While our focus is often on the environmental damage caused by corporate mining, significant harm also results from illegal artisanal mining. Unlike large-scale mining, which concentrates on areas with rich underground reserves, illegal miners move quickly across vast tracts of land. According to a New York Times article, illegal miners “cut down broad swaths of jungle, sifting through perhaps 200 tons of topsoil to find enough flecks of gold for a single wedding ring”.
This is what Peru is trying to fight, with an outnumbered force of marines and rangers. The Tambopata Nature Reserve, still untouched only a year ago, is one of the most biologically diverse in the world and boasts trees more than 1,000 years old. Yet environmentalists fear it will not survive. Robbed of topsoil and loaded with mercury, mining-affected areas could take 500 years to recover.
It is not only the reserve that suffers. In May, the Peruvian government declared a health emergency in much of the Madre de Dios region where 40 per cent of the population had absorbed dangerous levels of mercury. The illegal miners use the heavy metal to process the gold.
It is estimated that unregistered and illegal mining increased by 540 per cent between 2006 and 2015 while production from legal mining, which is a source of tax revenue, fell by 28.5 per cent. Deforestation from gold mining increased to 15,180 acres per year after the 2008 global financial crisis, compared to 5,350 acres per year before 2008.