When the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Inca empire in the 16th century, they demanded large ransoms of gold from local people. Centuries later Peru is officially the largest producer of gold in Latin America, but many indigenous Peruvians remain impoverished, eking out a basic living as mine labourers while those in the cities prosper.
After the global financial crisis of 2008, investors sought to hoard gold, sending the price rocketing. Such investment comes at a major cost to Amazonian rainforests though, as thousands of acres of rainforest are cleared each year to make room for illegal gold mines. Such illegal mining is believed to account for 20% of Peru’s gold production. Illegal gold also finds its way into jewelry and electronics sold in the UK, and it’s estimated that 20 tons of waste are created to produce just one gold ring.
There are approximately 30,000 illegal miners in the Madre de Dios region alone. Many of the miners are recruited from outside the region, coming in the hope of earning a living. The work involves collecting mud laden with gold particles, and then combining it with mercury, which binds to the gold particles to form a mercury-gold compound. To release the gold from the compound though, the mercury must be burnt away using blowtorches, a process that releases poisonous fumes that slowly build up in the miners, causing dangerous health problems. Equally damaging is the mercury that seeps into the surrounding water tables, which builds up in fish populations, and from there gets into the rest of the food chain.