’s Environment Minister, fish tissues from the Madre de Dios region contain mercury levels about three times higher than the level approved by the World Health Organization. “These toxins make their way up the food chain. People dependent on fish, game animals, and river water in the region are likely to be impacted as well” (Mongabay, 2011). This phenomenon does not only affect humans and animals in the Madre de Dios region, but also seafood consumers worldwide. “A study by the Frankfurt Zoological Society of fish from Madre De Dios Rivers found concentrations of mercury above legal limits for human consumption in Germany and the United States” (WWF, 2002)
There does not seem to be an easy solution. Given the past rates of gold price and mercury imports, Swenson et al. predicted “future mercury import increases of 64% for 2010 (estimated 280 t/yr), which may nearly double by 2011” (2011). Unregulated gold mining and unrestricted mercury imports have resulted in negative long term environmental and health consequences, and will continue to do so in the future.
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