Operation Mercury vs. Gold Fever: Peru’s Tug-of-War in the Amazon With a Pandemic Twist

by Liam O'Connor
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Illegal Gold Mining Impact

“Operation Mercury vs. Gold Fever: Peru’s Battle in the Amazon with a Pandemic Twist”

The Amazon’s Madre de Dios Region in southeastern Peru has long been a hub for artisanal and small-scale gold mining, providing a lifeline in a region marked by poverty and job scarcity. However, this economic development comes at a steep environmental cost, including deforestation, sediment buildup in rivers, and mercury contamination in nearby watersheds, endangering public health, Indigenous communities, and the rich biodiversity of the area. Moreover, much of this mining activity operates without proper authorization.

To combat these issues, the Peruvian government launched “Operation Mercury” (Operation Mercurio) in February 2019, primarily targeting the La Pampa region where most gold mining is prohibited. This operation, involving armed military and national police, aimed to eradicate illegal gold mining and its adverse effects. While Operation Mercury succeeded in curbing illegal mining in La Pampa, it led to a surge in legal mining activity on the opposite side of the Interoceanic Highway, resulting in similar environmental concerns, according to a study led by Evan Dethier, an assistant professor of geology at Occidental College.

Following Operation Mercury, mining activity decreased significantly, ranging from 70% to 90%. Excavated mining pits in illegal areas also declined by up to 5% annually, compared to the previous yearly increase of 33% to 90%. While revegetation efforts began in deforested regions, these gains were offset by increased deforestation in legal mining areas to the north, ranging from 3 to 5 square kilometers per year. Notably, the study found that stricter regulations are needed in legal mining areas to mitigate environmental impacts.

To assess the operation’s impact, the research team utilized satellite data from 2016 to 2021, focusing on various mining areas, both legal and illegal, as well as control sites. They analyzed changes in water, water quality, mining pond areas, and deforestation. Additionally, spectral analysis of mining ponds revealed a decline in yellowness, associated with gold mining activity, after the suspension of mining.

Despite the success of Operation Mercury in reducing illegal mining, illegal activity resumed in protected areas by January 2023, as enforcement shifted focus to the COVID-19 pandemic. This highlights the need for comprehensive strategies and governance to protect the environment and biodiversity in the Madre de Dios watershed.

In a broader context, the study underscores the global issue of mining operations negatively impacting tropical rivers, affecting as much as 7% of large tropical rivers across 49 countries. It emphasizes the importance of addressing the multifaceted challenges posed by both illegal and legal gold mining activities on humans, wildlife, and the environment in tropical regions worldwide.

Reference: “Operation mercury: Impacts of national-level armed forces intervention and anticorruption strategy on artisanal gold mining and water quality in the Peruvian Amazon” by Evan N. Dethier, Miles R. Silman, Luis E. Fernandez, Jorge Caballero Espejo, Sarra Alqahtani, Paúl Pauca, and David A. Lutz, published on 19th September 2023 in Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12978

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Illegal Gold Mining Impact

What was the main objective of Operation Mercury in Peru’s Madre de Dios region?

Operation Mercury aimed to eliminate illegal artisanal and small-scale gold mining, particularly in the La Pampa region, where such mining was prohibited. Its primary goal was to address the negative environmental impacts associated with this activity.

Did Operation Mercury succeed in curbing illegal gold mining?

Yes, Operation Mercury was successful in significantly reducing illegal gold mining activity in La Pampa. It led to a 70% to 90% decrease in mining activity and a decline in excavated mining pits.

What were some of the environmental consequences of illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region?

Illegal gold mining in the region resulted in deforestation, sediment buildup in rivers, and mercury contamination in nearby watersheds. These activities posed threats to public health, Indigenous communities, and the biodiversity of the area.

Were there any unintended consequences of Operation Mercury?

Yes, one unintended consequence of Operation Mercury was the shift of mining activity to legal areas on the other side of the Interoceanic Highway, which triggered similar environmental concerns. This highlights the need for stricter regulations in legal mining areas.

What methods were used to assess the impact of Operation Mercury?

The research team used satellite data from 2016 to 2021, specifically from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2. They analyzed changes in water, water quality, mining pond areas, and deforestation in various mining areas.

Why did the researchers analyze the spectral properties of mining ponds?

The spectral analysis of mining ponds allowed researchers to track changes in pond color, particularly the “yellowness” associated with gold mining activity. This color change was linked to increases in suspended sediment in the water, providing a marker for mining activity.

What broader implications did the study highlight?

The study pointed out that the challenges posed by gold mining activities are not limited to Peru but are a global phenomenon. It emphasized the need for strong governance, conservation, and remediation strategies to protect tropical biodiversity hotspots and address the impact of mining on both humans and the environment.

Did illegal gold mining resume in protected areas after Operation Mercury?

Yes, the study reported that by January 2023, illegal gold mining had resumed in protected areas as enforcement efforts shifted to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the need for sustained efforts to combat illegal mining.

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