Quicksilver’s Legacy

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November 26, 2018

Critical Commentary

Peru is the 6th largest “producer” of gold in the world. This number does not account, however, for all of the gold mined in Madre de Dios. It’s hard to estimate when there are some 30-50,000 illegal miners operating in the rainforest. The guess is that Madre de Dios contributes to 25-30% of Peru’s overall export of gold. Environmental organizations report that Madre de Dios“ produces” between 16,000-18,000 kilograms of gold per year for the world market. For each kilogram of gold, artisanal gold miners utilize 2.8 kilograms of mercury.  Over the past 20 years, estimates that hover around 3,000 tons of mercury have moved from the mines in Spain, the United States, and the mountains of Peru into Amazonian streams and soil (IIAP 2017; Pinto 2016). As of a report that came out on November 8, 2018, artisanal or “small scale gold mining” has destroyed some 170,000 acres of primary rainforest. That is a size larger than San Francisco and 30% more than previously reported.

 

On May 23, 2016, Peru issued a State of Emergency in Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination. An estimated 40% (48,000) of the population was affected; the highest rates among indigenous populations that consume a diet high in fish. Women and children experience the most marked physical effects. The estimated amount of liquid mercury dumped into the environment from illegal artisanal mining in Madre de Dios hovers around an 30-40 tons per year (Ortiz 2013). Some 400 tons of mercury entered soil and waterways during the boom years of 2001 – 2013 (Pan 2013). Peruvian journalist Guillermo Reaño, writing about the State of Emergency in Madre de Dios, which he compares with the 82 tons of mercury that leaked into Japan’s Minamata Bay asks: “Where does our country place in the rankings of catastrophes of this type, if we consider that it is understood that the Japanese case is the Chernobyl of mercury contamination?”

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