How to track illegal mining with open data

Journalists use open-source intelligence, data and tools to research and report on illegal mining and deforestation. Here is how they do it.

28 min readJul 14, 2021
New possible artisanal gold mining changes (in yellow boxes) last year, near Puerto Maldonado, Peru

This guide describes several basic techniques for monitoring and measuring destruction and pollution from illegal mining and how to examine corporate involvement and victims.

Global supply chains and human rights violations show that illegal mining isn’t only a problem for the developing world. Risks span across the entire global supply chain. Illegally mined minerals, causing havoc in source countries, naturally find their way into products (often undetected). This guide is for investigative journalists and reporters aboard researching illegal and destructive mining with open-source intelligence and data (#OSINT).

This guide consists of three case studies:

  • (1) Cobalt mining in the DRC (the Democratic Republic of the Congo)
  • (2) tracking deforestation by illegal miners in the Amazon rainforest and
  • (3) investigating artisanal gold mining across Peru — each timely for 2021.

Reach out if you work on an illegal mining journalism project

Rising mineral prices for gold and silver triggered an artisanal mining boom in many parts of the world, mainly in the poorest, resource-rich developing countries. Some of this new demand originates from industry in developed nations. With governments pledging ambitious goals to combat climate change, vast new renewable technology infrastructure is expected to consume vast amounts of rare earth minerals. In many places, artisanal illegal mined minerals find their way into legal supply chains. Those in charge to crack down on illegal mining are often beneficiaries, as the example in Zimbabwe and its ‘special commission’ GMTC shows.

For gold, a booming commodity price drives illegal mining and environmental destruction all over the world. As profits increase (and often exceed those from other crimes such as drug trafficking), illegal miners and gangsters naturally seek to take their share of the pie.

Mounting financial pressure, i.e. during the pandemic, has left the poorest jobless and hungry, and helped channel available workers into a network of murky illicit mining employment.

That still illegally mined minerals find their way to rich western democratic nations fighting against the practice is a problem journalists ought to expose. So are the environmental issues developing countries such as Peru is left with.

The EU condemns illegally mined minerals supplied from sources countries. The EU Commission passed regulation in 2017 to stop conflict minerals and metals to reach the EU. The law that became only effective in January this year also stipulates that any global and EU refinery is prohibited from using conflict minerals or operation that abuses mine workers, ample reason for European environmental journalists to check the records.

Companies also thought they could bring gold mining to Europe. The case of Romania’s Rosia Montana gold mine (see Corporate Europe's reporting on the subject, below) shows the clout non-EU corporations have over governments and their people.

Canadian TSX-listed resource company Gabriel Resources sued Romania over problems that barred the company from starting the mine. Vast protests pointed to pollution and destructive mining practices — the operators planned to use cyanide extraction, a notoriously dangerous process for people and wildlife).

Illegal mining can happen on a large as well as on a smaller one. A recent example is the diamond mining incident in South Africa. Environmental destruction spread, together with the risk of spreading Covid-19 after hundreds of people jumped to conclusions (satellite images showed vast stretches of cheese holes near a small village). The area is plagued by high unemployment which attracted the jobless and fortune seekers. Misinformation that (fake) diamonds may pull them out of poverty — which turned out to be quartz crystals — did the rest.

In other instances, illegal mining is linked to sex trafficking. Journalists have their eye on it. A story on Peru’s Puerto Maldonado by the Thomson Reuters Foundation is currently under development (below).

In other parts, forced labour worries experts and human rights activists. An assessment by the International Labour Organization Committee of Experts’ in 2019 presented evidence. Child labour grows as a problem in tandem with illegal mining. In Madre de Dios region, this is getting more apparent. The EU acknowledged the problem in its 2021 interim report on South America.

The pandemic further pushed Peru into murky territory, according to 2021 research by Ahsley Smith-Roberts, senior director at Sustainable Development Strategies Group (SDSG). The research highlights how Covid-19 heightened criminal activity and violence along the gold supply chain. The pandemic and the lucrative gold price spurred similar examples in Zimbabwe, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile.

Sources: Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime; Federation for American Scientists (FAS).org (link)

The examples above and below show how broad and complex investigating illegal mining is, touching on many areas from human rights violations to environmental destruction and human health. As long as Illegal miners are offered incentives from legitimate western businesses that allow illegal miners to profit, digging won't cease.

1. Investigating DRC’s illegal mining

Artisinal mining destruction in Peru’s Madre de Dios region can be traced around via satellite data. In the DRC, it’s often the brightly coloured tents (usually red or orange) that give away small scale, illegal artisanal miners. Some labour in urban spaces. Some on concessions owned by corporations. If illegal miners die, this put the spotlight and responsibility on Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company Glencore and the like.

Researchers examined these artisanal mining tents in the past. Industrial and artisanal mining and processing of metals can lead to severe environmental pollution in the region, research published in 2018 concluded. Open source satellite images show evidence of how artisanal extraction of cobalt spread in vulnerable, densely populated communities.

