The Truth About Gold – A School Paper by Sofia Prado (FF Intern)

Figure 1- A gold nugget

“Gold is a child of Zeus, neither moth nor rust devoureth it, but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.” -Pindar, fifth century BCE

Gold has been a symbol of wealth and power since the first gleam was caught by the human eye.
 Wedding rings, Olympic medals, crowns, Oscars, Grammys, money, no other substance holds a more important place in our society. 

Gold is naturally occurring in nature but is rarely found in its pure form. Contrary to popular belief gold is relatively scarce in the earth and is usually found in other rocks such as ore and quartz. It is rare to find pure gold nuggets anywhere.

There are three main geologic settings where gold occurs. Epithermal deposits are hydrothermal vents that associate with subduction zone volcanos. In other words, linear volcanic vents (underground) open up releasing heat and pressure. Hot water and magma rise through the vent while cooler water stays at the edges of the vent. It is still unclear if the gold is coming from the magma itself or leached from the surrounding rocks. The gold is flushed out along with quartz, sulfide minerals and crystalizes in what we call veins. Veins are the cracks the vents create on the surface of the earth. The gold, ore, and quartz then crystalize into these veins.

A second way gold is deposited is in mesothermal vents, deeper still that hydrothermal vents.  These need more erosion to expose them, most of the rocks found bearing gold date back 2.5 billion years.

Figure 2- Gold Deposits

The last kind of deposit is sedimentary. This is when gold is found in beaches or stream banks. The gold initially comes from one of the veins and is freed with erosion and weathering.

Drilling and analysis of core samples is one way to determine if there is gold in an area and how much of it there is. There are various types of ways to mine, a few of them include panning, sluicing (using a box to have sediments and washing them to get the gold), dredging (suctioning the bottom of a riverbed, collecting silt and sediments to sort through them). Dredging is characterized by its low cost to operate and is usually more environmentally friendly than the other types since no logging is involved, although this is not true everywhere.

Once the gold is collected it has to be separated from the other rocks or sediments it comes with. For this people use toxic mercury or cyanide in the process. Cyanide leaching is the most practiced of the two separation and recovery practices. Mercury, though less toxic is no less daunting. (Heath and environmental effects explained in later section).

People have been mining for gold for thousands of year now, the oldest gold object was unearthed in Bulgaria, dating back to 6,700 years ago (Mokanova). Though 78% of the gold consumed each year is used in the manufacture of jewelry (Jeffries), it has many other valuable properties besides its aesthetic appeal.

Gold is a sought after materiel for more than its looks. It is the most malleable of all the metals, does not tarnish, conducts electricity and very easy to work with. It can be thinned into wire, hammered into sheets and melted into shapes and casts. Gold is also used in electronics. The gold in everyday devices (cellphones, calculators, etc.) is minimal but in a cellphone for example; fifty cents worth of gold is used in the production (Jeffries). The majority of the gold in this type of technology goes unrecycled. Gold is also regularly used in dentistry.

Another reason gold is so valued is its economic stability, as a store of value and a safe haven in times of crisis. When the price of the dollar dropped the price of gold skyrocketed and continues to grow. In the last 5 years the price of gold has increased dramatically and stayed relatively stable since. More and more people are turning to gold as a cushion for savings and a way to grow in worldwide times of crisis and instability. The price for one ounce of gold, January 19 2012 is 1656 dollars. As you can see in the chart below gold has remained strong even when most currencies have not.

Figure 2- Gold prices over a 10 year interval

 Gold mining, how it works and effects on environmental and human health

There are various ways to mine gold, a few of them include panning, sluicing (using a box to collect sediments and then washing them to get the gold), dredging (suctioning the bottom of a riverbed to collect silt and sediment to sort through). Dredging is characterized by its low cost to operate and is usually environmentally friendlier than the other types since no logging is involved, though this is not true everywhere.

