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  • Writer's pictureChris Kirkby

Mercury Alley (by Giles Crosse)

5 April 2011

A pan with the mercury-gold amalgam (CINCIA)

It’s an unfortunate truth there aren’t that many modern goods we can make without using harmful chemicals, that leach into the atmosphere or rivers and ultimately find their way back into our bodies and cells. Computers and health monitoring equipment in hospitals rely on printed circuit boards which use gold, nickel or silver. Chemicals and metals in capacitors and plastics surrounding electric cabling fill every home, surgery, neonatal ward and living room. There are obviously safer ways we can make these things. Tomorrow‘s laptops could be built from bamboo not plastic, changing our usual manufacturing patterns and potentially ushering in a new age of sustainable production. But there are still terrifying impacts taking place in the developing world.

Gold buying shop in Puerto Maldonado

Mercury alley in Puerto Maldonado, a set of streets where gold transactions are carried out, is a risky place, where it’s inadvisable to venture without taking a deep breath of fresh air well beforehand. Traders bring in their gold, which is then subjected to a blow-torch to release any impurities including mercury which is used in the original separation process hundreds of miles away. Of course, health and safety regulations hold little sway out here in the jungle, where gold prospectors seek their fortunes amid the most species-rich rainforest imaginable, in a torrent of chemicals, destructive hose sprays, dirt, sweat and tears. Health and life can sometimes see cheap in the developing world, where the rush for cash often surpasses the importance of all else. What are the long term health effects for these people, working daily among such toxic chemicals? What are the long term effects on the ecosystem, the forest and its plants and animals?

Gold dredging barges on the Madre de Dios river


Long term impacts are always hard to judge. What arguments might persuade the prospectors and traders of Maldonado to give up their dangerous lifestyles in favour of more sustainable alternatives? I guess nothing less than the amount of quick and easy money they get for their gold, right? Definitely the ultimate answer lies in economics. Today the price of gold has fallen a little. Were it to fall sufficiently (maybe down to US$350 an ounce), the bottom would presumably drop out of the Maldonado markets, and traders and miners might find themselves more profitably employed in tour guiding or even working as chefs in many ecolodges here. However, the current price of gold is like 5 times as much, and thus very profitable compared to virtually all other local activities in Madre de Dios.

Given this potential reality, are there artificial economic drivers that could be put in place to force this step-change? Whose responsibility is this?  Is it even ethical to force decisions upon people about how, why, where and what they are allowed to work on? Do environmental decisions of this kind step beyond what is right and just? Or is it more ethical to allow long term rape and pillage of the natural environment that so many people depend on, which does untold damage to the health of thousands?

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