The city of Kolwezi, a cobalt mining hub in the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the DRC became a thriving mining hotspot. The scientific review was initiated on the grounds of suspicion that people in Kasulo, a township in Kolwezi, are affected by the mining.

The city has an urban residential zone (see the white dashed line below), and a zone of industrial mining to the West of the town. The yellow dashed line the study area.

Academic paper: ‘Sustainability of artisanal mining of cobalt in DR Congo’ by Célestin Banza Lubaba Nkulu et al, 2018 (location: -10.701934960093569, 25.48938347041978)

The researchers compared one area, the green one (above) — unaffected by artisanal copper mining — with the red one, affected by artisanal mining (the dots, letters A to N represent the 14 plots where participants were recruited).

The red-orange coloured areas within the artisanal mining area represent orange plastic sheeting shelter the mine pits. The research analysed images from 2016. We can follow up on these images with more recent ones. Note the expansion or small orange dots in 2019 and a receding trend in 2020/2021.

Change of urban environment by artisanal mining (location). The area is called Kasulo, When cobalt ore was discovered underneath one of the houses, the entire area became an artisanal mining hotspot. The houses are now interspersed with dozens of mine pits where hundreds of diggers mine cobalt. Most residents remained in the area. One major problem is the dust — containing cobalt and many other metals, including uranium. Released during the mining process, settling on the ground, it’s a health hazard.

Cobalt demand is largely driven by the vast new appetite for lithium-ion batteries powering EVs and portable electronics. Demand increased at an annual rate of 10 per cent between 2013 and 2020, with the DRC being the majority supplier (though most come from Kinshasa in DRC’s west).

Since 2017, suddenly a wave of new copper and cobalt projects in development in DRC’s south (‘Cuivre’=copper)
2019/2020: There were 21 new cobalt mining sites in the DRC

With the latest gold price, DRC’s artisanal mining sector received another boost. The government is tired of bad press of slave and child labour. Especially for miners in Kasulo this should be news. The government said it wants to start buying cobalt from artisanal miners within eight weeks. It aims to become the only legal buyer from miners in the informal sector, Reuters reports. Partly it’s aimed at meeting international demand and only secondly it's supposed to address unsafe and human rights violating working conditions, by no means is this a guarantee to end it.

What also raises questions is that supply from artisanal mining remains is notoriously hard to monitor (see example below where miners dig on corporate concessions). The cobalt is largely sold to Chinese refiners who may care little — less than the EU that is in the least — about just labour practices in source countries. Kasulo will be the program’s first testbed.

Newly set up Entreprise Generale du Cobalt, the cobalt buying entity on behalf of the government pledged “responsible sourcing standard”. This includes creating strictly controlled artisanal mining zones (positive, according to the assessment of one Amnesty International researcher, Lauren Armistead, see above) and ensuring transparency and traceable delivery of cobalt hydroxide. Swiss company Trafigura (Trafigura entered into an offtake agreement with EGC for cobalt but ended it end of last year due to the government sales program of artisanally mined minerals) promised to adhere to ethical standards.

Orange-red artisanal mining tents to protect miners from the sun

Amid growing demand for cobalt, DRC’s cobalt deposits triggering a new mining boom. Kolwezi grew quickly to over half a million inhabitants. Between 2019 and 2020, miners started 21 new cobalt mining sites around the town. The mineral has become popular in the past few years. Few dozens of new copper mining sites started popping up.

RAID, a group exposing corporate wrongdoing based in the UK found last year that around 10,000 people consume water from a spring near a cobalt mine in Kolwezi, “even though they know it's not fit for human consumption”.

International firms use cobalt from the DRC in their supply chain
Donat Kambola, a lawyer based in Kolwezi, worked for many years through his organisation IBGDH on issues linked to the extractive industry, particularly focusing on representing communities displaced by mining activities or at risk of losing their land (source: Amnesty International).

Cobalt mined from artisanal mining fluctuates due to illegal mining influence. In 2015 and 2016, 15 to 20 per cent of DRC’s total cobalt production was estimated to come from artisanal mines.

NGO Friends of the Earth condemned human rights abuses that accompany the artisanal extraction of cobalt in the state of Katanga. Artisanal mining often takes place informally or illegally, and with little consideration for the environmental impacts.

Cobalt remains an essential component in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other green technology. More than half the global supply for cobalt comes out of a single place, the Katanga Copperbelt in DR Congo (Illustration of mining projects across the DRC: between 2019 and 2020, half are new cobalt mines)

Trafigura Group said it thinks around 200,000 people participate in the artisanal mining sector in the Katanga province — many work for licensed cooperatives and authorised sites, it says. But vast numbers are still digging without oversight, often in dangerous conditions. A landslide in 2019 at an illegal mining site on concessions by a Glencore subsidiary, at the Kamoto mine, killed at least 43 illegal miners.

