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.

New possible artisanal gold mining changes (in yellow boxes) last year, near Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Sources: Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime; Federation for American Scientists (FAS).org (link)

1. Investigating DRC’s illegal mining

Academic paper: ‘Sustainability of artisanal mining of cobalt in DR Congo’ by Célestin Banza Lubaba Nkulu et al, 2018 (location: -10.701934960093569, 25.48938347041978)
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.
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
Orange-red artisanal mining tents to protect miners from the sun
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 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)
Impact of deadly landslide mining accident on Glencore’s stock price (June 27, 2019)

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

Assessing illegal mining-linked deforestation from space

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).
Towns and villages alongside major rivers where illegal gold mining spread quickly (Bing Maps)
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)
Deforestation or landscape degradation can be very easily seen via remote sensing, says Fernandez (Sentinel 2 images, TJ, June 2021J

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

Photo: Gold mining rigs on the Tambopata River, Peru (Linden Gledhill, 2011, Flickr)
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).
Graphic: Techjournalism
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.
Cross-check with astronaut’s recent image from December
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
Link for right images (GLAD alerts since pandemic started), left Google Streetview, photo May 2014
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)
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.
Breakdown of the gold trade (source)

Other illegal mining across the Amazon rain forest

A tool to witness the overlap between mining concessions and indigenous land (link here, credit: WRI report)
In QGIS: In green: indigenous land; In red, mining areas (2020); Purple: protected areas (source: Amazonia Socio Ambiental)
Indigenous land, files imported to Google Earth Pro
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)
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)
The area lost to Ghana’s larger artisanal mining sector (status: 2018)
The mining calculator (link): The extraction of 172,500 grams (worth around $USD404) of gold leads to 100 hectares in deforestation (on average)

3. Illegal mining in high altitudes

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

Peru’s high-altitude mining

Coordinates of the mining town here (Google Earth Pro, 2014 and 2021)
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)
518 Sol = US$130.69 (link)
Santiago Cusco is not far from the Madre de Dios region
The ad says “WE WORK WITH ALL BANKS,
CALL US AND YOU WILL KNOW THAT WE ARE YOUR BEST OPTION” (488 Sol = $USD 123)
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

Final note: Legal mining is also polluting the environment

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

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