The impact of illegal artisanal gold mining on the Peruvian Amazon

Illegal Artisanal Gold Mining
Benefits of Taking a Direct Mercury Analyzer into the Rain Forest to Monitor Mercury Contamination

Recently published on Spectroscopy, this column describes the work of Professor Luis Fernandez and his team in the Department of Biology at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina, who are leading a project to study the effects of illegal artisanal gold mining using mercury amalgamation extraction on the human and environmental ecosystem of Peru’s Madre de Dios region of the Amazon. By setting up a remote, field-based laboratory, they are monitoring mercury contamination in a wide variety of samples, including soil, fish, air, and human hair using the technique of direct mercury analysis (DMA).
This time last year, CNN showed a fascinating documentary about illegal artisanal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, where as many as 40,000 illegal miners (mostly poor, indigenous Indians from Peru’s Andean highlands) had invaded some of the most pristine and biologically rich sections of ancient rain forest in the Amazon basin. In just a few years, the extraction and refining of the gold using mercury amalgamation has created more than 250,000 acres of desert in the middle of the Amazonian forest in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region. There was a truly memorable scene in the documentary when Bill Weir, the CNN reporter, came out of the lush rain forest on the back of a motorcycle to be confronted by a barren wasteland of sand as far as the eye could see, where all the trees had completely vanished. It seemed surreal that this kind of deforestation could be happening in the largest rain forest in the world, home to the highest biodiversity on our planet.
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