The response by the government was equally harsh as the incident was tragic. Government soldiers drove out large numbers of artisanal miners who entered the mining concessions to peacefully protest. The protest was about the government’s failure to provide regulated artisanal mining zones where the miners could work without being driven off the land.

Incidents when private mine police and security personnel abused induing artisanal miners, raise questions about whether corporations respect human rights (evidence laid out by RAID here for the United Nations).

Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) is a subsidiary of the Swiss commodity trader and miner Glencore. The company was quick to blame the illegal trespassers ‘on a major industrial site’.

But families of victims say the blame should go to the international corporations that failed in preventing the tragedy. Glencore created a dedicated page for illegal mining at the KCC and said it can't prevent “daily intrusions onto its concession by on [an] average 2,000 illegal artisanal miners per day”.

In response to the tragedy, NGO Amnesty International advised companies to “develop sustainable solutions that address the root causes of this crisis. These should include developing plans, with the government as well as representatives of artisanal miners, to support the creation of authorised and viable mining zones where artisanal mining can be conducted safely and without child labour.”

Impact of deadly landslide mining accident on Glencore’s stock price (June 27, 2019)

KCC said in their public due diligence report published last October that “artisanal miners illegally operated on our concessions, puts their own lives at risk and also brings operational, security and safety risks to KCC employees and contractors” (it also mentions the incident in 2019, though citing only 30 deaths). However, with faux pas continuing, the blame game is hard to keep up.

This March, the mine suffered a spill of sulphuric acid from a tank during maintenance work. The company declined to share information on how much acid was spilt. This comes after the company ‘repatriated’ Indian contractors due to the spread of Covid-19.

For the first time since 2018, cobalt prices shot up again in early January (see chart). The industry is expected to double in 2025. Now with more favourable economic conditions, Glencore is keen to open up its Mutanda mine again. Glencore announced to re-start the world’s largest copper mine towards the end of 2021, according to Reuters.

Glencore’s analysts, like David Brocas, head cobalt trader down-talks the illegal mining problem and tells reporters Miningweekly that only a fifth of mining in the DRC is non-industrial mining, and only half of it would be from illegal artisanal mining.

Human rights violations still raising questions. Last October a report found that the company still failed to compensate the family of an illegal miner who became a victim after being seized by KCC security officers on their premises, a collaborative effort between NGO Catholic Lenten Fund and Bread for All exposed. The authors think the family of victims might be able to seek justice in Switzerland.

2. Tracking deforestation down to illegal miners (Peru, Brazil)

The ponds filled with toxic water stretch miles across the Peruvian rain forest. They amplify the risk of mercury poisoning, researchers at Duke University found. Low-oxygen conditions in ponds accelerated the conversion of submerged mercury from the mining, into highly toxic methylmercury. Mercury pollution is an invisible health problem.

“If the mining is continuously dumping mercury directly into the rivers and lakes or released it into the air, and it gets rained out, going back into the rivers, then you start to get a problem”, Luis E. Fernandez tells me. Fernandez is the executive director of the Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), a research initiative that examines the impacts of artisanal gold mining, mercury contamination, and deforestation on natural and human ecosystems in the Peruvian Amazon.

The mercury used in the gold mining process spreads in rivers and waterways, he says.

Fernandez explains drinking polluted water is not the main problem in Peru. Instead, it’s the transformation into methylmercury and being absorbed into the food chain that is the biggest issue.

“It allows [the mercury] to move, especially in rivers and streams, as it’s in the animals and animals move. But also, it accumulates in the animals’ bodies, later consumed by people. It becomes a potent problem up the food chain. When one animal eats another one, small fish easts slightly bigger fish, when it goes from one animal to another, mercury concentrated by a factor of ten in order of magnitude. Via six links of that food chain, from plankton up to a large fish at the top of the food chain, it could be a million times more concentrated when we eat the fish, he says.

Assessing illegal mining-linked deforestation from space

Fernandez hopes that remote sensing monitoring makes a difference in the Amazon.

If you do [gold] mining [in the Amazon rain forest], you’re essentially taking it from a highly vegetated and mature forest down to bare soil. It’s a pretty stark transformation, and you can see it relatively well with the existing [satellite] imagery, he explains.

Crisper images allow better tracking. Fernandez says before we used to use Landsat [images], with a pixel resolution of 30 by 30 metres: “You’re getting mid resolution quality, and you’re missing the fine stuff. In such lower resolution imagery, there could be a mix of mining but also natural regeneration”.

Examples like high resolution SAR imagery for the rainforest, often covered under a thick blanket of clouds, and other commercial imagery upping capabilities of journalists to track destruction by illegal miners. Space imaging company Capella says that tree counts, deforestation, and biomass are three key applications that can be derived from its SAR images (an example below of a region notorious for its cloudiness and monsoons that prevent optical imaging).

SAR image of the Sundarban National Park in India. The Mangrove forest of the Sundarbans (on the right of the river) differs in appearance from the harvested land (left of the river).