To separate gold from ore, other rocks, silt and sediments people will use mercury to cyanide to aid in the separation process. In the cyanide separation process, ore is collected and ground down into tiny particles. Cyanide is added to the mix and left to sit and “leach” until the gold particles and ore have separated. The problem with this toxin is that the process usually occurs on the ground, with nothing but a tarp of plastic between the toxin and the earth. Countless cyanide poisoning incidents have occurred worldwide and still continue to occur. The plastic tarp may be punctured, the cyanide may slide off, the possibilities are many. In the US, Fish and Wildlife Service have faced issues with the birds of the area who think the deadly pools are actually a pond to congregate in. Nets, tarps and other methods have been used to try to avoid the deaths of birds and mammals in the areas where the leaching “piles” occur.

Cyanide is not only toxic in nature but also highly toxic to the human body. A mere teaspoon of a 2% cyanide solution can kill a person (Mineral Policy Center). Cyanide is also the killing agent used in gas chambers. Cyanide makes the cell of an organism unable to use oxygen. Inhalation of high levels of cyanide can cause coma, seizures, cardiac arrest and death. In lower doses; loss of consciousness, weakness and headaches. Long periods of exposure to cyanide can lead to permanent paralysis, nervous lesions and miscarriages. Cyanide is also a danger to the environment around it. It is toxic to both animals and humans. Cyanide does not build up in the bodies of fish and instead immediately kills them. After a major cyanide spill occurred the Serbian minister of agriculture, forestry, and water resources warned residents not to use the water for anything and banned the sale of fish throughout Serbia. (Mineral Policy Center).

A few examples of cyanide spills include;

1982, Zortman-Landusky Mine, Montana; 52,000 gallons of cyanide solution poisoned the fresh water supply for the town of Zortman.

1992, Summitville Mine, Colorado; 17 miles of the Alamosa River were contaminated with cyanide.

2000, Aural Gold Plant, Romania. A cyanide spill rolls down the Tisza River and into the Danube, killing aquatic wildlife and poisoning water supplies as far as 25 miles downriver

(All examples supplied by the Mineral Policy Center).

The second method used to extract gold from other metals and minerals is mercury. Though mercury is considered less toxic than cyanide, the environmental and health effects are no less daunting. Mercury is also used to separate gold from sediments, ore, silt and other minerals. Most mercury is used in what we call “artisanal mining”. 60% of the world´s mining activities are considered “artisanal” (Kingsley). Though there is an effort from the miner to conserve the expensive element most of the mercury is lost in the process of separation. (95% of mercury used in artisanal mining is released into the environment (Kingsley)).

A mining camp and its destruction in Peru- Photo by David Johnston

Compounds of mercury tend to be a lot more dangerous than mercury on its own. Methyl mercury is a compound that occurs when mercury comes into contact with organic matter. This type of mercury accumulates in animal fats over time and moves up the food chain, this process is known as bioaccumulation. As the mercury moves through bodies of animals up the food chain it becomes worse for the next receiver.

In her personal account , journalist Jessica Brigs relates her experience in a gold mine in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru.

“At the end of a shift, the silt caught in the carpets is washed into a fifty-five-gallon drum. The workers pour mercury into the barrel and climb inside, barefoot. They put the plate of muck, gold, and mercury into a smaller bucket and knead it until they’ve separated out the sponge gold, the amalgam of gold and mercury. The rest-mud, water, and surplus mercury-gets washed back into the pit”. Like Briggs points out, most of the mercury used in these mines is rarely recovered and most often will end up in water sources or vaporized in the air.

After the gold is doused with mercury to remove sediments, ore and silt, the remaining mercury is burned off, leaving only the gold to stay. When that happens mercury becomes vaporized and remains in the system for an extended period of time. Vapor from mercury is released slowly under normal conditions and rapidly with the application of heat. The surrounding villages, locals and workers can all become contaminated though they don’t participate in mining. Mercury can be spread through the air, water and flesh of animals.

When Mercury bonds with a carbon based organism it biomagnifies through the system. By the time it reaches the human body it has the ability to pass freely from the blood to the brain and through the placenta into a developing fetus. Some children born to poisoned mothers exhibited abnormally high frequencies of mental retardation, severe motor disabilities, and a disorder similar to cerebral palsy (Briggs).

Informal mining releases an estimated four hundred tons of mercury into the atmosphere each year, and another six hundred tons into soil and water (Briggs). It accounts for a third of the mercury released by humans, and is second only to coal burning as an anthropogenic source (Briggs).

