By: Jacqueline Gerson, Kelsey Lansdale and Melissa Marches
The pitter-patter of rain echoes through our metal boat as we chug down the Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian rainforest.rees line the riverbanks, just visible through the dense fog and heavy rain, while macaws and capuchin monkeys screech in the background; the Amazon is just as we had envisioned.
But we are not your average tourists, birdwatching on an Amazonian tributary — we come equipped with an entire boatload of supplies to conduct research: 55-meter-long PVC pipes, six coolers, two enormous duffel bags, two large boxes and three camping backpacks. We are here to investigate something that is normally hidden from visitors yet is one of the largest environmental and human health disasters to plague the region: mercury contamination from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).
Gold and other precious metals have been mined and exported from Peru’s resource-rich landscape since Spanish colonization began in the 16th century. In the last twenty years, gold mining specifically has become increasingly popular, offering promises to men from all over the country to “strike it rich” by mining this in-demand and profitable commodity. The mining practice continues to expand despite being completely illegal. The reason behind gold-mining’s success? Mercury. ASGM uses large amounts of this potent and dangerous pollutant to effectively extract gold from sediment. Mercury usage, in turn, spells lifelong health consequences for residents and wildlife, plays a large role in deforestation, has radical social effects and causes detrimental environmental contamination.
During the first few days of our adventure, the impact of ASGM remains invisible to us. Instead, we happily soak in the astounding beauty of the forest and the sincerity of its people. During our first stop along the Madre de Dios River, as we climb the steep mud stairwell from the boat to the small town of Boca Manu, we are greeted by delicious food, kind people and magnificent rainforest.
Yet, even on land, our view of all the activities occurring on the river in front of us serves as a reminder of how interconnected the people are with the water that runs by their town. In an effort to better understand this relationship, we ask a group of children to illustrate what the river means to each of them. Almost all of their drawings show a heavily forested riverside with a winding, clean river; large fish swim in the water, birds flit above it and people paddle across its smooth surface. The river they draw — the one they intimately know — is a river that provides the population with food, transportation and tourism revenue.
Yet, moving downstream on the Madre de Dios River, the landscape suddenly begins to deviate from the picturesque body of water depicted by the children. ASGM’s presence is very clear, ravaging the shores for hundreds of miles. First, dense old-growth forests are replaced with younger stands that struggle to grow after the rampant deforestation associated with ASGM (deforestation stems from mining camps, illegally built roadways and the mining itself). Then we begin to see large pyramidal mounds of rocks hugging the shoreline. Sometimes a pile stands alone, isolated from other pyramids. Other times they are found by the dozens, one beginning at the tail of another. As we stare at these piles of displaced rocks, we notice men poking their faces out of the water as they angle tubes into the sediment, and other men preparing the engines that rest on wooden platforms above some of the piles — these are the active mountains of rocks, formed as miners extract gold from the river in the process of ASGM.
The piles of rocks littering the river are not the only evidence of mining activity in this area. As we pass the Colorado River, home to one of the larger mining towns, a visible mixing of water occurs with the Madre de Dios River. The Colorado River has a drastically different coloration than the blue of the Madre de Dios — it is an opaque chocolate brown. The suspended sediment loosened by the gold extraction process has given the river this color, so its name, “The Colored River,” is fitting. We watch as the Colorado River slowly turns the Madre de Dios River from its deep blue to a caramel brown — spreading the impact of ASGM to the entire ecosystem.
When we finally reach the shore of Boca Colorado, we feel as though we’ve entered the Wild West. All eyes are immediately on us, the obvious foreigners and only females wandering the streets, but we are not the only outsiders in town. Most of the men here have traveled from faraway cities, such as Cusco and Puno, and reside here without their families for several months of the year. In a country where culture is shaped by regional norms that have formed over centuries, this influx of transient migrants disrupts established social patterns. The miners come with a burning desire to become rich overnight, a general disregard for the dominant Amazonian culture, a lack of family to care for and a bachelor style of living. As a result, prostitution, heavy drinking and crime have become commonplace, particularly in the Red District area near the center of town, and a general sense of mistrust pervades what was once a tightknit community. It is not only the people that remind us of the mining activities, but also the infrastructure we observe. Nearly every store either buys the gold produced from ASGM or caters to it in some way: hardware stores specialize in mining equipment (tubing, diesel engines, etc.), general stores are lined with rubber boots for trekking on the mucky shores, and restaurants open early to serve hearty breakfasts to miners. Gold mining in Peru may be illegal and subject to periodic government crackdowns, but the local businesses in this town help perpetuate the practice.
