The true cost of gold

Conservationists are calling on the UK Government to ban the import of gold from Brazil until it can be proven that the precious commodity not sourced from illegal and deforesting mining and production.

The WWF charity has released new aerial images in areas of the Brazilian Amazon showing the extensive presence of illegal mines which are fuelling deforestation and pollution. This has reinforced concerns that illegally extracted gold could be flooding UK supply chains.

Gold is the UK’s most valuable import from Brazil, accounting for 25 percent of the total value of goods exported from the country to the UK.

Demand

Brazil exported 146.7 tons of gold in 2021, an increase of 32.6 percent compared to the previous year, with a revenue of $5.3 billion US dollars, according to official data.

Between January and May 2022, the country had already exported 46.9 tons of gold, with a revenue of $1.9bn US dollars. 

As global demand has soared over the past two years, so has the price of gold, incentivising illegal miners to increase production.  

“Illegal gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon is wreaking havoc on people and nature, fuelling record deforestation, polluting rivers and harming wildlife,” says Mike Barrett, the executive director of conservation at WWF.

Occupied 

WWF has also gathered evidence of a huge increase of ‘Garimpo’ – small-scale illegal gold mining – in Indigenous lands and protected areas, which is leading to deforestation and water contamination while fuelling land grabs and violence across the region.  

Illegal mining in Brazil is causing local communities to lose their land and livelihoods, without them deriving any benefits from the extraction of this precious commodity.

In the decade from 2010-2020, the area occupied by mining inside indigenous lands in Brazil grew by 495 percent, and in the case of conservation areas, the growth was 301 percent. 

Barret adds: “Illegal gold mining in the Brazilian Amazon is wreaking havoc on people and nature, fuelling record deforestation, polluting rivers and harming wildlife.

“This has a deeply damaging impact on the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and local communities.” 

Mercury 

One of the most sinister impacts of illegal mining can be seen in the mercury levels contaminating the surrounding habitats and communities.

Mercury is extensively used to separate and extract illegal gold, which ends up in rivers, poisoning wildlife like fish, and the Indigenous peoples and local communities who rely on them as a key source of protein. 

A study conducted by WWF and partners between 2015-2019 took blood samples of 462 people living in and around the city of Santarem on the banks of the Tapajos river – one of the most heavily mined areas in Brazil.   

Every single participant tested positive to mercury exposure with 75.6 percent of these showing levels exceeding the safety limit established by the World Health Organisation.   

The Amazon hosts the largest biodiversity hotspots on the planet, and as gold prices increase due to demand – further destruction will continue to reap havoc on the land and its communities.

This Author 

Yasmin Dahnoun is the assistant editor of The Ecologist.

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