Peru's artisanal miners are also destroying any hope for a speedy recovery via natural reforestation. Peru’s artisanal mining model destroys the potential for the forest to come back quickly, even in the midterm because they are mining down ten metres, when one usually gett to the bedrock.

As a result, there’s nothing for the plants to grow on, for the trees to grow back on, Fernandez says. It’s not just a deforestation problem. You’re basically destroying the ability for the forest to rejuvenate, at least for another generation, he thinks. The mining also releases other carbon to be released.

Today’s artisanal mining hotspots — like the Congo, the whole Amazon rain forest, South East Asia — are all stabilisers to the global carbon balance.

Trees cut down are either burned or decompose after being cut down, both processes release carbon, one in the form of CO2. The other as methane. When you mine you’re not only you’re getting rid of the stuff on top, but also release the below-ground carbon when mining down.

The miners don’t care about the carbon, he says. They want the stuff underneath where the gold sits. When the biomaterial on top degrades the highly potent greenhouse gas methane is released. “It’s a double whammy for the environment”, he says.

Tracking how rivers and their links are possibly affected by pollution is another way of looking at the problem. A detailed river map, like presented here (network across Peru) shows where densely populated areas like villages and cities connect to rivers affected up or downstream of illegal gold mining sites.

Towns and villages alongside major rivers where illegal gold mining spread quickly (Bing Maps)

Comparing town/river maps with recent Sentinel 2 or Planet Labs images reveal where ponds expanded. The government said that Covid-19 made it hard for authorities to crack down on illegal mining. But also this should be verified. How much corruption played a role should also be asked. Fact is, frenzy among Peru’s illegal gold miners motivated thousands of people scramble for the mineral whichever way possible.

Fernandez says the more sophisticated the illegal gold mining business in places like Madre de Dios becomes the harder it is to be detected and to motivate resistance to avoid corruption among the police forces.

Breaking clear regulations by a small number of miners is one thing. But restricting illegal mining that involves millions and millions of people as it’s the case in Madre de Dios, is hard. A systematic setup of illegal mining in Peru involves a system that is going to pay the police “to look the other way”. It’s where the corruption part comes in.

The system also provides funds to purchase mining machinery or capital for transporting workers to and from these remote areas.

Locals trade gold mining safety equipment and a mining mill on Facebook Marketplace for places near the Madre de Dios region (accessed July 14, 2021)

All these kinds of transactions potentially leave data trails, leading to illegal miners or local kingpins who run the business.

The system also pays for renting the land or arranging some sort of a deal with the landholder there, who may be given a cut of whatever percentage of gold illegal miners find. Lastly, there must be a way to convert the lumps of gold into cash.

All in all, it’s not like people turn up with a pickaxe”, he adds. With a solid infrastructure in place, the business grows pretty organically, Fernandez explains.

Indigenous territory: We frequently spot mining sites in indigenous territory. Journalists can double-check where these are with open data. The recently launched tool RAMI provides a first glance at the problem. It offers predictions where illegal mining takes place. One area is in the south near Fundo Nueva Arequipa.

Deforestation or landscape degradation can be very easily seen via remote sensing, says Fernandez (Sentinel 2 images, TJ, June 2021J

Produced by NASA and partners, RAMI gives unique and updated predictions on illegal mining activity across the Madre de Dios region.

The hard and dangerous gold mining work is easy to teach to new workers, experts say. It lowers barriers for locals to become part of it.

Strip mining is a relatively simplistic technique, Fernandez says. Basically, you’re filtering the soil to extract tiny pieces of gold. “We’re talking about a gramme per tonne of material on average. So, not much gold, lots of sediments and a lot of concentrating. After the gold dust concentration, you add mercury. It’s often carried around in a small Coca Cola bottle in their pocket. Then they just put it in a bucket with the sediments and mix it with their bare hands or other their body parts”.

Years of treatment resulted in a mercury pollution epidemic. Despite new efforts by the government via the Peruvian Environment Ministry to develop a detailed environmental and health monitoring program, it hits challenges such as finding “ financial support to purchase its own measuring devices and hire trained personnel to collect data”, one government employee told reporters last year.

Can illegal mining be stopped by choking off mercury supply to miners?

The idea isn't new and has largely been ineffective (140 countries signed a deal, Peru ratified the Minamata Convention in 2016).

However, much of the mercury is now sold on the black market, Fernandez says. In Pery as in most other countries, mercury is classified as a controlled substance (as it is in most countries, for mining purposes).

“Black markets popped up trading mercury, not between countries, but as also inside countries. The control of the artisanal mining sector is tightening up. Most of it, if not all, at least in the tropics, is using mercury amalgamation [to mine gold]”, he says.

In Peru the setup is simple. With a few basic tools like a petrol-powered water pump (see image below) and a hand-made sluice, anyone can mix in mercury to bind the gold dust and pollute rivers.

