All that glitters is not gold, the saying goes, as proven by a new photo taken from the International Space Station (ISS).
What appear to be rivers of gold running through the Amazon rainforest in Madre de Dios state in eastern Peru are in fact prospecting pits, likely left by independent miners, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory, which published the photo taken by one of its astronauts.
The pits are normally hidden from view to those on the ISS but stand out in this shot due to reflected sunlight.
The image shows the Inambari River and a number of pits surrounded by deforested areas of muddy spoil.
Independent gold mining supports tens of thousands of people in the Madre de Dios region, making it one of the largest unregistered mining industries in the world, according to NASA.
Mining is also the biggest driver of deforestation in the region, and mercury used to extract gold pollutes waterways, the agency added.
Gold prospecting in the region has expanded since the inauguration of the Southern Interoceanic Highway in 2011 made the area more accessible.
The only road connection between Brazil and Peru was meant to boost trade and tourism, but “deforestation may be the larger result of the highway,” said NASA.
The photo, released publicly earlier this month, was taken on December 24.
Madre de Dios is a pristine chunk of the Amazon about the size of South Carolina, where macaws and monkeys, jaguars and butterflies thrive. But while some parts of Madre de Dios, such as the Tambopata National Reserve, are protected from mining, hundreds of square miles of rainforest in the area have been turned into a treeless, toxic wasteland.
Increases in the price of gold in recent years have created jungle boomtowns, complete with pop-up brothels and gun fights, as tens of thousands of people from across Peru joined a modern gold rush.
In January 2019, a scientific study found that gold mining deforestation destroyed an estimated 22,930 acres of Peru’s Amazon in 2018, according to the group Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, known as MAAP. That’s the highest annual total on record dating back to 1985, based on research conducted by Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation.
Deforestation in 2018 eclipsed the previous record high from 2017, when an estimated 22,635 acres of forest were felled by gold miners, according to MAAP.
This means that over two years, gold mining decimated the equivalent of more than 34,000 American football fields of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, according to MAAP’s analysis.