New Research at Los Amigos Shows Critical Role of Forests in Scrubbing Harmful Mercury from the Amazon and Atmosphere

Artisanal gold mining deforestation in Madre de Dios

A study conducted at our Los Amigos Biological Station and recently published in Nature revealed that intact forests near gold mining areas provide a critical ecosystem service. They intercept and sequester massive amounts of mercury, keeping it from entering the global atmosphere and preventing it from poisoning nearby ponds and streams, where it is substantially more harmful to people and animals.

Gold mining has devastated the Madre de Dios region of Peru for decades. The extraction process consists of excavating river sediment in search of gold pieces. Miners separate the gold from the soil by mixing liquid mercury with the sediment, which they eventually burn off,  releasing mercury in the air. This contaminant ends up on plants’ surfaces and can be absorbed into the leaves. It can then enter soil when the leaves are either washed with rainfall or when the leaves fall to the forest floor.

In this study, postdoctoral researcher Jacqueline Gerson, who conducted this research while a PhD student at Duke University, sought to find out whether mercury was entering land surrounding mining sites in Peru. The study was done by collecting and comparing rainwater, air, leaf, and soil samples from two mining sites at each of three distinct locations: previously logged forests, jungle at least 30 miles (50 km) from these mining sites (“remote sites”), and the intact primary forests of Los Amigos, a 360,000-acre protected area that is a safe haven from the nearby mining.

They discovered that mercury not only penetrates soil near gold mining sites but that the forests located near these areas have some of the highest inputs of mercury ever reported in literature. And, they also found that this mercury is already affecting the local wildlife. When testing birds, they found that local birds have 2-12 times more mercury in their feathers compared to birds in more remote sites. A level this high threatens the species’ ability to reproduce, disrupting not only the offspring of birds but also throwing the entire food chain into potential chaos. This is a clear case and warning about what is happening to forests across the Amazon where gold mining – both legal and illegal – is happening.

View of forest from the Los Amigos canopy tower

However, the study also highlighted the importance of keeping Amazonian forests standing and avoiding deforestation so that mercury didn’t become even more dangerous for humans and wildlife. “We found that mature Amazonian forests near gold mining sites are capturing huge amounts of atmospheric mercury, more than any other ecosystem previously studied in the entire world,” noted Gerson. The standing forests provide an incredible ecosystem service by scrubbing mercury out of the atmosphere and preventing it from entering lakes and ponds where a greater proportion of it will become methylmercury – the most harmful form of mercury. The forests at our Los Amigos Conservation Concession serve that function as they sequester atmospheric mercury from nearby illegal mining operations.

For wildlife and people, the risk of being affected by sequestered mercury – prior to mercury becoming methylmercury – is generally low. “You could walk through the forest, you could swim in the water, you could bury yourself in the leaves and you’re not going to get mercury toxicity from doing that,” Gerson assures. “The study really highlights the importance of continuing to conserve these forests, and the increased danger that would occur if these forests were cleared, because that would release the sequestered mercury back into the atmosphere or into nearby lakes and ponds where it could be consumed by people and animals. We always talk about how carbon sequestration is important. This is also an incredibly important service forests are providing.”

We hope this innovative study will provide policymakers with some of the vital data needed to prioritize the protection of Amazonian forests.

Help us keep making science happen in the Amazon.

Click here to read the full publication in Nature Communications and the companion piece published in Scientific American. Click here to learn more about Los Amigos Conservation Hub.




77,000 Native Species Planted to Restore Montane Forest Ecosystems in Peru

This month marks the successful planting of 77,000 native species in Challabamba, Peru to restore montane forest ecosystems degraded by forest fires or ranching, and to ensure the protection of essential ecosystem resources for local communities.

Some of the native species planted are categorized as threatened on the IUCN Red List, such as Polylepis pauta and Polylepis incana, which are at risk due to habitat loss. Other species planted include the beautiful flowering Escallonia paniculata and Escallonia myrtilloides, an evergreen shrub or tree known for its distinctive crown shape resembling a pagoda. 

