Skyrocketing gold prices have fueled an illegal mining rush that has tripled the rate of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon since 2008, researchers said Monday.
The findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences were made with a combination of satellite data, laser technology to map vegetation and on-the-ground surveys.
"The rate of forest destruction is huge," said Greg Asner, a tropical ecologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science.
Illegal mining has increased by 400 percent between 1999 and 2012, particularly after the global financial collapse led to a boom in the price of gold, seen as a more durable asset.
"Gold prices have gone up over time but they went up a lot in 2008 following the global recession," he told AFP. "It greatly accelerated this rush for gold."
More than half of all mining operations in the Peruvian Amazon are done by clandestine operations.
There are as many as 70,000 illegal miners engaged in a rampant black market that involves small operations of individual miners who are laboring to work off debt to their "gold lords," he explained.
"They have to mine to pay off their debt. The debt is mostly related to resources like food, subsistence resources, and it is a huge social problem now," Asner said.
The extent and pace of rainforest damage they cause goes far beyond what the Peruvian government and other non-governmental agencies have reported until now, he said.
Prior to 2008, the rate of forest loss from gold mining was 5,350 acres (2,166 hectares) per year.
That rose to a rate of 15,180 acres (6,145 hectares) annually after the global financial crisis, according to the research paper.
The problems associated with mining and deforestation include the release of sediment into rivers, mercury pollution that pervades the food chain, and overhunting of wild game.
The Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-lite (CLASlite) helped detect and map all sizes of mining operations, using algorithms to detect changes to the forest in areas as small as 10 square meters, or about 100 square feet.
Researchers also used Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) data which employs a sweeping laser light across the vegetation canopy to create a three-dimensional image.
"Obtaining good information on illegal gold mining, to guide sound policy and enforcement decisions, has been particularly difficult so far," said co-author Ernesto Raez Luna, senior advisor at the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment.
"We are using this study to warn Peruvians on the terrible impact of illegal mining in one of the most important enclaves of biodiversity in the world," he added.
"Nobody should buy one gram of this jungle gold. The mining must be stopped."