Aerial photo of an illegal mining camp during an operation by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) against Amazon deforestation at the Yanomami territory in Roraima State, Brazil on Feb. 24, 2023. ALAN CHAVES / AFP via Getty Images
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Brazil and Colombia have blown up 19 illegal gold mining operations in the Amazon rainforest. Colombia’s armed forces said the mines were producing about $1.5 million worth of the rare metal every month and polluting the rainforest’s rivers with mercury, reported the BBC and Reuters.
The unlawful activity was producing 50.71 pounds of gold a month, authorities said, as Reuters reported.
The mining operation “became a source of financing for weapons and explosives and the acquisition of chemical inputs by the criminal structure known as the Familia del Norte,” Colombia’s armed forces stated in a press release, as reported by Reuters.
The mission was backed by the United States and targeted the infrastructure of the operation. Authorities said the illegal mining polluted 18 million gallons of water each month with 114,000 grams of mercury.
“Gold mining causes deforestation, which converts forests to polluted ponds and mobilizes large amounts of sediment from river bottoms. The burning of the gold-mercury amalgam also emits enormous quantities of mercury into the atmosphere. Artisanal gold mining currently contributes more than 35 percent of all global mercury emissions created by people, more so than any industrial activity,” said Jacqueline Gerson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in an opinion piece published by Scientific American last year.
More than half of Brazil and Colombia are rainforests, making them two of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Rainforests are essential to the environmental health of the planet in many ways — their astounding array of plant diversity removes carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis, while they lower air and surface temperatures through evapotranspiration and provide ample shade.
“Once mercury is emitted into the atmosphere, it can enter a forest via three different pathways. First, mercury can dissolve in rainwater and then fall to the forest floor during rain events. Second, mercury can stick to the surface of small particles in the atmosphere. These particles can be intercepted by leaves, creating a coating of mercury on the leaves that can be washed to the forest floor during rain events in a process known as throughfall. And third, mercury can be taken up by leaves when their stomata are open for photosynthetic exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This mercury can then enter the forest floor when the leaves drop,” Gerson wrote.
Mercury pollution can wreak havoc on the delicately balanced rainforest ecosystem, poisoning its inhabitants.
“Once mercury enters the environment, it can cause neurological damage in both people and wildlife. In fact, numerous studies have found that people — especially indigenous communities — consuming fish caught near gold mining have elevated levels of mercury,” Gerson added.
Twelve vessels on the Purete and Pure rivers in Colombia were destroyed by authorities, Reuters reported. The vessels contained engine rooms, accommodations and sediment storage. Seven of the vessels were blown up in Brazil.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have both worked to protect and reduce deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which the two nations share.
“We are witnessing a historic bi-national operation against the illegal extraction of mineral deposits, aimed at protecting the lungs of the world,” said William Rene Salamanca, director of the national police in Colombia, in a statement, as reported by Reuters.
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