Rainforest pays high price for gold mining

gold mining

An illegal gold mining site in French Guiana that was seized by French soldiers in 2011.
Image: Armed Forces General Staff/Ministry of Defence, France

Destruction of the Guiana Shield’s tropical rainforest in South America is linked to increased gold mining as the precious metal’s price rises.

LONDON, 10 March, 2017 – The legend of El Dorado lives on. The glistening treasure of Latin America, which five centuries ago drew the invading European conquistadores in search of gold and plunder, is still causing devastation in parts of the continent.

New research has shown that when the price of gold rises, deforestation increases − and when the price drops, so does the threat to the trees.

Tropical forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing large quantities of the greenhouse gases that are choking the atmosphere, so the mining is damaging not only the forest but also the climate.

Scientists from two French research organisations, CIRAD and CNRS, and from the University of French Guiana report their conclusions in the Environmental Research Letters journal.

Gold mining impact

For what they say is the first time, they used maps of annual deforestation, based on high-resolution satellite images, to examine the impact of gold mining between 2001 and 2014 on the tropical rainforests of the Guiana Shield, a large geological region in the northeast of the continent.

Their analysis − taking in parts of Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana and the Brazilian state of Amapá − showed that gold prices and deforestation are directly linked: when either increases, both do so in step, and when one falls, so does the other.

The study also revealed substantial differences between individual countries, which the authors say would justify co-ordinating policies to regulate gold mining on a regional scale applying to the whole of the Guiana Shield.

They say these national disparities cast doubt on the relevance of global deforestation control mechanisms, such as the UN’s REDD+ programme.

The rainforest covering the Shield is still one of the least fragmented on Earth, but gold mining is wreaking havoc. In all of South America, the study says, this region is the main hub of deforestation, because of the mining, which has been spurred this century by the explosion in global demand for gold.

“This is a complex problem − gold mining
makes a substantial contribution
to the GDP of countries in the region”

The researchers analysed the impact of the mining in a 600,000 sq km zone stretching across the four countries. “There was a very strong link between world gold prices and deforestation resulting from gold mining over our study period,” says Camille Dezécache, a PhD student at the University of French Guiana and lead author of the study.

“When the gold price was below US$400/ounce around 15 years ago, some 2,000 hectares of forest were being cleared per year due to gold mining. When it shot up to $1,600/ounce in 2011-2012, deforestation reached almost 9,000 hectares per year.”

However, when the gold price fell after 2012, deforestation as a result of gold mining also decreased sharply.

Mechanisms such as REDD+ give carbon credits to countries that limit deforestation. For such mechanisms to be effective, payments must be proportional to the amount of deforestation “avoided”.

But the authors ask how it is possible to know whether the avoidance was thanks to effective environmental policies or to a fall in the gold price.

“There is a risk of over- or underestimating the effort actually put in by the countries participating in REDD+,” says Bruno Hérault, the CIRAD researcher who supervised the work.

“If gold prices fall, we may find ourselves paying countries that have simply seen deforestation rates fall as a result of less gold mining. Conversely, when gold prices are very high, any attempt to control gold mining, hence deforestation, would be pointless or at the very least extremely costly.”

The authors say deforestation from gold mining is skyrocketing in Guyana and Surinam, but is marking time in French Guiana and Amapá, where illegal mining is strictly discouraged.

Deforestation flows

In this region, where illegal movement of gold and other contraband materials is aided by the difficulty of maintaining controls along border rivers, the researchers say that having very different policy frameworks is a major problem.

“In the past, many Brazilian gold miners travelled to French Guiana to escape police repression in Brazil,” Dezécache says, adding that the new research “suggests that there are now massive deforestation flows between these two countries”.

The researchers say it is vital to step up regional co-operation aimed at controlling informal or illegal gold mining.

“This is a complex problem, since co-operation runs up against issues of national sovereignty, and also strong local opposition,” Dr Hérault says. “Gold mining makes a substantial contribution to the GDP of countries in the region, particularly Surinam and Guyana.” – Climate News Network

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