Reforestation and restoration activities began this past December by the field team at our sister organization on the ground in Peru, Conservación Amazónica – ACCA, alongside the local communities of Jajahuana and Juan Velasco Alvarado. 

Marco Ccoyo, the president of the Juan Velasco Alvarado indigenous community, notes that restoring degraded lands will also result in protecting ecosystem services for the community, including water, since trees can actually increase local water availability. “Our goal is to plant trees to get more water. We want to preserve the water in our lagoons, which is why we are carrying out reforestation. With this, we will avoid drought.”

The next reforestation and restoration campaign will take place during the first week of March with the planting of 3,000 more seedlings, amounting to 80,000 seedlings grown and planted. With this, we will continue to restore the watershed for the local communities of Peru.

This planting campaign is supported by the Acción Andina International Program, Global Forest Generation – GFG, the Asociación de Ecosistemas Andinos – ECOAN and the Stadler Foundation.



Swift Action Following Our MAAP Report Halts Illegal Mining in Ecuadorian Amazon

Earlier this month, we worked with our in-country partner EcoCiencia to document the rapid illegal mining expansion threatening the Ecuadorian Amazon.  With our satellite-based tools, we were able to identify the mining in real-time, and report it to local authorities, media, and the general public. Days after we launched the report, both the government and local people took action against this illegal deforestation.

Our report revealed the alarming illegal mining expansion of 173 acres (70 hectares) over four months in Yutzupino, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon’s Napo province. Though it took place from October 2021-January 2022, most of the illegal expansion occurred recently in December. Though the Ecuadorian government carried out a field intervention in January to confirm the illegal activity, it continued to advance, increasing by at least 15 acres (6 hectares). We also documented the mining deforestation of 79 acres (32 hectares) between November 2019 and November 2021, on the banks of the Río Punino on the border between the provinces of Napo and Orellana.

Following the publication of this report, citizen demonstrations against illegal mining activity took place in Tena, the capital city of Napo. Local residents participated in a march against illegal mining, alongside representatives of the organization COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin), which advocates for indigenous peoples on a regional and international level, and CONFENIAE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon), a regional organization of indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Satellite images from this report, showing the alarming side-by-side of increased deforestation, were printed on banners for this march alongside the hashtags in Spanish, “Napo Without Mining”, “Napo Values Life”, and “Napo Resists”.

Mining activity in Yutzupino has been acknowledged and denounced by several local organizations in the past but after the publication of this report, public interest and coverage in the local and international media spiked. Pressure mounted for authorities to take action against this illegal activity and five days later, authorities implemented a large-scale operation consisting of 1,600 police and military. After this, the illegal mining activity in the monitored zone of Yutzupino has stopped, machinery was seized, and they are still in the process of investigating those responsible.

This report is part of a series focused on the Ecuadorian Amazon through a strategic collaboration between the organizations Fundación EcoCiencia and Amazon Conservation, with the support of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). 



Amplifying the Protection of of Biodiversity Hotspots in the Bolivian Amazon

For the past five years, our sister organization in Bolivia, Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA, has implemented important conservation projects on the ground with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), including safeguarding water sources for local Amazonian communities and leading conservation of endangered species in protected areas. Now they are taking the next step in this partnership to elevate the importance of conserving the Bolivia Amazon.

CEPF’s goal is to protect the world’s biodiversity hotspots, including the tropical Andes, the richest and most biodiverse region on the planet. With over 15 years of experience protecting the tropical Andes in the Bolivian Amazon, Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA has been chosen by CEPF to be the Regional Implementation Team for Bolivia, joining two other environmental organizations from Peru and Colombia in a conservation effort to preserve 28 key biodiversity areas in five conservation corridors across three countries. With this, we hope to improve the protection and management of key biodiversity areas, safeguard priority species threatened worldwide, and provide strategic leadership and effective coordination for conservation across the Amazon.

“The joint work between CEPF and the local partners across the Tropical Andes Hotspot has resulted in important advances for the conservation of the region,” said Marcos Terán, Executive Director of Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA. “This new phase poses the opportunity of consolidating and scaling up these achievements.”

Click here to learn more about this project.