The wildfires ripping through the Amazon have drawn the world’s attention to the destruction of the “lungs of the planet.” Many scientists believe cattle ranchers clearing land caused the flames, spurring groups around the world — including the government of Finland — to call for a boycott of Brazilian beef. But to boycott all of the products damaging the Amazon, you’d have to do much more than give up steak. You’d have to toss out your phone, laptop, wedding band, and anything else with gold in it.
“There’s no way to get the gold out without destroying the forest. The more acres you cut down, the more gold you get. It’s directly proportional,” Miles Silman, cofounder of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA), told BuzzFeed News.
Fueling that demand is not just the world’s appetite for gold bars and jewelry — the largest categories for which gold is used — but also high tech. Tiny electrical currents are constantly running through your iPhone, Alexa speaker, and laptop — and carrying those currents is gold, a fantastic conductor of electricity that’s also resistant to corrosion. While there isn’t much gold inside a single device — an iPhone 6, for example, contains 0.014 grams, or around 50 cents’ worth — in the aggregate, the amount is staggering. According to market researcher Gartner, over 1.5 billion smartphones were sold last year, with 1.3 billion of them being Android devices. It was followed by 215 million iOS devices.
So the tech industry, which consumes nearly 335 tons of gold yearly, will only need more and more of the metal. “There’s a gold rush in the Amazon right now that’s just like the gold rush that happened in California in the 1850s,” said Silman.
According to a 2018 CINCIA study, artisanal mining, or small-scale mining conducted by independent miners, has uprooted nearly 250,000 acres of rainforest in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, where Silman focuses his work. Another study, by researchers at the University of Puerto Rico in 2015, found that approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest across South America have been lost to gold mining. A map compiled by environmental group Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network shows 2,312 illegal mining sites in 245 areas across six countries, which the group called an “epidemic.”
And just as the California gold rush gave rise to a lawlessness that took generations to tame, the tech industry’s suppliers can’t always meet demand and sometimes turn to the Amazon’s illegal mining economy.
A Miami Herald investigation in 2018 detailed how a handful of traders from Southern Florida–based precious metals company NTR Metals bought $3.6 billion of gold from outlaw mines across South America. NTR Metals has since been shut down and the traders arrested. The company was a subsidiary of Elemetal, a major US gold refinery that supplied Tiffany & Co. and other consumer brands, like Apple — which said it stopped working with the supplier in corporate disclosures for the years 2017 and 2018.
Apple is far from the only tech giant that sources gold from the Amazon region. A review of corporate disclosures by BuzzFeed News found that Amazon (the company), Apple, Samsung, Sony, and Google list refiners Asahi and Metalor as suppliers. In turn, these firms, based respectively in Japan and Switzerland, buy some of their gold from South American mines. According to the Miami Herald, those companies buy from brokers, which source their gold from a range of legal and illegal mines in the region.
Companies like Alphabet, the parent company of Google, are aware of the impact of gold mining in the Amazon and have taken steps to address it. A Google company spokesperson pointed to its conflict minerals policy and said it relies on third-party audits to ensure that smelters are in compliance. Samsung, Sony, and Amazon did not return a request for comment. Apple told BuzzFeed News all its gold refiners participate in third-party audits. "If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain," an Apple spokesperson said in a statement. "Since 2015, we’ve stopped working with 60 refiners of gold for this reason."
Dirty gold doesn’t just end up in electronics. A 2015 report by Ojo Publico reported that companies with ties to the London Bullion Market Association — an organization that determines the international price of gold — acquired precious metal from illegal mining camps in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil.
An estimated 15% to 20% of gold in jewelry and electronics inadvertently comes from small-scale gold mines, according to Fairtrade Gold, an organization advocating the use of responsibly sourced precious metals.
“A part of the problem with gold is that it all goes into one melting pot. So you can have a bar of gold where some of it comes from responsible sources, some of it comes from illegal sources, but it looks like one bar of gold,” said Sarah duPont, president of the Amazon Aid Foundation.
That illegal and dirty gold extraction takes a toll on the environment and the humans who mine it. Compared with soybean farming or cattle ranching, the mining industry clears fewer acres of forest from the Amazon.
However, according to Silman, the carbon emissions of mining can make the industry’s environmental footprint between three to eight times as big as the surface acres lost to mining might suggest. In addition to uprooting trees and other plants, miners dig 2 to 4 meters deep into the ground, where soil is rich in carbon. That soil can be thousands of years old, and gold mining liberates that carbon back into the atmosphere, killing nutrients in the dirt that are vital to plants in the rainforest.
“The growth rates around the mines are so slow because you’ve washed everything that’s good out of the soil,” Silman explained.
Gold mining also transforms the landscape in another way: “One out of every 5 acres converted by mining can’t be reforested because it’s converted into a body of water. So it ends up looking like Minnesota, with thousands of lakes all across the landscape,” said Silman. “If you think about an Amazonian forest, there’s nothing you do that’s worse to it than alluvial mining. You could drop a nuclear bomb on the forest and it would be better than mining it.”
On top of the environmental devastation, mercury, used as an amalgam to retrieve gold from the dirt, contaminates the region’s water and food supply. According to the US National Institutes of Health, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is the leading source of mercury released into the environment. Researchers have found high levels of mercury, which has serious effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, in people living along the Brazil–Venezuela border, in the Madre de Dios area of Peru, and in Suriname.
Despite the dangers, gold mining in the Amazon region is unlikely to slow down. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has loosened the country’s environmental laws and is working to open up more of the Amazon to mining. Bolsonaro fired the head of the country’s agency that tracks deforestation after a report that some 1,330 square miles of Amazonian forest in Brazil had been lost since the president took office in January — a 39% increase over last year.
What can be done? According to Kevin Telmer, executive director of the Artisanal Gold Council, an organization working to professionalize and train the sector, the environmental problem is linked to extreme poverty.
Banning small-scale mining would not be effective, according to Telmer: “People have asked the miners to leave for 40 years and they haven’t. What [bans] do is drive the economy into the black market.”
“What’s needed really is sustainable economic pathways for those individuals who are currently pursuing illegal mining,” said Payal Sampat, the mining program director at Earthworks, a nonprofit that started a campaign called No Dirty Gold in 2008. Sampat added that buying vintage jewelry and holding on to electronics for longer is a good way for consumers to cut down on their gold consumption.
Silman, the CINCIA researcher, agrees. Legally placed mines, he said, are at least confined to a small area, instead of thousands of mines sprawled across a landscape. Taxing mining operations could also help money flow back into job placement and other programs: “There was $3 billion made out of Madre de Dios, and a lot of it flowed through mafias. There’s a little over 100,000 people living in that land, and they would have had $300 million of tax revenue,” he said.
The Artisanal Gold Council, Telmer said, is working to provide training and education to miners, reforest mined areas, and introduce processes that are more effective than the use of mercury.
The formalization and professionalization of the sector can help miners be more productive and be less impactful on the environment, too, Silman said: “Once you do all these things, at least you can get some good from mining, and you still don’t destroy all the opportunities for the future that rely on biodiversity.”
This story has been updated to include comment from Apple.