The state of Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru is spectacularly rich in biodiversity. Located almost entirely within the Amazon rainforest, this area is home to river otters, anteaters, colorful parrots, spider monkeys, anacondas, jaguars, and other exotic creatures. In Madre de Dios’s largest national park, more than 800 species of birds and 200 species of mammals can be found. In just one area of the park, more than 1,300 butterfly species have been counted.
For most of its history, Madre de Dios has been lucky to escape the development pressures destroying other areas of the Amazon. But suddenly, this relatively pristine rainforest faces a new threat: gold mining. As gold prices have soared in recent years, gold miners have been flocking to Madre de Dios. There are now at least 40,000 gold miners working in the Madre de Dios rainforest. Most of them mine informally, without legal permission and without following basic labor or environmental standards.
All of this new gold mining has led to devastating social and environmental consequences. Deforestation rates in the Madre de Dios region have risen six-fold. Toxic mercury, used by gold miners to isolate gold, is being spewed into the air and water – and being breathed in by the gold miners themselves. Particularly disturbing are the reports of human trafficking in gold mining boomtowns. This month, police raided 60 houses of prostitution in Madre de Dios, freeing 293 women and girls from sexual slavery. The youngest girl was 13 years old.
To some extent, the Peruvian government is dealing with forces that are hard to counteract. Rising gold prices make gold mining an alluring possibility for the 30 percent of Peruvians who live in poverty. Policing a rainforest is extremely difficult. Indeed, it seems that other countries in the Amazon basin—Brazil, Guyana, Bolivia, Columbia, and Venezuela—are experiencing their own Amazon gold rushes. They, too, are finding it difficult to stop gold mining in the rainforest and all the accompanying social and environmental problems.
Nevertheless, at Brilliant Earth we believe that positive change can happen in the gold mining industry, and that market pressure can be a fundamental part of that change. Most gold today is used to produce jewelry. If more jewelry consumers demand jewelry made from recycled gold, there will be less need for gold mining altogether. And if the norm in the jewelry trade becomes gold obtained from traceable, socially and environmentally sources, gold miners in Peru will have an incentive to improve their mining practices, or to mine in less ecologically sensitive areas.
A different gold mining model is already being tried in Latin America. Through a new fair trade gold certification system, gold miners are being encouraged to use eco-friendly mining methods. So far, gold produced in Colombia, Bolivia, and even in central Peru has received fair trade certification. (Brilliant Earth uses only recycled gold, although we have begun to purchase some fair trade gold from Colombia.) We believe that with time, gold mining practices throughout Peru can improve —and that perhaps, the Madre de Dios rainforest can still be saved.