The scale of mining operations ranges from a small group of men equipped with a diesel engine to larger groups with barges and heavy construction equipment, but the processes and results are essentially the same. In ASGM, miners work in a team to pump sediment from the river and then pass these slurries through a gravity filter — rocks and heavy particles are discarded back into the river, forming the mountains of rock we see. The remaining fine particles cascade down a wooden board covered with what looks like a rug. The dense gold particles get stuck in the threads of the fabric, while water and other sediment are washed back into the river. The cloth is then removed and dunked in an oil drum to begin the process of isolating the gold particles. At this point, mercury is added to bind selectively to the gold, separating it from other sediment particles. This mercury-gold amalgam is then retrieved and the mercury burned off, leaving behind gold that can be sold in town. Any mercury-rich tailings that remain in the oil drum are dumped directly into the river.
While groups of miners can produce up to 30 grams of gold per day using this process (worth an astounding US$600), their actions are altering the river’s flow, disturbing local cultural norms and introducing large amounts of toxic mercury into the environment. In fact, the Madre de Dios region of Peru is estimated to produce 16 tons of gold per year, using over 32 tons of poisonous mercury in the process. Once in the air and water, mercury is a potent toxin that can impact the neurological functions of people and animals, particularly carnivorous species that feed high in the food web. It is these environmental and health impacts of mercury that brought us on this journey.
The effects of ASGM on forests and wildlife are not isolated to the area around Boca Colorado. As we continue downstream to the regional capital of Puerto Maldonado, the river is lined with eroded streambanks, gaps in the forest canopy and endless mountains of rocks. In Laberinto, a day’s trip downstream from Boca Colorado, we dock our boat on a deteriorating shoreline that is slowly dumping abandoned edifices into the river as the sediment banks crumble. We are greeted by a towering sign proudly advertising “Amazon gold” (a gold-buying shop) and other stores selling the standard rubber boots, pumps, tubing and cloth needed for the mining process. The entire region has been transformed by ASGM.
Only after witnessing the harsh realities of SGM from the river and in mining towns such as Boca Colorado do we fully realize the effects mining has on the communities upstream. When we first arrived in Peru, we were mesmerized by the beauty and serenity of the Amazon — the trees, birds, animals and people. During the first few days of our trip as we journeyed to Boca Manu, the forest seemed untouched by ASGM, but the impacts of mining do reach even these upstream communities and wilderness areas. Mercury released through burning the mercury-gold amalgam travels through the atmosphere to be deposited in areas far from its source, fish that migrate through the river are now scarce due to the high sediment loads associated with mining, and gold-rush newcomers from other areas of Peru bring alcoholism and crime to remote areas, disrupting the established social norms of indigenous Amazonians. The scene we witnessed near Boca Colorado is becoming the standard as mining activities continue to increase. Everyone must try to adapt to this new Peruvian Amazon.
Even though we are studying the impact of mercury on the environment, we also witnessed how the tradition of ASGM and the toxin itself are leading to neurological impacts on the people and changing the interactions of people as a whole. At moments in our journey, it seemed that only by developing superpowers (as suggested by our boat guide Ramiro) could we stop the illegal and omnipresent practice of gold mining. While we obviously wish for superpowers, we choose a more realistic pathway for change. We strive to use scientific research to promote an improved understanding of the environmental, health and social impacts of mercury used in ASGM and to induce policy reforms that benefit this unique environment and its people.
Today, the Governments of Senegal and Sri Lanka announced they would sponsor proposals to protect some of the worlds most endangered sharks at next year’s CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP). CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
This exciting announcement was made at the annual meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, the governing body of the Convention between meetings of the CoP. Proposals were announced by Senegal and Sri Lanka that would see 16 species of giant guitarfish and wedgefish (flattened rays often grouped with sharks) offered protection via listing in Appendix II of CITES—thereby regulating international trade in their fins, and other products for the first time.
Mexico also added their voice to support further shark conservation action, confirming that they would be submitting a proposal to list both species of mako shark on Appendix II, bringing the number of species under consideration for listing to 18 – a record for sharks at a CITES meeting!