Photo: Gold mining rigs on the Tambopata River, Peru (Linden Gledhill, 2011, Flickr)

Deforestation right next to the river: Data by Global Forest Watch shows where deforestation occurred during 2020. Mining has transformed the area that borders to the Tambopata National Reserve.

GLAD/Global Forest Watch issues deforestation alerts, using algorithmic data of cover loss. We can see where near the river illegal mining might have taken place and how it changed the environment (the background satellite image is provided by Planet Labs, as of June 2021, location: -13.054381788996242, -70.18968746275426)
The Tambopata National Reserve (location: -13.015913337291222, -69.97616962109147, see the various rainforest exhibition properties for this nature reserve here).
Mongabay covered in 2016 the ongoing destruction of wildlife habitat on the Malinowski River (a tributary of the Tambopata River), a natural area that is crucial to the reproduction of many local species (story here). GLAD tree cover loss alerts spanning January 2015 to May 2016 indicated heavy mining-related deforestation along the Malinowski River and into Tambopata National Reserve (green line). The orange alerts were recorded in the first week of May, and encroach into an Intact Forest Landscape: a particularly large, undisturbed area of primary forest (it’s a similar analysis I produced above).

Experts reckon diggers can recover as much as 10–15g of gold a day, selling it for a few hundred USD on into global market, Nature reported last year.

Illegal miners across the Amazon are an agile bunch, swiftly pivoting from one location to the next, to avoid detection by authorities. While Peru at least launched several attempts to eradicate the practice, the campaigns had limited success (instead, it might have contributed to the fact that more miners are armed).

Violence increased over the past 18 months of the pandemic. More violent criminal handlers got in evolved. Some drug cartels even started abandoning their drug trade entity and switched to mining gold or simply stealing it from miners, as it brings higher returns.

The rudimentary gold mining practices is especially detrimental for human health in the long run, introducing severe risk for life-long disabilities. The earlier the body is exposed, the worse its damage. It’s particularly harmful to children, researchers say. In higher doses, mercury can kill. No doubt, the largest misuse globally is in small-scale gold mines.

The favourable gold price: The past two years hit sky-high levels not observed within two decades (see chart below). Next to Peru, detrimental examples of illegal mining expanded in Brazil, or African states like Ghana.

With so many gold mining regions engaging in the dirty practice, it raises serious questions whether rich western democratic nations can at all fend off imports of ‘dirty gold’.

Graphic: Techjournalism

The pits and ponds gold diggers leave behind are all over Peru’s Amazon rainforest and visible from satellite and astronaut footage. The wild reflections tell their own story, indicating the level of invasiveness strip mining has (compare to river left).

Photo of Peru’s Madre de Dios state, taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station, December 2020. Prospecting wells for illegal mining, water-filled basins surrounded by deforested areas. Research from 2011 found that Peru’s biggest driver for deforestation is gold mining.

Like photo footage from social media that we can analyse with #OSINT expertise, we can geolocate the image above (by a team member of the Expedition 64 crew), and compare it with the latest high-res imagery from Planet Labs.

Cross-check with astronaut’s recent image from December

A Google Streetview pin allows investigating the area up close, though bear in mind it shows old footage (see below). We could see if other tool images in Madre de Dios.

Google Maps location here
Mongabay Latin America sent reporters to illegal mining sites to take images
CINCIA, an alliance created to strengthen science, research, and innovation in the Amazon to protect the environment says tools like AI and NASA’s remote sensing capabilities will not only spot but also help prevent illegal acts and preserve the Amazon

Images of Google Streetview allows us to see the most recent changes in damaged areas — Global Forest Watch issue ‘recent alerts’, in gold-yellow (see below).

Link for right images (GLAD alerts since pandemic started), left Google Streetview, photo May 2014

A 2020 research report by Dr Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel, a senior research scientist at the University of Bern found (link) people are expressing concern over the weakness of government institutions and corruption. It‘s one of the underlying causes of environmental and social problems in Madre de Dios’. While gold mining is the big elephant in the room, it says the region ‘also has potential for innovation’.

Data shows the most pressing problems of Madre de Dios region, according to survey participants. 75% said the most pressing issues involve gold mining, logging and other extractive activities, usually carried out illegally and often lead to social conflict (source, 2020)

OSINT research can do more to expose dirty gold supply chains to rich western countries. C4ADS, an NGO providing data-​driven analysis and evidence-based reporting on global conflict, not only skilled in tracking planes, used commercial trade data to expose gold exports from the Madre de Dios region.

The data comes from Veritrade, a commercial trade data provider, that can also be used for free for some data.

The activity of three major gold traders, all operating in the Madre de Dios region since 2017 (piece here) suggest these companies may have been involved in exporting tarnished gold to the Emirates and India. American companies subsequently bought gold from these buyers, too, so the data.

Such findings increase the pressure on downstream buyers who facilitated the illegal mining business. Buyers in western countries often assert to have no inkling about the illegal share of gold possibly mixed into export.

