Illegal Gold Mining



By: Linus Koepcke, Reporter

Resources from the Earth such as coal or metals are essential to any modern society, whether directly or indirectly. Many people probably believe that mineral commodities solely exist to provide metal ores, fossil fuels, and salt. In reality, many more resources are extracted from Earth. These include clay, kyanite and zirconium for ceramics; garnet and emery for abrasives(sandpaper); and even mica, used in cosmetics, paint filler and electronics.

Despite being a large manufacturing economy with machines and circuitry being some of the main exports, and despite having the fourth most land area of any country with massive resources, the US depends heavily on imported raw mineral resources. Notably, for resources including manganese, rare earth metals, and potash, the US relies on imports for over 90% of the materials. Furthermore, these resources are imported from politically unstable countries such as Gabon, Belarus or China. These sorts of unstable countries have the potential risk of engaging in unfair trade, including predatory pricing to control markets and manipulate supply, or illegal mining.

One example stands out for its prevalence and cost. This is the illegal gold mining market, found in the Amazon, in Africa, in the Philippines, and in general, any gold-rich area.

In South America

File:Illegal Mining, Peru, 2017-01-20 by Planet Labs.jpg

In Peru, there is a large illegal gold mining complex called the La Pampa mine. These sorts of large mines are often in regions with sparse population and low government influence. Unfortunately, these areas are common near the Amazon and protected nature reserves. In reality, the La Pampa Mine eventually spilled into a protected nature reserve. The corruption, weak government and poverty are only pouring fuel into the illegal mining fire.

This illegal mining also poses a significant threat to the criminals themselves. First, mining requires dynamite and fuel for power tools, which goes without saying. Second, the purification of the gold requires toxic mercury and cyanide. Finally, there is the danger of dying in the case an emergency happens in such a remote area. This is also true in other South American countries like Bolivia or Colombia. In fact, the illegal gold market is burgeoning so rapidly, it may surpass the drug market in Colombia soon; in fact, 80% of the gold exported out of Colombia is thought to be illegally mined.

In Africa

Illegal mining of gold is common across the continent of Africa. There are several driving factors for this illegal mining. Most commonly, it is weak government control, corruption and greed for money(or money for survival), much like South America. However, there is also the legal gold market. Smaller companies import smuggled gold illegally mined from neighboring countries. This gold is then either sold as gold from another place, or melted and mixed with other, legal gold. To make matters worse, some officials in the government are participating in this market. Similarly to South America, Africa sees destruction, pollution and deforestation across its landmass from illegal mines.

In Southeast Asia

Finally, there is the case in Southeast Asia. This is mostly in the Philippines and Indonesia. In these locations, people are also exposed to toxic chemicals and machinery. Unlike South America or Africa however, here, child labor is unusually prevalent, with children under 15 regularly handling neurotoxins like mercury to refine gold. These mines are commonly beds of muddy water. After a while, the mud gradually gets washed away, filling the mines with water. To get more gold, the miners have to scuba dive. This requires the use of old, scrappy oxygen pressurizers to breathe in the mud water, creating the risk of drowning underwater, in addition to infections from the dirty water. 

Motivation and Modus Operandi

Looking at the size of the illegal gold market naturally raises the question of “why? “. Why do people illegally mine gold and go as far as to destroy wildlife reserves, for a few specks of yellow metal? Illegal gold mining is often driven by corrupt officials and companies and crime gangs teaming up to sell gold cheap. If it is cheap, more gets sold, resulting in more money being made than legal gold mines. The truth is that gold is scarce and expensive but stably so. Some say that all of the gold in the world could fit in 3 and a half Olympic swimming pools. Unless we find a truly massive amount of it, its price will consistently stay high. People will betray their own country, just to fill in a fourth swimming pool of gold to get money.

So what?

“To be honest, who cares?”. We here in America do not really care about whether or not some crime gang in Africa is mining gold illegally. Even if our jewelry may contain some of that illegal gold, we couldn’t care less about where it came from. We only care that somebody bought it for us, or that it looks pretty. We do not care about the forced child labor and the criminal forces. We do not care about whether or not the rainforests are going to be destroyed. Perhaps this is one of the driving forces of problems such as climate change. What we must do, instead of being optimistic that time will fix everything, is be aware of the problems in the world we do not directly see in our confined society and use that knowledge to change your decisions when purchasing things. Remember, the miners won’t illegally mine without an illegal market.

Sources/Further readings:

On the U.S. exports:

2022 Mineral Commodity Summaries:

On the La Pampa Mine in Peru: and

Illegal gold mining in Central Africa:

Illegal gold mining in Ghana, consequences:

The State Department on Illegal Gold Mining:

Take Action:

Visit the OAS and learn about more problems, other than illegal gold mining: