Gold mining in the Amazon Basin near Huepetuhe, Madre de Dios, Peru (1998). © J. Ashley Nixon
One of the most significant announcements made in COP 26 was the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use. Around 130 leaders, who collectively account for 90 percent of the world’s forests, signed this commitment to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. It’s a strong public statement that might, at face value, support forests enough for them to continue operating as critical carbon sinks and mitigate the effects of climate change.
The Glasgow and New York Declarations
The Glasgow initiative follows previous ones, such as the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), endorsed by 40 governments, whose goals included halting natural forest loss by 2030 and restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands. NYDF assessments have consistently found that the world is not on track to meet this 2030 target. Forest loss has continued to rise, and forest restoration is progressing very slowly. In their own words, the NYDF concedes that “Finance for forests covers only a small fraction of what is needed to save and restore forests. The world is far from realizing the full potential of forests as an essential climate solution.”
From the Clyde to the Amazon
There are some signs that the Glasgow declaration has a better chance of success. More countries signed up for it, including China, Russia and Brazil, but can you trust Bolsonaro given his track record on the protection of the Amazon? More money was pledged ($22.4 billion), including ear-marked capital for the Congo Basin and support for forest stewardship provided by Indigenous Peoples and communities. Significantly, the Glasgow Declaration is rooted in sustainability. Provisions for livelihoods and alternative income for those who otherwise might engage in deforestation are included. And there is support for indigenous and other communities that wish to prevent it but are either out of their league or in grave peril if they stick up for the trees.
It’s a long way, geographically, culturally and economically, from the banks of the River Clyde, where the Glasgow Declaration was signed, to the Amazon Basin. Deforestation has led to colossal forest area losses and further damage through fragmentation and secondary development due to logging, agriculture, and mining. Sometimes this has been encouraged by national policies; often, it has been allowed through a combination of corruption and the inability of governments to regulate and control development in these remote locations.
Deforestation and gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru
Madre de Dios is a region in southeastern Peru’s Amazon Basin, bordering Brazil and Bolivia. It’s a vast (over 85,000 km2), remote and densely forested area that includes Manú National Park, a World Heritage site and one of the world’s most precious biodiversity hotspots. Also located there is Tambopata National Reserve, whose old-growth rainforest is at risk from the ongoing surge of artisanal small-scale mining (ASM).
I first visited Madre de Dios in 1998, specifically to see unregulated ASM operations around the town of Huepetuhe, when I was working on Project PALMA, an initiative to improve capacity for environmental management in Peru’s mining industry. The visit required an eight-seater plane chartered from Cusco, then a truck journey around the Madre de Dios River tributaries. It was a journey filled with tears, surprise and anger around the profligate environmental disrespect I saw.
The terms ‘artisanal’ and ‘small-scale’ belittle the scale of these gold mining impacts. Miners had created a delta of rivers from the forest. Yellow Volvo bulldozers rammed through ever-widening riverbanks, scooping up carbon-rich topsoil to pass through wooden contraptions fed with pumped water. Down the chutes a slurry would go, the heavier particles trapped in a black carpet that periodically would be rolled up and taken to a plastic bin laden with mercury to agitate and amalgamate the gold flecks out of the sediment.
Later, we would see miners’ take their findings to a street of shops built on stilts above a flooded landscape. Their precious flecks and nuggets were heated. The fumes of oxidized mercury rose through a filterless chimney and dissipated into the air breathed in by everyone living in Huepetuhe. It was an additional heavy metal dose to the one these economic migrants were already consuming and accumulating from the quicksilver contaminated local water. The golden prize would be weighed, bought, then transported to Lima, then to Switzerland or other world markets. From that day, it felt that turning Amazon Forest into earrings was the wrong type of alchemy.
Despite efforts by the Peruvian authorities to curtail illegal and environmentally damaging gold mining in Madre de Dios, the industry continues at a high pace, fueled by global prices and demand for gold. High-resolution remote sensing data mapping by Gregory Asner and colleagues revealed that the cumulative forest loss between the 1990s to 2016 was approximately 70,000 hectares.
The Glasgow Declaration must support socio-economic reforms, alternative local livelihoods, and effective forest management through programs such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) in an accountable, corruption-free manner to avert artisanal small-scale gold mining. Otherwise, the negative impacts on biodiversity, water quality, human health, and the service forests provide humankind to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change will grow even further out of control.
PeruZine from Betula Books
A series of short, limited edition publications exploring people and places in Peru has been launched by Betula Books. It’s called PeruZine. If you would like to receive a free download of the first edition, which includes images of gold mining in Madre de Dios, simply click on the button below, tell me where to send it in the mailing list and it will be on its way to you!