These must-needed listings would ensure that any continued trade is sustainable and legal. A report launched this week shows that their fins are regularly traded and highly prized—having the highest value of any fin found for sale in the global trade hub of Hong Kong. Despite that value, and declining populations, these fascinating species are subject to little or no management globally, and have already disappeared from much of their former range.
Drying shark fins and meat being prepared for export. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.
The CITES Standing Committee, hosted in Russia for the first time in the 40+ years of CITES history, also analyzed the various implementation efforts underway to control the shark fin trade via the existing listings under the Convention. Despite ongoing challenges, governments from all around the world cited strong progress, reporting on the steps they are taking to protect and sustainably manage sharks.
However, we must still do much more if we are to halt global declines facing sharks. Findings in two recent studies highlight just how urgent additional action is.
One recent paper tracks the success of CITES implementation for sharks, showing that in Hong Kong, the global trade hub, large quantities of fins of CITES-listed species continue to be traded, possibly illegally, despite management progress globally and the Hong Kong government’s excellent efforts in confiscating large quantities of illegally traded fins since 2014.
A wedgefish, showing its high value dorsal fins. Credit: Luke Warwick/WCS.
A second recent research paper demonstrates that as a whole, the global trade in shark fins remains deeply unsustainable, and calls for the trade to cease unless urgent action is taken to regulate it more fully. The CITES listing of all traded species is identified as a potential option to deliver the transparency, legality, and sustainability critical for such a high value trade.
Additional CITES listings, along with continued implementation efforts will ensure that this trade—and the consumption of shark fins that drives it—does not drive the most vulnerable species to extinction, including the guitarfish and wedgefish highlighted today.
In spite of the excellent implementation progress showcased by several governments at the Standing Committee meeting, less than 20 percent of the world’s shark fin trade is regulated under CITES, and CITES is the only international mechanism available to regulate such international trade.
This is a welcome increase from less than 1 percent in 2012. However, the IUCN has identified several families of sharks as among the world’s most vulnerable, including the wedgefish and giant guitarfish. With 80 percent of global international trade completely unregulated, governments across the globe should welcome these proposals.
Any such action will be decided upon next May at the CITES CoP in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government used the announcement of these proposals to extend an invitation to governments and organizations globally to attend this meeting to facilitate progress on global wildlife conservation and management.
With the leadership of Sri Lanka, Senegal, and other governments, the meeting next year holds out hope for real progress in a critical area of marine conservation.
————————————————— Luke Warwickis Associate Director for Sharks and Rays at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after its annual sojourn to South American waters. Amid a weekend of music and revelry, festival-goers gather on the beach at sunset to watch thousands of large black seabirds assemble in the sky above the coast. The birds then fly en masse overhead toward the forest hills, as they do every night during their breeding season.
Punakaiki has good reason to be proud of these beautiful petrels, also known as a tāikos, because they’re truly a local specialty. All 4,000 or so pairs nest along this small patch of coastline. Unlike nearly all other burrowing seabird species in New Zealand, Westland petrels somehow avoided being pushed off the mainland when invasive mammals hitched a ride with humans to this part of the world (though the birds certainly struggle with predation on land, as well as with threats at sea).
I missed the Tāiko Festival by a few weeks, but I got to see something even better when I stopped through town. With the help of a conservation-minded landowner whose property holds dozens of nests, I visited the Westland petrel colony itself.
It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascending long sets of wooden stairs that he’d built years ago to give petrel colony tours to interested parties. At one point, Bruce paused to explain something and was interrupted by a crash in the thicket off to the left. “That was a petrel,” he remarked, as we continued our climb.
At the top we sat down, and there the spectacle began in earnest.
Big dark birds were crash-landing in the forest all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the trees and ferns, we could see their silhouettes circling as they prepared for entry. One came straight at me: imagine looking at a Batman symbol (except more seabird-shaped) that gets larger and larger and then veers aside at the last instant to tumble dramatically onto the ground. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from that fearsome ivory beak.
After one of these landings, Bruce turned on a dim light so we could get a look at a petrel as it rested from the exertion. I had half a minute to sketch this one before it crept away toward its burrow.