One of the many painted signs in Puerto Maldonado that advertises gold- watercolor painting by Sofia Prado

Down on Dos de Mayo- Sofia Prado

Lucy sets up the camera at the back of the shop and I am left alone to converse with the keeper. I can’t think of anything to say at this point and pretend to look around curiously. As nerve racked as I am I can still keep a decent composure. I am not afraid of him, I decide, but I am afraid of what we are doing, he may not look menacing but who knows who could be watching us…

Lucy nods to me and we ask him to turn the television off. His young daughter watches cartoons and seems upset that we have stripped her of her only source of entertainment. I try to act nonchalant but my nerves grow quickly as the seconds tick by ever so slowly. I watch as Lucy tries out the sound and adjusts the final parts of the camera for recording purposes. Suddenly he asks a question tailored to me. I swallow and try to keep my cool behavior as I reluctantly turn to face him.

“En donde estudian?” My eyes widen slightly. I know I’m going to have to lie, though when under pressure I’m not very good at it. Where am I studying? Um… Fauna Forever? No that’s definitely not right. A) Fauna Forever is not a school, it’s the nonprofit I‘m interning at. B) Fauna Forever is a conservation organization and we are about to interview a man that sells supplies for gold miners as well as buys and sells gold. Generators, plastic tubes, scales, hoses, spare parts, anything to do with gold mining, regardless if it’s legal or not.

“Ella es de Inglaterra, yo de Washington.” I lie. I can’t remember where Lucy attended university or worse yet where I recently applied to, so I simply state the physical region the imaginary schools are in. He nods, a thin crooked smile stretches across his face. My heart pounds and I start to sweat as he continues to eye us both silently. I want nothing more than to roll up my sleeves and feel the slight breeze on my heated arms, but alas, that would reveal my vibrant band tailed manakin tattoo, symbolizing my devotion towards conserving the forest and its beings.

“Que estudian?” I freeze, what are we studying? I glance at Lucy who pays no attention to the question whatsoever, busy trying to work out all the buttons, lights and switches on the sophisticated camcorder. It’s up to me, I realize. When Lucy first asked me if I wanted to help her interview the shop owners that supplied goods and bought or sold gold for miners I was eager to learn more about the “precious metal” issue. I had already been acquainted with the destructive practice 1st hand unfortunately. The very first field day, after a year of deprivation from it, I rediscovered the jungle, though it was far from magical. But it was time enough for me to see reality.

On our way to a remote part of the rainforest, Dave, the project manager points out a small mining camp. To me, it resembles a floating house instead of means of transportation. At first I felt torn between the forest and the people. The family of the raft emerge and wave us goodbye, we all eagerly return the warm hellos but underneath it all there lies a dark background. All included, child prostitution, deforestation, mercury poisoning, behind that happy family with a hefty income. It had never struck me as such but the gold mining in the Madre de Dios region, legal or not was a major issue affecting not only the forest but the health of the people.

Destruction of the forest by mining- Photo by David Johnston

After the gold is extracted from the ground it is separated by means of mercury. The miniscule particles are removed from the dirt and silt using the hazardous metal after pumping it out from the bottom of the silt filled bank that borders some of the major rivers. Mercury, even in small amounts can have disastrous effects on human health. The rivers mined here can be so infected that eating the fish from it can be harmful to your health, some people have even resorted to importing fish from Brazil. Not only that, but it is also hazardous for the wellbeing of communities that border the banks.

People, families, whole groups, become displaced by the miners who care nothing of the interests of others but only of the money they can collect in a day’s work. The water becomes unsafe to use, the fish lethal to eat, the forest ripped limb from limb after the miners pass through, even if the mining isn’t going on directly in the community, anything downriver from it will see its tragic effects. To make matters worse the miners don’t give anything back to the community, in fact most of them are from other areas of Peru, looking to make a quick buck as so many have before them. They return home rich and the Madre de Dios region and its people are the ones left to suffer the costs.

The empty space left beind after mining- Photo by David Johnston

Gaping holes miles long, barren of anything that isn’t trash and makeshift lean to shelters left behind after the miners have moved on to annihilate a new spot on the map. They encroach on private property, buffer zones and even protected reserve areas with no shame of what they are doing.

