Informal gold mining in the northeastern corner of South America is having a devastating effect on the local rainforest, environmentalists are warning.
With gold prices touching US$1,280 an ounce in September, miners are living a gold rush, chopping down trees in Suriname´s rainforest and dumping toxic mercury in local rivers to extract the valuable mineral.
According to official figures, more than 14,000 informal miners extracted 16.5 metric tons from the area last year. Local reports say many of the miners are undocumented migrants from neighboring Brazil, where along with nearby Venezuela, the government has greater control against informal mining.
Suriname, which had been heralded for years by environmental organizations for its limits on logging and establishment of Amazon basin reserves, has announced it will try to reduce the use of mercury in the industry. Mercury is illegal but easily obtained.
Dominik Plouvier, representative of the World Wildlife Fund´s office for Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, notes that it will be difficult to recover the areas where gold has been extracted because of damage to the soil.
Using satellite images, WWF estimates that informal mining has caused the deforestation of at least 30,000 hectares of Amazon forest in Suriname and damaged more than 2,200 kilometers of rivers over the last decade, a major threat to local populations whose main source of food is fish.
Gold fever in South America is widespread. Illegal gold mining in the Amazon Peruvian department of Madre de Dios, which borders Bolivia and Brazil, has destroyed 7,000 hectares of tropical forest over the past 15 years.