Welcome to Madre de Dios, or ‘Mother of God’ in Spanish. Located in the Peruvian Amazon basin and home to the famous Tambopata National Reserve and Lake Sandoval, Madre de Dios has aptly earned the sobriquet of “Paradise of Biodiversity” for being one of the richest forest ecosystems on our planet.
However, peeking through its lush exterior, one sees the toll that decades of illegal and unchecked artisanal gold mining have taken on this region. Over 100,000 acres of expansive virgin rainforests in this region have been ravaged into toxic wastelands. Reports suggest that over 500,000 people are directly and indirectly engaged in illegal mining across Peru, and mining camps in Madre de Dios are at the epicenter of this activity.
Today, Peru is the sixth largest gold producer in the world (and the largest in South America). Yet over 20% of the gold produced in Peru is illegally mined; in fact, gold surpasses cocaine as Peru’s largest illegal export.
In order to extract gold, miners combine mercury, a known neurotoxin, with gold-containing silt. They tread on the mixture with their bare feet so that the gold clings on to the mercury forming an amalgam. The amalgam is then heated over open flames to recover gold, often in cooking utensils inside homes, releasing toxic mercury fumes into air and water streams. It is estimated 45–50 tonnes of mercury are used each year in Madre de Dios to recover gold. A Carnegie study found that nearly 80% of adults and 60% of fish in the region had levels of mercury in their blood higher than international safety limits.
The catastrophic impacts of gold mining in Madre de Dios go far beyond the health consequences. The illicit gold mining activities have created a hot bed for flagrant human-rights abuses: rampant exploitation of desperate locals, forced child labor and sex trafficking of teenage girls coerced into the service of illegal miners.
More than 11,000 miles away, on a different hemisphere and continent, lies Guiyu in the Guangdong province of China. Guiyu is also inflicted with the Golden Curse, but its urban rendition.
Fifty years after Gordon Moore first speculated his now-famous law (that microprocessors would get smaller, faster), his prediction has meant different things to different people. To Silicon Valley technophiles, it means sexy and sleek new phones, watches, tablets and phablets every eighteen months. To residents of Guiyu, it means 1.6 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) at their doorstep every year.
The UN estimates that nearly 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally each year. With nearly 10% of the world’s gold supply (and over quarter of the world’s silver supply) used in fabrication of electronics annually, end-of-life electronics represent a gold mine – literally.
Yet, today, over 80% of e-waste is landfilled, resulting in the leaching of toxic elements such as mercury and lead into the ground. Most of the e-waste that doesn’t end up buried underground is illegally shipped to places like Guiyu, where scenes of children sitting on piles of our defunct laptops and keyboards foretell a dystopian WALL-E-esque reality.
Further, locals use primitive and hazardous recovery methods, such as cyanide leaching and open burning of circuit boards, to recover precious metals. In the process, they release highly toxic dioxins and furans, destroying their own health and the environment. Guiyu has historically been cited as one of the most toxic places on the planet, alongside Chernobyl in Ukraine. Despite a crackdown by local governments, reports suggest that over 80% of the children in Guiyu are at risk of lead poisoning and nearly 90% of adults suffer from neurological damage.
If someone from another world tuned into Channel Earth, the juxtaposition of the two tragedies would be mindboggling: people die from digging for gold. And then they die from melting it and burying it.
And this whole time, the solution stares us in the face – to source 10 ounces of gold (the same as 30 shiny 18 karat wedding bands), we could continue to dig up 100 tonnes of dirt and gold ore. Or responsibly recycle a single tonne of cell phones.
Which would you choose?
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Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here.
Image: A worker distributes electronic waste at a government managed recycling centre at the township of Guiyu in China’s southern Guangdong province June 10, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu