The tropical rainforest covering the Guiana Shield is still one of the least fragmented on Earth, but gold mining is wreaking havoc: in all of South America, this region is the main hub of deforestation as a result of the activity. Mining for the precious metal has been encouraged, since the early 2000s, by the explosion in global demand. Rising prices have led to the development of mining in regions that were previously less profitable, with substantial environmental consequences. Researchers from the the research Unit “Ecology of Guianan Forests” and “Forests and Societies“ carried out the most precise analysis ever of the impact of gold mining in a 600 000-km2 zone stretching from the Amapá State in Brazil to Guyana, via French Guiana and Surinam. Using annual deforestation maps based on high-resolution satellite images, they were able to assess the temporal dynamics of gold mining and establish links with socioeconomic and political factors.
Gold price fluctuations determine deforestation
"There was a very strong link between world gold prices and deforestation resulting from gold mining over our study period", says Camille Dezécache, a PhD student at the University of French Guiana and lead author of the study. "When the gold price was below $ 400/ounce around fifteen years ago, some 2000 hectares of forest were being cleared per year due to gold mining. When it shot up to $ 1600/ounce in 2011-2012, deforestation reached almost 9000 ha per year." This link is highly dynamic, and applies in the event of both price rises and price falls: when the gold price fell after 2012, deforestation as a result of gold mining also decreased sharply.
The limitations of REDD+ mechanism ?
This observation highlights the limitations of mechanisms such as REDD+, which give countries that limit deforestation carbon credits. For such mechanisms to be effective, payments must be proportional to the amount of deforestation “avoided”. Yet how can we know whether it was avoided thanks to effective environmental policies or merely due to a fall in the gold price? “There is a risk of over- or underestimating the effort actually put in by the countries participating in REDD+”, says Bruno Hérault, the CIRAD researcher who supervised the work. “If gold prices fall, we may find ourselves paying countries that have simply seen deforestation rates fall as a result of less gold mining. Conversely, when gold prices are very high, any attempt to control gold mining, hence deforestation, would be pointless or at the very least extremely costly.”
Regional cooperation is vital
The detailed nature of this work served to highlight the very substantial disparities between Guiana Shield countries. Whereas deforestation due to gold mining is skyrocketing in Guyana and Surinam, it is marking time in French Guiana and Amapá, since in these zones, illegal mining is facing or has faced strong repressive measures. However, in this region, where illegal movements are facilitated by the difficulty of conducting controls along border rivers, the co-existence of very different policy frameworks is a major problem. “In the past, many Brazilian gold miners travelled to French Guiana to escape police repression in Brazil”, Camille Dezécache explains. “However, our work looked at almost two decades of annual deforestation data for French Guiana and Surinam, and suggests that there are now massive deforestation flows between these two countries.”According to the study, the repressive situation in French Guiana may even have exacerbated deforestation in the region as a whole. The system of “communicating vessels” also raises issues about how REDD+-type mechanisms are applied, since the implementation of a given policy in one country interferes with deforestation in neighbouring countries.
Does this mean the fight against clandestine gold mining in French Guiana should be scaled down? Certainly not, because illegal gold mining, and the resulting deforestation, would rapidly increase once again and compound the problem on a regional scale. However, it is absolutely vital to step up regional cooperation aimed at controlling informal or illegal gold mining. “This is a complex problem, since cooperation runs up against issues of national sovereignty, and also strong local opposition. Gold mining makes a substantial contribution to the GDP of countries in the region, particularly Surinam and Guyana”, Bruno Hérault concludes.