There is an industry that often goes unnoticed when it comes to the demise of the Amazon Rainforest and that is gold mining.
Our love story with gold has a strong and long history. From the golden age to the gold rush and the gold standard. Perhaps it’s exactly that, our historical heritage with gold, that keeps us from seeing its hidden skeletons. By now even the colour gold boasts affiliations of prestige, power and honor.
So, what is it of gold that has enamoured our species for millennia? Is it just its historical connotation? If so, are we finally over gold? The metal has, like many other things by now, run its course. No longer is it a luxury affordable to some, but one of the most mined precious metals in the world, reaching up to 3,000 tons each year. This surge in demand has come at great social and environmental costs, one the industry doesn’t want you to know about. Our thirst for gold has become bloody. With some countries invoking dirty play in order to join the golden list, these are namely the countries home to the world’s largest Rainforest: Peru and Brazil as well as the world’s most dangerous places for environmental activists.
Interest in gold mining has been a hot topic in the Rainforest since the 80s. Brazil began the settlement of its northern regions to encourage economic linkages to its remote areas. Cities were named after this gold rush with “Ourilandia do Norte”—literally Goldland of the North—becoming the main hub for migrant miners. Peru seemingly contained its early interest in gold mining to its coastal areas until quite recently.
Today Peru stands as Latin America’s largest gold miner. When the price of gold skyrocketed throughout the 2010s over 100,000 illegal miners fled to remote areas in the Rainforest to illegally mine gold. The situation became so dire that in 2019 the government stepped in invoking “operation Mercury”, where finally military troops chased away thousands of miners from the once pristine forest. A little too late as of 2020 after a whole decade of mining thousands of acres of Peruvian Rainforest have been turned into wasteland.
“In 2019 over 1/3rd of Latin America’s gold was mined illegally”
In Brazil the opposite story is taking shape. A recent New Yorker article by John Lee Anderson published in November 2019 entitled “Blood Gold: A letter from the Amazon” disclosed the dirty workings deep in the Brazilian Amazon. In 2019 the Amazon suffered an inferno summer—ravaged by blazes purposely set by cattle ranchers—but that’s not all. Indigenous reserves had to deal with another invasion: a sudden surge of gold miners.
By 2020 at least one fifth of Brazilian Amazon has already been deforested, yet this statistic did not dissuade the current government who has been ardently trying to legitimize the mining of the Amazon. The reserves should be technically protected by the FUNAI, the country’s indigenous-affairs agency, who for decades has delineated reserves and guarded them from developers. However, under the Bolsonaro administration the rules of the game have changed, military personnel was ordered to abandon their usual postings, thus leaving areas such as the Kayapo perilously exposed to external greedy threats.
In recent months, Bolsonaro has given speeches encouraging the development of the Amazon. Addressing a group of miners in October, he noted, “Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the fucking trees—it’s about mining.” For Bolsonaro, gold prospectors serve as a symbol of the country’s pioneer spirit—much as West Virginia coal miners do for Trump. – excerpt from “Blood Gold”
Life in Kayapo drastically changed in 2014 when thousands of miners settled in the area, bribing officials and tribe leaders with their billion-dollar trade. However, now that they have a friend in office, even more people are showing a keen interest deep in the jungle, most settling in nearby Ourilandia. Since the 80s Kayapo leaders would make deals with illegal miners, setting adequate limits and taking a 10% cut from the earnings. This structure seemingly worked, as tribe leaders limited mining expansion and held strict rules for miners moving into the area. However, their stronghold over the area is now dwindling with miners getting heavy political weight whilst indigenous rights are completely ignored.
In Kayapo the environmental consequences of mining are already being felt. The Rio Branco— previously the areas main source of life—has turned a “nauseous pale yellow” with nobody even attempting a swim. Traditional way of life has seen radical change with the forest no longer providing sustenance instead most of the food is flown in. Of course there are several outcries to the new status quo, activists and indigenous leaders wanting their natural home returned to the rightful owners. However many are silenced, and 2019 saw the bloodiest year for outspoken locals: over 300 people “mysteriously died.” The massacre even sparked protests in Brasilia in December of 2019.
The Kayapo is but one example of thousand more illegal gold mining happening deep in the Amazonian jungle. Lee Anderson’s account sheds light on the troubling political and social forces that have set a price on the gold mine trade as well as the timber opportunity of the region. There would be other ways to grow a sustainable economy in the Amazon: many NGOs focus on cumaru and brazil nut cultivation—that grow naturally in the rainforest. However, neither can compete with the lucrative business of gold, nor will it send away thousand of thirsty and bloody miners or their promoter President.
The demise of the Amazon will be a devastating loss to the world, as our main rain producer it will have a trickling effect everywhere. As a consumer the only power we have at our disposal is to rid ourselves from the golden spell. See the golden earrings for what they truly are: an environmental cost too high for their glimmering effect. Purchase refurbished technology, instead of new ones and read about bitcoin… it is the future gold standard.