Later on, another bird climbed up a stump in front of us—a customary launch pad, Bruce informed me—and spent about ten minutes contemplating an early departure back to sea. Several times it opened its long wings and flapped vigorously. But it ended up dropping back to the ground and meandering off into the bush. Apparently it would wait until the morning rush, when most of the petrels head back to the ocean under cover of darkness (to avoid the falcon, Bruce said).
We didn’t want to use too much light and disturb the petrels. But there was plenty to listen to, between the crashes and the rustlings and all manner of vocal performances, as the birds sat in their burrow entrances and loudly laid claim to their territory. Within a week or so they’d be laying eggs.
When we descended back to sea level that night, I accepted a kind offer for “tea and pudding” (that’s dinner and dessert in New Zealand) with Bruce and his partner Denise Howard. Then I camped nearby on the coast.
I emerged from my tent an hour before dawn and drove until I reached a stretch of road that Bruce had described to me. I got out of the car. Standing there with the world gradually lightening around me, I watched Westland petrels materialize in the distance above the hills and fly toward me in a wide, continuous stream. They flew over my head and past the moon with faintly swishing wingbeats, off for a day of feeding at sea.
The flood slowed to a trickle, and at last the final petrel flew over. The sun rose. I got back in the car and drove on.
Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.
part of the massive intact north american Boreal Forest: the Sahtu region of the Mackenzie Valley, Northwest Territories, Canada (Photo J. Wells)
Due to the course of human history, there are now only a handful of places on Earth that are not severely altered by the footprint of large-scale industrial activities. Those within parts of the Earth where trees are dominant are termed “intact” or “primary” forests. A few weeks ago I joined more than a hundred other scientists and conservationists for a three-day conference at Oxford University in England to discuss the issues, needs, similarities, and differences related to the science and conservation of the world’s forest landscapes that are considered intact.
The conference, Intact Forests in the 21st Century, included presentations on the issues of how best to map and identify intact forest landscapes, methods for inventory and identification of conservation values of intact forests, ways of communicating about the importance of intact forests to the public and policy makers, elucidation of the major threats and stressors that are eliminating or degrading intact forests, and strategies for achieving conservation of these forest landscapes.
Five regions of the globe have very large forested landscapes that contain large tracts of intact or primary forest: the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska, the Boreal Forest of Russia and Scandinavia, the Amazon Forest of South America, the Congo Basin of Africa, and the forests of Papua New Guinea and Malayasia. While this “Family of Five” forest areas are called by some the “Last Five,” it is important to point out that there are other areas of forest around the globe, some of which, while perhaps smaller at the global scale, are intact and others which are recovering from past human impacts and that need conservation attention as well.
But certainly the “Family of Five” was a major focus of presentations at the conference and the range of research and conservation initiatives that are underway in these regions is impressive. At the same time, it was clear from all presentations that there continues to be rapid loss of these last intact forest landscapes on the planet, with consequent loss of animal and plant species as well as degradation of the ability of forests to provide clean air and water, and to store away carbon pollution.
The Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska was highlighted for its global significance containing as it does, at least a quarter of the world’s last large intact forest landscapes that have in storage over 200 billion tons of carbon and that support billions of migratory birds and a host of mammals, fish, insects, and plants. Also highlighted was the fact that the Boreal Forest of Canada and Alaska is the ancestral homeland of hundreds of Indigenous communities whose governments are increasingly taking the lead in achieving balanced protection and stewardship of their lands and waters, and the animals and plants found there. Some of the major problems in the region were also given attention including the plight of rapidly declining Boreal Woodland Caribou populations in Canada and the opportunity for increasing protections as governments strive to achieve conservation commitments embodied in the Aichi Biodiversity Treaty by 2020. The long-term impacts to the Boreal Forest of the very large footprint of industrial forestry as well as from mining, oil, and gas; large-scale hydro, and other global industries was demonstrated as well.
As the conference reached its conclusion, delegates came together to show a global voice and vision for the world’s remaining intact forests and their conservation through an Intact Forest Declaration that attendees and others will be signing and spotlighting in coming months. By sharing our knowledge, ideas and understanding among those working for conservation across all the world’s Intact Forest landscapes, we hope we can increase the collective conservation gains for all of the Family of the Five and beyond.
Me with Tom Evans (right) of the Wildlife Conservation Society who was one of the key organizers of the Intact Forests in the 21st Century Conference. Behind us is an amazing graphic put together by two artists to encapsulate the range of presentations and messages of the conference.