“Antropolgia!” I exclaim quickly, a little too quickly in response to his question of what we were studying as Lucy is still busying herself. I tell him we are studying anthropology.  He nods but narrows his eyes slightly.

“Que es eso?” A huge lump gets caught in my throat. What is anthropology?  Well sir, let me tell you that I have no freaking idea! Of course I had some vague understanding of it and try to explain it as best I can. I tell him it’s the study of people. But feeling unsatisfied with my own answer I blurt out a list of whatever else I can think of. I swiftly babble out whatever I think of that has to do with the “study of people”. How they live culture, history, what they do… I trail off after that, feeling a bit embarrassed by my nippy add on.

But at the same time I feel like I just made my lie more believable. I sigh inside, he doesn’t seem as suspicious anymore. Lucy turns the camera in my direction and gives me the ok to begin. I move out of the shot and he finds the chair in front of the camera. As he adjusts himself I manage to fan my warm face.

“Ecologia entonces…” He mumbles. As soon as the first word, ecology escapes his mouth I spin around and blurt out.

“No! No! Antropologia, no ecologia!” Practically snapping at him. I don’t know if he was trying to hint something or if he genuinely had misunderstood me. Thankfully the actual interview begins at last and I begin to feel a lot more at ease about the process though throughout I can’t help but glance over my shoulder to the completely open entrance, but thankfully people don’t seem to take any note in the dimly lit shop.  We sit in a corner, far from the door, which makes me whole heartedly great full. Lucy begins asking basic questions like how he came to this job, whether or not his family practiced it, weather he had experience in the field itself with extraction, she even got him to show us how he examines and determines the price of gold when a miner brings it in from the camps.

Lucy and I pretend to be interested amateurs on the subject. Lucy goes as far as to ask where the gold actually comes from. He laughs and says from underground, she laughs as well, while coyly excusing her lack of education on the subject. I have no choice but to turn away, as my acting skills may still falter, especially when Lucy pulls a stunt like that. I fake a cough as I do, but really I’m just stifling laughter. Fortunately for both if us, Lucy is a brilliant actress. We continue to ask questions and soon even I begin to believe my role as an anthropology student doing a thesis in the form of a documentary about the life and work of inhabitants of the Madre de Dios region.

The price of gold- Photo by David Johnston

We thank him and quickly pack up to leave. I feel relieved and proud, that is, until we reach the door again. Lucy wants a second take on the subject and we slither around in search of more prey. People on the street begin to eye us strangely. Lucy is quick to take the camera from me and fold it as neatly as she can on her side to avoid as much  exposure as possible.  We ask a woman in the next door shop if she’d be willing to help out but she denies us. We move out of the cramped shop and soon turn the corner into real danger. This street, less than a block, must be lined with at least 8 shops, all the major gold mining ones are here. I grind my teeth together as Lucy decides where she will be burdened to ask to film in. Finally, after many grave looks Lucy finds a second shop.

This one is even smaller than the last two, a woman cheerfully greets us at the entrance. The face is familiar to me as well. This is where I exchange money. Suddenly a feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach, a feeling I was already familiarized with takes over my body. Had I been wrong to do business here? Many Fauna Forever volunteers and even coordinators do that here, was that incorrect, was there a direct correlation in supporting the miners? Lucy cuts in, thankfully and left me with no more time to decide the answer to the question. This shop is far more dangerous than the last. On the main road, everyone sees us enter the building, two white women with a camera no less! Even if someone in Puerto Maldonado missed us they were sure to spot us now, the tiny shop had nowhere for us to hide.

Thankful to end the tense interviews (the crowd outside kept looking in constantly) we say goodbye and make a hasty leave. Lucy doesn’t look back at all the men starring at us. I rush to keep up with her until she stops at a sidewalk in the middle of the street and props up the tripod. I watch an anxiously as 2 men stand up from their stools across the street in front of one of the shops and menacingly make their way towards us. My eyes widen and Lucy wastes no time to press the record button, but soon they are upon us.