But by ignoring it, they actively support human rights violations and environmentally pollution models. In the case above, US companies source from an Indian refinery that bought from companies active in Madre de Dios.

See below how Veritrade lists the records for one mining entity.

Find firms like Dana Gold SAC in openly accessible online records via databases like Veritrade (there is a free trial). E&M Company S.A.C., Dana Gold S.A.C. (which became ‘Consorcio Gold Star’) and ‘A&M Gold Metal Trading S.A.C.’ are gold exporting companies for which trade data to other countries exist. Since 2014, authorities investigated E&M for various offences, including money laundering and illegal mining. Despite severed business links between Activos Mineros S.A.C (AMSAC), a Peruvian state company under private law and Consorcio Gold Star (in 2019), Consorcio Gold Star kept exporting gold.

Data published by Activos Mineros S.A.C (AMSAC) for 2018 shows the level of participation in the fine gold trade in Peru (‘Peso oro fino’ = fine gold weight). Consorcio Gold Star accounted for nearly 15% of the business. Minerales del Sur, accounting for a third and a supplier of Metalor, a larger Swiss refiner, is in the crosshair of the Peruvian authorities which explored criminal charges against it (this special report by Reuters is worth a read).

Last September (together investigative journalists at ICIJ) during an assessment of the FinCEN files, found that Metalor Technologies, with its main client Minerales del Sur, traded USD$200m worth in gold with Switzerland each year. It used Peruvian customs records for this.

The alliance ended in 2018 as part of a program by the government to integrate artisanal gold miners into the economy. After being a main supplier for 15 years, with branches registered in La Rinconada (Puno) and Huepetuhe (Madre de Dios) —Customs officials intervened and confiscated 100 kilograms of gold, due to be shipped to Switzerland.

Peruvian authorities are exploring criminal charges against Metalor’s supplier, Minerales del Sur, after seizing a cargo worth nearly $4 million destined for Metalor in 2018, prosecutorial and customs documents seen by Reuters show.

Breakdown of the gold trade (source)

Further investigation into the dealings of Activos Mineros S.A.C, a government-controlled company, may yield some more conclusive findings. But what it shows already is that the process of allowing the space to self-regulate does not work.

Luis Fernandez says that he expects the gold price not to decline anytime soon. So illegal mining will continue.

Other illegal mining across the Amazon rain forest

Not only Peru is deeply affected by Illegal miners who, in the past three decades erased an estimated 960 square km in the forest, according to the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation.

Late last year, research by the World Resource Institute said that large-scale mining concessions cover over 18 per cent of the Amazon, around 1.28 million square km (494,000 square mls, excluding French Guiana). These concessions together with illegal mining areas severely overlap with more than 20 per cent of indigenous land.

“It threatening the livelihoods and well-being of many Indigenous Peoples”, the authors say. More destruction from legal and illegal mining is to be expected. 143,000 square km of indigenous land overlap with active mining concessions and known areas of illegal mining. Below, the interactive map visualises the concerns and may get some journalists started.

A tool to witness the overlap between mining concessions and indigenous land (link here, credit: WRI report)

Geo-boundary files for nature parks and indigenous territory across the Amazon come in handy to further judge whether new ponds, potentially new illegal mining operation, take place inside protected areas.

In QGIS: In green: indigenous land; In red, mining areas (2020); Purple: protected areas (source: Amazonia Socio Ambiental)

Peru’s indigenous communities are among the largest landholders, managing a substantial portion of the Peruvian Amazon forests. Geographical resources for the Amazon rain forest show where they are. The project Amazonia Socio Ambiental has boundary files on natural protected areas, indigenous territories, mining blocks and Illegal mining sites as of 2020. In QGIS we can analyse these files (above) or save them as KLM files to view i Google Earth Pro.

Indigenous land, files imported to Google Earth Pro

SWI presented more evidence on how illegal gold mining links to Swiss refiners. In 2019, UN officials called for an increased responsibility by multinationals.

Violence in illegal mining hotspots worries not only activists but also state governments such as the US. Last year, there were at least two cases where environmental activists got killed. US Department of State, citing these affairs in March, said that one activist was killed in the Madre de Dios region, where illegal mining is prevalent — adding “law enforcement operations against illegal mining sites were not effective in identifying victims and removing them from exploitation”.

Illegal gold excavation groups in Brazil don’t shy away from using brute force, either. A recent BBC report stated that violate groups attacked indigenous people, including the Yanomami. Amazon Watch said in mid-June that despite a court order, the indigenous communities had not received police protection and permanent security from the federal government.

With the current administration of President Jair Bolsonaro and allies pledging support to relax inspection rules and to legalize mining inside Indigenous lands, Yanomami and other groups are left to their own devices (they responded by building barriers and confiscating supplies such as machinery used to extract gold and for transportation, Inside Crime says).

Three garimpeiros (an independent prospector for minerals) died and five people, including one indigenous person, were injured in the attack on April 24 near the village of Palimiú, Júnior Hekurari Yanomami says, the head of Condisi-YY, an indigenous health council (his Instagram here). He visited the territory soon after the attack. In the scene above, boats of criminals passing by, shooting at people (source of video footage: Junior Hekukari).
Geolocation of the tiny village on the Rio Uraricoera river (image from May 7, 2021, Planet Labs, TJ)

To strengthen the eye and to keep constant track of the 85,301 km² large Madre de Dios region and other parts of the Amazon, NASA now employs machine learning-enhanced satellite detection models to tell where new operation surfaces.

Hopes are high that new, crisper satellite technology “allows us to add human-use objects into the equation, offering a level of detail that was previously invisible to us”, says David Lutz at Dartmouth University. “Small shifts in the colour and reflectance of mining ponds, location of mining equipment and size of rock piles to reveal illegal mining activity”, the expert adds, may help researchers but also investigative journalists.

Ghana: Using open-source satellite data also proved useful for researchers to estimate the footprint of the small-scale, artisanal and often illegal mining sector of Ghana, using imagery from Landsat 5 and Landsat 7.

The research teams used a Google Earth Engine script to perform the remote sensing analysis. To classify the mining areas, the researcher used the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). A NDVI loss of 0.15 or more [when comparing images] was considered a substantial and prolonged disturbance that could be attributed to conversion from dense vegetation (e.g., forest) to mining (but also urban development, Water, or other features).

Research published in 2021: Landcover classification results from Random Forest model; B) example artisanal gold mining region and land cover classification; C) example industrial gold mining region and land cover classification; D) ESRI Satellite imagery of Kumasi and Urban land cover classification; E) classification of Anlo-Keta Lagoon Complex showing conversion to water (link to paper)

These findings, journalists could use to further investigate destruction and pollution problems on the ground.

The area lost to Ghana’s larger artisanal mining sector (status: 2018)

The unique capacities of SAR images are also of interest for investigating illegal mining-related deforestation, which is able to penetrate through clouds (we discussed Capella’s high res SAR images at a different stage).

Data journalism resource: To better gauge the volume of illegal gold mining in Brazil, the Federal Public Ministry in Brazil in partnership with the Conservation Strategy Fund Brazil, an NGO, created an impacts calculator.

The mining calculator (link): The extraction of 172,500 grams (worth around $USD404) of gold leads to 100 hectares in deforestation (on average)

Above: 2020 figures for Brazil suggest that deforestation was worst in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Rondônia — on the latter, the municipality most affected was Porto Velho, according to data from DETER, a system of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) — link here. We can read the result for the municipality from the mining calculator above. One hundred hectares is close to about a hundred international rugby fields.

3. Illegal mining in high altitudes

Mining gold in high altitudes is tricky, whether in Peru or elsewhere. Operators of the Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan, the second-highest gold mine in the world (and the largest western-operated gold mines in Central Asia, until May owned by Canadian-registered Centerra Gold Inc) is a testament for how legal mining, involving foreign companies, can go wrong.

A court decided in May this year that the mine has committed environmental violations by dumping waste on glaciers, adding to its gradual erosion and costing the government $3bn.

In the summer between May to October, about 5 million cubic meters of sewerage from the tailings turned acidic and was released into the Kumtor Rive.

There are also stones accumulating above the glaciers that harm the natural Ice Sheets. One academic review cites vast CO2 pollution from the machinery.

The EJA project cites surface water pollution, decreasing water — physico-chemical, biological — quality, groundwater pollution or depletion and other environmental impacts such as large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems as visible signs of environmental impact.

Kumtor Gold Mine (location of the mine: 41.866667, 78.2, Sentinel 2 images) — its commercial owner is now facing a 3bn fine for polluting the environment. Sewerage from the tailings became acidic makes the water toxic, causing problems for people. Centerra didn't announce more information about the acidity of the released water. People who live close say the Kumtor River saw a reduction of the fish. Another incident saw a truck crashed on a bridge near the city of Barskaun, dumping 1,744 kilograms of sodium cyanide in Barskaun river which streamed into the Issyk Kul Lake and poisoned more than 2500 people (Ashakeeva, 2013). The negative influence of cyanide remained.

There are also risks for mining workers. In the morning hours of December 1, 2019, a severe landslide killed at least two. Planet Lab images recorded the changes of landmass (below).

Comparison of imagery by Planet Labs (TJ, Planet Labs)
Comparison with Sentinel 2 images (link here)

Peru’s high-altitude mining

Over the past years, the controversial gold rush not only swept across the Peruvian jungle but also at high altitudes in the Peruvian Andes.

The population of La Rinconada, a town near a gold mine ballooned and suddenly housed thousands of people working in gold mining. More recently, as the gold price ascended, it became the willing workforce eager to dig, even under the most inhumane conditions.

During these boom periods, local Peruvian farmers usually abandon their day jobs and work under often horrendous and financially uncertain conditions. Barbara Fraser and Hildegard Willer published a National Geographic print story about the latest developments in the area. The quick expansion of the town and the exploitative practices by firms shows there is no end to the exploitative trend in sight, yet.

How the mining employment process work, DW describes. The Cachorreo system means that for 30 days in a row, miners dig for one of the many subcontractors. Workers receive no pay. On day 31st, they’re allowed to keep everything they find in the mine. However, they are often sent to areas where there isn't anything to be found. That leaves them poor and dependent.

To gauge how high-altitude La Rinconada changed we can use open source Google Earth Pro offers satellite images (below). Between 2014–2019 new housing was added. There are also new pits that emerged in images in 2019.

Coordinates of the mining town here (Google Earth Pro, 2014 and 2021)

A more in-depth view into how infrastructure changed provides Open Street Map data. OSM’s classification shows where housing/buildings/sites expanded and who they likely belong to.

Apart from a lack of plumbing and sanitation, the town has no trash service. In La Rinconada’s centre, satellite and OSM data show a dump, which expanded over the years as the city’s population swelled.

Open Street Map assessment of landfill site and other infrastructure of La Rinconada. An unresolved note points to a closing store (link here). The data should be cross-checked with pictures from the ground (found in social media footage)

A larger share of the gold excavated here is transported to Europe, where it is refined. Around one-third is shipped to Switzerland (Brazil exported $11bn worth in gold, and Switzerland together with Canada and the UK are leading importers).

Peru nearly accounts for two-thirds of the world’s gold refinery capacity. Metalor Technologies from Switzerland (which we heard about above) declined to accept Peruvian gold in 2018 as it couldn’t be certain the gold wasn't sourced via illegal artisanal mining. Swissinfo found Swiss refiners often have no way of telling whether illegally mined gold was leaked into the supply chain.

With Minerales del Sur, its supplier, under investigation, the Peruvian authorities explored criminal charges. Staff and lawyers of the company denied buying or selling gold from illicit origin.

Luis Fernandez adds that Peru’s illegal gold mining business is quite ‘institutionalised’, especially when it comes to criminal groups hiring willing workers from nearby villages. This seems both true in the jungle of Madre de Dios as well as in the Peruvian Andes.

“In Madre de Dios, the type of mining that we see is basically the accumulation of labour of thousands of people, embedded in a system that is a mixture of semi-legal and illegal [mining work]”, he says.

The gold rush in the region made 50,000 people invade areas, essentially ecotourism reserves and national parks. Now, these miners take this place apart. They’re not doing it because they hate the environment. Instead, it’s the lack of economic opportunity. These are the poorest, young men looking for a way to support their families and send money back to wherever they came from, most of them are internal migrants, he says.

It’s seasonal work. People move to the goldfields, work there for a year or two, and make enough money to buy a farm or a pickup truck, or put their kids through school and then go back. It’s really hard work. There is a treadmill of people coming in, he says.

Sometimes the gold is even sold on Facebook Marketplace. Our OSINT review finds ads for fine gold lumps, either sold or offered to buy.

518 Sol = US$130.69 (link)
Santiago Cusco is not far from the Madre de Dios region
A variety of options of gold lumps offered o Facebook from around the Madre de Sol areas. There is no way of knowing whether the offers are legitimate and not (involving illegal mining)

The illegal mining infrastructure in Peru

“We’re not talking small potatoes here”, Fernandez says. The artisanal mining business represents millions. In the case of Madre de Dios, it’s a business estimated to be worth around $3 billion a year.

Will the gold price nosedive and dampen illegal mining anytime, soon?Fernandez is sceptical. The gold price is high, he says. “I don’t know the future, but from what I’ve seen, the price has been unusually stable over the last 10 to 15 years”. It hasn’t exhibited the typical up and down cycle that it has shown in the past. By remaining relatively high, it will exacerbate the calamity we see in the rainforest, he predicts.

Final note: Legal mining is also polluting the environment

This post has largely discussed illegal artisanal mining. But, pollution from mining doesn't have to be illegal to be effective. America’s largest zinc mine, Red Dog, was found to release some 756 million pounds of toxic chemicals. Residents in nearby cities worry about their health and their local environment — the jury is still out on the local dust pollution, an issue that is known at least since 2010 (also the work at the mine is risky for staff, one employee died in an accident, recently).

With more media reporting environmental damage from mining, it’s also starting to become a growing concern among consumers (as examples such as the Fair-mined label suggest).

Some end customers may still remain oblivious of the volumes of toxic and radioactive material dumped (such as from co-extraction of thorium and uranium, radioactive metals). Journalists must expose such environmental problems and human health risks.

Also, it’s not only the illegal mining concessions that plague indigenous groups. Legal mining is expanding in Peru, squeezing indigenous land and trading it for oil and gas extraction and mining. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs and NGO says that more than a fifth of the country’s territory consists of mining concessions and overlap nearly half of the territory of ‘peasant communities, including indigenous people territory. Three-fouth of the Peruvian Amazon is covered by oil and gas concessions.




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice