Illegal Mining Devastating the Amazon Region – Key Facts

In this article, we look at illegal mining in the Amazon region, including an examination of critical facts and figures, insights on the various problems it causes, and potential solutions.

By Tatiana Vasiltsova, a Geographic Information System Specialist at EOS DATA ANALYTICS

It’s commonly believed that the forests of the Amazon produce 20 percent of the oxygen of the Earth’s atmosphere, possessing unprecedented biodiversity. The figure might be closer to 6-9%, but it’s still an incredibly important proportion. And it is these forests that have a huge role to play in saving the planet from global warming. But it’s getting to the point where the Amazon region itself now needs saving.

Until the early 60s, access to these forests was extremely limited, and they remained mostly untouched. But later on, the forest began to be cut down to make way for cattle, farmland, hydroelectric dams, new highways, and mining. Sadly, devastating rates of deforestation are not the only problem. There is also a pressing issue of rivers’ pollution caused by unsustainable mining, especially of gold due to the growing demand for this particular metal. Together, all of this leads to severe destruction of the Amazon ecosystem.

To start solving the issue it’s critical to understand its cause, track changes, and estimate damage. And that is where modern technology can help. Today, professionals can easily access high-resolution satellite imagery to see the relevant and accurate picture of land use in any part of the world. More so, advanced satellite imagery analytica enables identification and confirmation of locations where illegal mining occurs.

And thanks to the availability of historical satellite pictures, experts can also detect clear cut areas and pools, which may indicate mining activities.

Illegal Mining and Its Causes

When the impact of a global pandemic reached the Amazon region, the constant noise of transportation vehicles carrying goods along the local rivers almost stopped. Yet there was another to supplement it — the sound of barges ferrying dredgers to illegally extract gold from indigenous lands.

According to the study by RAISG, it turns out that rising gold prices layered upon with the withdrawal of law enforcement from mining areas in several countries has enabled illegal gold miners to prosper.

Illegal mining, especially of gold, has become the primary source of money for many residents. And although local miners have been working in the Amazon for years, over the past two decades their number has increased significantly. Consequently, high res satellite images show that there are now thousands of gold miners in the region, most of them being poor people trying to make a living. The RAISG report also claims that approximately 30 rivers are harmed by the illegal gold, diamonds, and coltan mining in Amazon region, with over 4000 mines identified there.

Photo of devastated ground with mountain in distance
Credit: Freepik


Brazil is notoriously famous for its illegal mining locations, including such indigenous reserves as Munduruku and Yanomami that generate huge amounts of illegal gold. Comparing current (2022) high quality satellite images to the images made in 2017-2018, it’s quite easy to see the devastating deforestation scale in locations where illegal mining takes place.

More so, it also harms the soil and rivers, as the abundant water resources used in mining are then flowing into the closest river, washing off the topsoil on the way. This leads to both soil erosion due to waterlogging and water pollution.

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Satellite imagery of Brazil
Credit: EOS DATA


Illegal gold mining in Venezuela received its boost due to hyperinflation, electricity shortages, and shortages of food and medicine, prompting people to leave the country or seek other ways to survive. Most seekers try to mine or pan for gold the old-fashioned way in Canaima National Park, where even the indigenous Pemones have replaced their peaceful existence as local guides with mining for the precious metal.

From all over the country, tens of thousands of people flock to the state of Bolivar to the dangerous illegal mines where illegal gold mining is carried out in horrific conditions.

The extraction of gold from lumps of rock crushed on a primitive crusher is done by the oldest gold purification method available: amalgamation. It’s the process of mixing mercury with metals (mix water with gold and mercury).

The mixture of mercury and gold is called the amalgam. After all the gold is amalgamated and the amalgam is separated from the sand, the excess mercury is removed from the amalgam. After removing all excess mercury from the amalgam bead, the mercury is separated from the gold.

This can be done in two ways. The first is by heating the amalgam until all the mercury has evaporated from the gold. The second way is to dissolve the mercury in nitric acid. The extent to which this process is harmful to health is clear from the names of the components. Mercury is a known poison to human health.

Needless to say it causes devastating environmental pollution in the areas where this type of illegal mining occurs.

Map of the Orinoco Mining Arc
Map of the Orinoco Mining Arc, a resource rich area in Venezuela
Credit: Ecomineria – Own work


Illegal mining and trade in minerals has become the “new cocaine” for Colombia.

These processes have been observed in the Andean countries, as well as in Venezuela and Brazil. According to some estimates, illegal mining is much more profitable than the drug trade. But it also causes enormous damage to the environment, which no amount of money can eliminate.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claims that illegal mining in the country takes place in almost 1000 locations identified with the help of high resolution Earth images.

About the Author

Tatiana Vasiltsova is a lifelong eco-activist. Her expertise covers satellite monitoring of natural and man-made landscapes and detection of changes in surface characteristics. Tatyana is a Ph.D. student in information technology and has an impressive list of technical publications.