“No pueden filmar aqui” Yo can’t film here. Lucy is already putting the camera away, without even so much as a glance to them. I seethe suddenly, with a surge of courage and want nothing more than to argue back to them, this was a public place, we had every right to film here if we wanted! But Lucy takes the smart way and turns around to leave, I clench my fists at my side and spin on my heel furiously, but not before starring them down both. I hope they get the message, their business will collapse soon and all thanks to those “radical” conservationists, and hope this documentary will be the first step in their demise.

Madre de Dios, one of the areas facing destruction due to gold mining means Mother of God- watercolor painting by Sofia Prado

Case Study, Madre de Dios región Perú

The most striking piece of its long history is that gold led most of the protagonists into the ditch- Peter L. Bernstein

The oldest known gold object in the Americas was discovered in Peru. Radiocarbon dates the necklace back at around 4000 years ago (Aldenderfer). Back in the time of the Incas gold was reserved for only the highest classes (Inca Art). When the first Spanish conquistadores arrived in Peru they soon found that the area was replenished with gold. The Spanish were greeted and invited in by the native community of the Incas. Soon after arrival, the Inca king, Atahualpa was captured by Fransico Pizarro, the famed Spanish conquistador. Pizarro agreed on the release after Atahualpa promised him a roomful of gold in exchange for his life. Pizarro received part of the ransom but put the king to death before the larger sum could be delivered.  It is said that the rest of the gold was hidden in a secret mountain cave. Most of the Inca artifacts were melted down by the Spaniards (Inca Art). But the story of “Paititi” or the legendary city of gold prevails and originated in Peru after the incident. Explores still search for original “El Dorado” to this day. An ancient wall of Petroglyphs in the middle of jungle thicket is said to be the map to the riches.

Following the country’s sudden turn to neoliberal economic policies and structural adjustment in the early 1990s, transnational mining corporations have transformed Peru into one of South America’s leading exporters of mineral resources (Bury). But now a very real and immediate threat imposes itself on Peru as the struggle for gold ownership continues. The Madre de Dios region of Southern Peru has been referred to the biodiversity capital of the country but it is also a major host for both legal and illegal gold mining activities. Regardless of the legitimate or illegitimate standing of the operations the environmental and social consequences as far worse than most people can imagine. The Madre de Dios region has been ravaged by man for centuries.  For timber, bush meat, silver and now for gold. And for decades the people of Peru have been abused by international corporations, their government and with promise for a better life, by each other.

Mineral rights in Peru are owned by the government, rather than by the people. This means that the government can sell these rights to whoever they want, be it locals or to international corporations. The most valuable gold rights have been sold to large, often foreign, companies. Industrial mining accounts for 55% of Peru’s exports, but provides only 0.7% of the country’s jobs (Benko). In fact 45% of gold comes from open pits owned by large companies (Kingsley). Hoping to “strike gold” men come from all over Peru to mine in Madre de Dios.

Mining on the river- Photo by Jason Scullion


The mining workforce includes many young men in their teens who are hoping to make their fortunes and fund a better future for themselves and their families. They are nearly all Andean, and many are Quechua speakers, (in other words a very small portion of the workers are actually native and rather from other Peruvian areas). They are promised extraordinary wages and then lead down to the river, where often no record will be made of their identity or location. Journalist Jessica Benko had a personal experience in the mine. She consulted interviews and took note of all going on around her while exploring the dangerous mining camps around the area. When she finally found a boy willing to talk to her he said he worked eight hours and made $35-$55 per day. An educated worker for the municipal government makes between $13 and $20 per day in a country where the daily minimum wage amounts to about $9.25 (Benko).There were many stories about of workers who disappeared after insisting upon payment from their bosses. Where there are no records, no roots, no government, and no escape, there is little to protect these workers.

In the Madre de Dios Region, mercury is the separation method of choice. In the last 30 years, 2000 metric tons of mercury were used in extracting gold in the Amazons (Kingsley). Jessica Benko describes the grim scene, “There’s so much sediment loading there’s not much left, there’s not a lot of water. That’s probably why there’s reportedly no more fish in the Huepetuhe river.  It’s choked off, there’s no more oxygen. It’s contaminated with mercury.” Not only is mercury poisoning a problem in these impromptu camps but illegal logging, human rights abuse, illegal poaching, destruction and forced relocation of native communities, loss of culture, prostitution, child slavery, murder, rape and robbery. Most of the issues go under the radar but the rest the government can´t keep up with.  When miners assemble along the bank they wreak havoc on all around them, the forest, the water and the natives.

After the forest has been removed- Photo by Jason Scullion

People argue that gold mining is essential in these towns but in fact the most of the workers are not from the area, most of the natives are against the practices and very little of the profit goes to the workers while little to none goes to the communities.

Puerto Maldonado, one of the largest mining towns in Peru, deemed the mouth of the biodiversity capital of Peru and arguably the world. A quaint little town with colorful markets and groups of eager tourists. Women sit at their corner shops with their saddle back tamarins tethered to their shoulder. Kids play soccer on the dusty deserted fields, feet caked in dirt. Men straddle their motorcycles and meet friends for dinner or dancing.  The plaza sits in the middle of it all, a tall white structure lies in the center of it with a large clock in the center of that. Puerto is the main fort for miners in Madre de Dios. Thousands of tourists flock here to get boats on the river to take them to the famed jungle lodges. Oddly enough, mining threatens and maintains the balance of the small town.

It is usually safe, if the miners are kept happy. Earlier this year the government cracked down on all mining operations and went as far as to bomb camps that did not have their permits (evacuating the workers of course). War broke out between the government and the miners in the usually serene city. The miners blocked major roads, paraded down the streets, robed shops and threatened to do worse of the government continued to attack them. Most of the population in Puerto is involved with the mining, directly or indirectly. After helping in the interviews of gold shops owners, posing as an anthropology student I translated and questioned the shop keepers on their thoughts about gold mining in the area. The last woman we spoke to said something that struck me and has continued to keep me wondering. She was upset that the world was giving her the evil eye for her work. She agreed that her work was supporting the miners in a few ways but also said that she wasn´t the only one. Puerto is composed of two types of people, those who mine and those who live off of and support mining. Of course as the anthropology student I was posing as I had no arguments, but as the passionate conservationist I am I had a lot to say to that, fortunately I kept my mouth shut and let her continue, forcing myself to stay in character.  There are those who mine and those who cater to the miners. I sell supplies for the miners, I cater to them. You take a taxi here, the same one those miners take. We eat at the same restaurants, miners keep Puerto alive.

And though I wanted nothing more than to turn away and leave without another word she was right, in part. Puerto was at the place it was because of the miners, in fact it has the lowest poverty rate of any city in Peru, and is also the most expensive to live in. After that interview we became more ambitious and tried for the head of the mining federation, and finally, with enough pestering and persuasion he agreed to an interview. Again, pretending to be something I was not I went into the interview closed minded, sure that miners were the worst of all evils. I can´t say I felt any differently upon leaving the dimly lit sweltering film space but I was only then begging to understand what really goes on between government and miners. Though I doubt all the miners wanted to legalize their work like the director argued, I did believe that some of the men legitimately wanted to make their lives easier by being on the government’s good side. To obtain the seal of approval the miners required a permit that cost them money and did not allow for further movement up or down river without getting another permit. This meant that the miners would have to pay for a new permit every time they moved from the bank. But for the miners this would be a costly, repetitive and timely process that most did not have. It’s hard to say that any conservation group would coincide with the statements the head of the federation made to use, but they do agree that the solution has to come from both parties, this is not just the miners issues, its everyone’s.

Red rivers- Photo by Jason Scullion

It is difficult to say how this problem will end, though it can be pressured it will be many years until a viable solution is formed between conservation groups, local communities, miners and the government of Peru. It could be a while until the situation is settled, until all parties are content with the result or until the gold runs out and the miners move on.

I believe there is hope for Peru yet. After becoming aware that 80% of its forest remains intact (the most of any country in the world) it leads me to believe that the government is doing something right. The locals perspectives are shifting, the miners are no longer seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity but of destruction and ill health. Tourism is the most popular major in Puerto and more and more people are deciding to trade in their farms for ecotourism opportunities.


  *Citations for this blog are available upon request *


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