Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon: global prices, deforestation, and mercury imports.


Many factors such as poverty, ineffective institutions and environmental regulations may prevent developing countries from managing how natural resources are extracted to meet a strong market demand. Extraction for some resources has reached such proportions that evidence is measurable from space. We present recent evidence of the global demand for a single commodity and the ecosystem destruction resulting from commodity extraction, recorded by satellites for one of the most biodiverse areas of the world. We find that since 2003, recent mining deforestation in Madre de Dios, Peru is increasing nonlinearly alongside a constant annual rate of increase in international gold price (∼18%/yr). We detect that the new pattern of mining deforestation (1915 ha/year, 2006-2009) is outpacing that of nearby settlement deforestation. We show that gold price is linked with exponential increases in Peruvian national mercury imports over time (R(2) = 0.93, p = 0.04, 2003-2009). Given the past rates of increase we predict that mercury imports may more than double for 2011 (∼500 t/year). Virtually all of Peru's mercury imports are used in artisanal gold mining. Much of the mining increase is unregulated/artisanal in nature, lacking environmental impact analysis or miner education. As a result, large quantities of mercury are being released into the atmosphere, sediments and waterways. Other developing countries endowed with gold deposits are likely experiencing similar environmental destruction in response to recent record high gold prices. The increasing availability of satellite imagery ought to evoke further studies linking economic variables with land use and cover changes on the ground.





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Publication Info

Swenson, Jennifer J, Catherine E Carter, Jean-Christophe Domec and Cesar I Delgado (2011). Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon: global prices, deforestation, and mercury imports. PLoS One, 6(4). p. e18875. 10.1371/journal.pone.0018875 Retrieved from

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Jennifer J. Swenson

Adjunct Professor in the Division of Environmental Science and Policy

Swenson's research tracks changes in terrestrial Earth's living surface at the landscape to region scale with remote sensing and geospatial analysis. Her interest include: how patterns and canopy structure are effected by drought, afforestation, and deforestation, patterns and climate shifts of ecosystem biodiversity, and providing access to practitioners to remotely sensed data and analysis. Prior to her 15 years in Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, she held positions in NGOs (NatureServe in DC, EcoCiencia in Quito, Ecuador), as well as in the US Federal Government (US Forest Service-Oregon, National Park Service-Colorado). Her research has been supported by NASA, NSF, USDA and other institutions.


Jean Christophe Domec

Visiting Professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment

Bordeaux Sciences Agro in FRANCE (primary appointment)

Discovery of knowledge in Plant water relations, ecosystem ecology and ecohydrology, with special focus on: - Long-distance water transport under future climate; - Drought tolerance and avoidance; - Patterns of changes in structural and functional traits within individual plants. My goal as a researcher is to improve the fundamental science understanding of how plants and terrestrial ecosystems respond to climate changes, and to provide tree breeders with policy-relevant information. I have carried out research on interactions between soil water and plant water use in contrasting ecosystems, in cooperation with scientists at Bordeaux Sciences Agro in FRANCE (primary appointment), Duke University, Oregon State University, and the USDA Forest Service, Southern Global Change Program, recently renamed EFETAC (Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center).

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