EarthBeat Weekly: World's hunger for gold deadly for miners, environment
A new area of unregulated gold mining in Peru's Madre de Dios region leaves a barren, cratered scar in the forest. (Photo/Barbara Fraser)
Ecuador landslide kills 5, leaves more than 60 homeless
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Four women and an adolescent boy were killed, several more people were injured and more than 60 were left homeless by a landslide Wednesday at a gold mine in the Esmeraldas region on Ecuador's north coast. There are more than 50 small mines in the same area — some legal, many illegal, and all operating under conditions that are hazardous for the workers and their families.
Even the legal mines should not be operating now, because of court injunctions dating back a decade and because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Fr. Enry Armijos, coordinator of Ecuador's National Ecological Ministry Network, which was launched three years ago by the Catholic Church, but which also includes other organizations.
Government officials know the mines are functioning, but turn a blind eye, Armijos told me the day after the landside. "No one says anything, except when a catastrophe like this happens," he said.
Meanwhile, backhoes gouge craters in the mature tropical forest in the remote region near the Colombian border. The dream of a fortune draws Ecuadorians and Colombians from far away, especially now that other jobs have vaporized with the pandemic. Miners and their families live near the craters in shacks made of plastic tarps.
Stripped of trees, the soil is unstable, and little or nothing is done to shore up the sides of pits like the one that collapsed on Wednesday. Heavy rains cause landslides and wash silt, often combined with the mercury and cyanide used to process the gold, into a nearby river.
Rescuers search for bodies after landslide trapped miners in Ecuador. (Photo/Courtesy of RENAPE)
The story is not uncommon. With international gold prices high, this kind of low-tech, high-risk mining has spread around the globe. The World Bank estimates that this style of mining employs at least 40 million people worldwide, in most of Africa, all of the Amazonian countries, Central America, Indonesia and other Asian nations.
But the cost is high. Camps around unregulated mines tend to be lawless, violent places where women and girls are trafficked for sex and bandits ambush miners heading to town to sell their gold. The business, which some say is more lucrative than the illegal drug trade, is linked to organized crime and illegal groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which launder money through the mining operations and use the gold to finance their activities.
The environmental damage from this kind of mining, where workers use backhoes to dig huge pits or blast away the soil with high-pressure hoses, is also extensive. Along with deforestation, mercury from gold processing accumulates in fish — and in the bodies of people who eat them. (That's also a legacy of the California gold rush, by the way.)
Of course, there would be no gold rush if no one bought gold. But despite consumer-awareness campaigns and increased official scrutiny, illegal gold is "laundered" through legal refineries in places like Switzerland and the U.S., making it appear to be legal. This award-winning multimedia report by journalists Paula Dupraz-Dobias and Dominique Soguel provides a striking close-up view of how the process works.