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Satellites flag deforestation from illegal gold mines in Amazon rainforest

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Satellites flag deforestation from illegal gold mines in Amazon rainforest

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A recent expansion of gold mining deforestation in the buffer zone of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve in Peru is visible in images analyzed by the Amazon Conservation Association's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project.
Source: Amazon Conservation Association


Nearly real-time satellite imagery analysis has been spotting and stymying illegal gold mining activity in the Amazon rainforest.

The mining sector is a substantial contributor to forest ecosystem destruction, and a recent report suggests the world is behind on international goals to end global deforestation by 2030. The Amazon Conservation Association's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, or MAAP, uses satellite imagery to flag potential deforestation sites and alert authorities to illegal activities across the Amazon rainforest in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia.

"We're able to see the most remote stretches of the Amazon," Matt Finer, senior research specialist and MAAP director, said in an interview. "It almost seems like [illegal gold miners are] trying to find the most isolated, remote part of the landscape. From the satellites, the more remote and isolated, the easier it is that we see you."

As it becomes more apparent to illegal gold miners that they are visible from the skies, Finer hopes that those activities will decline.

In addition to ecological harms, illegal gold mining is tied to social conflicts and violence including forced labor and sex trafficking, the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, wrote in a 2019 publication.

Illegal gold mining has expanded into sensitive ecosystems as gold prices have increased, including the biodiversity hotspot of Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon, according to USAID.

Cracking down in Peru

In 2017, the U.S. and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding to combat illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. The crackdown, known as Operation Mercury, began with a two-week operation that included 1,200 Peruvian police, 300 soldiers and 70 prosecutors working to evict operations from an "illegal gold epicenter in Peru," according to remarks from a U.S. State Department official that were prepared for a late-2019 U.S. Senate committee hearing. The operation used MAAP information to identify illegal gold mining operations.

Finer said MAAP has continued to provide nonpublic reports directly to the Peruvian government since Operation Mercury. With each cycle of reporting illegal activity, government crackdowns and further analysis, deforestation rates are slowing in the areas analyzed, Finer said.

MAAP is focused on timespans of hours or days to quickly spot deforestation and quantify damage. The project, launched in 2015, has access to services from Planet Labs Inc. that can take high-resolution images of sites on demand to further investigate potential issues identified in lower-resolution satellite imagery.

"You tell it exactly where to go, and it snaps a picture for you, and you get it within 24 to 48 hours. It's really remarkable," Finer said. The group's findings can then be shared with government officials to locate mining activities as they are happening.

In a December 2020 report, MAAP reported a 78% decrease in gold mining deforestation across six sites in the Peruvian Amazon after Operation Mercury. The organization reported gold mining deforestation decreased 90% in La Pampa, a region where illegal mining activities were rampant.

"If we weren't doing this in La Pampa, this whole area would have been obliterated by now," Finer said. "These areas would be out of control. I think we have concrete examples of avoided deforestation."

However, illegal mining continues in the region. In its December 2020 report, MAAP identified 1,115 hectares of new gold mining deforestation across six key areas of the Peruvian rainforest since Operation Mercury.

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Mines play major role in deforestation

The mining sector is the fourth-largest driver of deforestation in the world, according to a recent report from the New York Declaration on Forests Assessment Partners, an independent civil-society network assessing a declaration from the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit.

"Mines usually come with roads, even during the exploration stage, and these roads open up forests for all sorts of activities like agriculture, settlements and other investments that become more attractive with this new access," Franziska Haupt told S&P Global Market Intelligence. Haupt is the executive director for Berlin with international advisory Climate Focus.

Companies and governments must both take responsibility for deforestation to address the issue effectively, Haupt said.

While some companies believe that existing biodiversity strategies are sufficient, others recognize a need for more information to address a complex problem, she added. "They need to work with governments and push them to improve the implementation of their policies and regulations, many of which are already good on paper," Haupt said.

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Mining companies are increasingly under pressure from investors and other stakeholders to address the environmental and social impacts of operations. Pierre De Pasquale, head of stakeholder engagement at the Responsible Mining Foundation, said the variability across artisanal and small-scale mining operations means addressing illegal mining does not have a one-size-fits-all solution and may include roles for large-scale miners to engage with regulators, smaller mining operations and other stakeholders.

"Illegal mining has a negative impact on the image and reputation of the extractives sector as a whole," De Pasquale said. "Both legal and illegal mining activities can potentially raise risks to biodiversity, traditional livelihoods, human rights, Indigenous peoples, water, land, air, socio-economic equilibrium, among many others. But illegal activities can potentially pose greater risks since they are less subject to regulations, controls, inspections and legal frameworks."

The World Gold Council has urged national governments and other groups to create frameworks to address concerns about illegal activities at certain artisanal and small-scale gold mining operations. The World Gold Council, which includes many of the world's largest gold miners, includes minimizing deforestation from gold mining in its Responsible Gold Mining Principles guidelines.