Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced a state of emergency in parts of the country early in December in response to protests over the construction of a huge gold mine in Cajamarca, reported CNN; the state of emergency was lifted in mid-December. The protesters cite potential adverse environmental effects on water and agriculture. The U.S. Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., which is to co-own the mine, had recently halted development on the project as the result of the protests, reported the BBC in late November. The Conga project would be an extension of Yanacocha, Latin America’s largest gold mine. Newmont plans to drain four Andean lakes, moving the water into reservoirs. The company details their environmental impact assessment study on their website. In 2005 FRONTLINE/World investigated the murky political history of the Yanacocha Mine and Newmont’s ownership stake in “Peru: The Curse of Inca Gold.”
Cyanide or mercury contamination are concerns for large and small gold mining operations. PBS NewsHour reported this week on mercury sickening the small-scale miners in southeastern Peru who use it to form an amalgam to separate the gold from dirt. They report that the gold rush has attracted 20,000 miners to the Madre de Dios region. Mercury pollution in Peru is nothing new. In his 2009 National Geographic News story,”Mercury Pollution’s Oldest Traces Found in Peru“, John Roach reported on a study showing mercury traces that date back to 1400 B.C. Sediment studies done in Huancavelica show that the ancient traces resulted from a quest for vermilion, and later for silver. Geologist Colin Cooke, lead author of the study, says “We haven’t done any direct measurements of mercury in fish or blood-mercury levels in the residents or anything, but I would suspect it is probably one of the most polluted regions of the world.”
In The Real Price of Gold (National Geographic magazine, January 2009), Brook Larmer takes a look at the 21st-century gold rush which has exacted an environmental toll including toxic vapors and waste mercury poisoning local food chains. He describes the depletion of large deposits: “Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. It’s an invitation to destruction. But there is no shortage of miners, big and small, who are willing to accept.” Photos by Randy Olson show the often desperate lives of those staking a claim and the global fascination with gold that drives them.