Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon on Aquatic Ecosystem Biodiversity (2019-2020)


Artisanal, or small-scale, gold mining (ASGM) is the leading cause of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon and one of largest sources of global mercury pollution to the atmosphere. Since 2012, Bass Connections project teams have documented high human exposures to mercury within the heavily mined Madre de Dios river basin, and have begun determining the pathways by which this potent toxin liberated by ASGM is being assimilated by local residents.

While these studies have allowed for detailed analyses of mercury contamination, there has been little research on the impacts of ASGM on aquatic ecosystems in Peru. People in Madre de Dios report significant reductions in the size and variety of fish caught in the river over the last decade. Throughout the river basin, satellite imagery documents that mining leads to rainforest destruction, an expansion of contaminated settling ponds and massive sediment pollution of the river. The environmental consequences of forest destruction, large-scale hydrologic alteration and loading of sediments and trace metals to this major tributary of the Amazon have implications for biodiversity and human livelihoods in the region.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project seeks to understand the impacts of ASGM on aquatic ecology (beyond the singular issue of mercury contamination) and to communicate these impacts with policymakers and local communities.

The project team will seek to accomplish five objectives that link land use change, sediment loading and biodiversity loss. The team will:

  1. Identify changes in land use associated with ASGM via satellite imagery
  2. Measure sediment loading, nutrient concentration and eDNA in rivers near ASGM
  3. Evaluate the relationship between sediment loading and reflectance using remote sensing
  4. Qualitatively evaluate effective communication strategies for stakeholders to inform policymakers, Peruvian organizations and communities living near ASGM about the impacts of ASGM
  5. Document field and remote sensing investigations of ASGM in the Peruvian Amazon through multimedia.

Team members will engage in training sessions on the biogeochemical cycling of nutrients, forest ecology and tropical hydrology. They will then design a research strategy for environmental data collection and travel to the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon to collect environmental samples.

eDNA is a new tool that allows for the assessment of all organisms present in a water sample based on their DNA. This team will expand on the eDNA sample collection piloted by the 2018-2019 project team. The analysis of these samples will be paired with remote sensing tools that allow for an assessment of changes in river productivity over time. Additionally, team members will engage in discussions about the most effective ways to share research findings with stakeholders and how to document the impact of ASGM through multimedia.

Anticipated Outputs

Analysis of environmental samples for chemical properties; manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journal; sharing of information on Peruvian ASGM website; policy briefs; web-based data visualization; video; popular press articles; blogs


Spring 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Spring 2019: Biweekly team meetings after spring break
  • Summer 2019: Language training for students (if required); first field visit to Peru; collection of environmental samples; filming for video
  • Fall 2019: Laboratory analyses; video editing; weekly meetings focused on literature review and data analysis; development of web-based data visualization platform
  • Spring 2020: Weekly meetings focused on communications strategy and publications; completion of video editing and online data visualization platform; second field visit to Peru; engagement with stakeholders and dissemination of research findings

Team Outputs to Date

Mercury Pollution in the Amazon (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

History Repeats Itself: Mercury Pollution from Historic and Modern Gold Rushes (poster by Arianna Agostini, Rand Alotaibi, Arabella Chen, Annie Lee, Fernanda Machicao, Melissa Marchese, Jacqueline Gerson, Jasmine Parham, Austin Wadle, Emily Bernhardt)


The Things We Do for Cochas: Camping 101

First Impressions of the Peruvian Amazon

See earlier related team, Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Impacts of Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon (2018-2019).


Image: Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon, courtesy of Jacqueline Gerson, Kelsey Lansdale and Melissa Marchese

Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon.

Team Leaders

  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology

/graduate Team Members

  • Jacqueline Gerson, Ecology-PHD
  • Jasmine Parham, Biology - PHD
  • Austin Wadle, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Arianna Agostini
  • Rand Alotaibi, Earth & Ocean Sciences (BS)
  • Arabella Chen
  • Anne Lee
  • Fernanda Machicao
  • Melissa Marchese, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB), Global Health (AB2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Ernesto Ortiz, Duke Global Health Institute
  • William Pan, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Elizabeth Anderson, Florida International University
  • Asociacion para la Conservacion de la Cuenca Amazonica
  • Centro de Estudios, Investigaciones, y Servicios en Salud Publica (CENSAP)
  • Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation (CINCIA)
  • Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP)
  • Joseph Craine, Jonah Ventures
  • Luis Fernandez, Wake Forest University, Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA)
  • Noah Fierer, Wake Forest University
  • Tamlin Pavelsku, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Miles Silman, Wake Forest University
  • Claudia Vega, Wake Forest University, Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA)