|Unusual optics make these gold mines appear golden from the
International Space Station. Image: NASA via CNN
A colleague just shared a CNN article about gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, which opens with a surreal image of glittery gold mines. That is an optical illusion: spent ore does not look like gold.
The focus of the article is on mining in a heretofore fairly pristine corner of the Peruvian Amazon, about 500 river miles upstream of Porto Velho, where I did my dissertation research and to which I returned most recently in late 2019. It is also just to the east of Cuzco, which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2014. About half of the Amazon basin is in Brazil, with smaller parts in each of several neighboring countries upstream.
CNN journalist Jack Guy describes the problems associated with these glittering mines, but he begins by framing the situation in an odd way. Near the beginning he writes "Independent gold mining supports tens of thousands of people in the Madre de Dios region..."
He goes on to mention some very salient details: the mining is unregistered, settlement is in temporary boom towns, and the practice is contributing to deforestation. So the use of the word "support" is problematic, and the article could more appropriately begin: "Illegal gold mining draws tens of thousands of people into the fragile Madre de Dios region for short-term employment."
The tendency of illicit mining (known in Brazil as garimpo) to bring unsustainable settlement and social dislocation is described in the 1997 book Rainforest Cities.
The trade-off between short-term employment and long-term jobs is not limited to the Amazon basin, of course. The global economy demands resources from remote areas where other high-paying jobs are scarce. Extraction of minerals -- including petroleum, tar sands, natural gas, and precious metals -- does provide employment, but often at social and environmental costs that are not fully acknowledged. Moreover, the "boomtown" scenario provides those jobs to people who were not local before the rush and who will not be afterwards.