The Amazon rainforest—the largest and most biodiverse forest on Earth—is in peril from illegal gold mining activity in its rivers. The sustained attack is staggering in scale, affecting all nine countries that make up the Amazon biome. At times numbering in the hundreds in a single river, illegal mining barges prowl nearly all of the Amazon’s tributaries, which are large rivers too.

An aerial view shows hundreds of dredging rafts operated by illegal miners who have gathered in a gold rush on the Madeira, a major tributary of the Amazon River, in Autazes, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly.

Unlike terrestrial mining—which leaves vast visible scars on the landscape—alluvial mining, sifting through riverbeds to find precious metals, often passes unnoticed because of the small size and high mobility of the mining barges. However, the impact is severe: The activity contaminates the Amazon River and its tributaries with mercury, slowly poisoning the Amazon’s indigenous peoples through the fish they consume. The long-term effects of erosion and sediment degradation affect riverbeds and strategic fish populations vital to the Amazonian food chain, threatening the food supply of the 34 million inhabitants of the Amazon basin.

A mining boat in the Madeira River in Brazil releases water and sediment which had been sucked into the boat as part of the process in extracting gold from the river on June 4, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Chris Arsenault.

Monitoring and stopping illegal mining is difficult in this part of the world because of the vast size and sheer remoteness of the Amazon region. Additionally, illegal armed groups complicate on-the-ground surveillance efforts, particularly through their numerous drug-smuggling operations in remote transboundary regions.

Illegal mining in the Colombian Amazon region

The Colombian Amazon. Image credit: The Amazon Conservation Team.

The Colombian Amazon—encompassing roughly 315,000 square miles, 6% of the Amazon biome—suffers from illegal mining activity in all of its major rivers, including the Caquetá, Guainía, Inírida and Putumayo. Partly due to the troubled implementation of the 2016 Colombian peace agreement, the deteriorating security situation in the region has made on-the-ground monitoring activities nearly impossible in recent years.

In early 2020, threats from illegal armed groups forced the Colombian System of National Natural Parks to abandon its field stations in the Colombian Amazon, leaving the region highly vulnerable to illegal mining activity. Most at risk is the Puré River National Park, whose namesake river begins in Colombia and flows east into the Caquetá/Japura River in Brazil, where illegal mining activity has had devastating effects. For years, a now-abandoned guard post on the border was the only barrier restraining mining barges from entering this protected area.

The environmental impact of illegal mining can be seen along the lower Puré River in this Maxar satellite image.

The Puré River National Park encompasses 4,000 square miles of pristine lowland rainforests and flooded forest ecosystems. The national park is home to multiple isolated indigenous groups—people who choose to live completely apart from the modern world. Although highly resilient, these are also some of the most vulnerable populations on Earth: Even the slightest contact with outsiders transmits pathogens that can decimate entire communities because of their limited natural immunity to diseases. The invasion of these groups’ territories by illegal miners can have deadly consequences.

An isolated indigenous settlement in the Colombian Amazon was seen during an overflight with ACT and official partners to confirm the existence of isolated groups (left image). The same community is shown in a Maxar satellite image on the right.

Monitoring illegal mining remotely

Given the high stakes and unfeasible on-the-ground monitoring, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), in partnership with the Colombia System of National Natural Parks and the Colombian government, turned to Maxar to support remote monitoring strategies. ACT is a Maxar Purpose Partner, one of the nonprofit organizations that reflect Maxar’s mission to create a better world and maximize space ingenuity. Maxar tasked its satellites to collect high-resolution satellite imagery over more than 200,000 square miles of the Puré River.

Maxar satellite imagery revealed that illegal mining activity has overrun the park. Using Maxar’s SecureWatch platform to view the high-resolution imagery, local teams identified more than 15 mining barges within the national park. They also differentiated the mining barges from the many additional transportation and supply boats nearby. Several of the boats and dredgers were in a strict protection zone encompassing the territories of the isolated indigenous groups, some as close as 6 miles to the homes of isolated peoples. In the highly detailed imagery, teams saw the miners had ransacked and burned down the park’s abandoned guard post, located on the border with Brazil.

Maps show where illegal mining activity and barges were identified in the Puré River from Maxar satellite imagery.

Use the slider above to see the national park guard post before and after it was ransacked and burned to the ground by illegal miners.

The satellite images provided conclusive evidence of the presence of illegal miners within the national park. ACT shared Maxar’s initial imagery and subsequent imagery collections with local authorities, spurring more consistent law enforcement flights to further assess the situation. Since 2020, Maxar satellite imagery has identified 168 mining barges in the Puré River.

Enforcing protected areas in the Amazon

With this evidence in hand, the Colombian military embarked on a mission to the Puré River, where it destroyed 10 mining barges, seized equipment and chemicals and arrested three people. The rest of the barge crews fled into the forest as helicopters arrived. The removal of these barges is a tremendous victory for the protection of this national park and the two resident isolated indigenous groups.

A 2020 operation against illegal mining activity conducted by the Colombian Air Force. Credit: Policía Nacional de Colombia and Colombian Fiscalía General de la Nación

Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery has been a vital tool in efforts to combat illegal mining activity by helping to identify the scale of the problem and catalyzing on-the-ground enforcement actions. The mining barges are so small that they are not clearly identifiable in low- and medium-resolution satellite imagery, where boats can easily be mistaken for rapids, fallen trees or reflections of the sun, generating confusion and doubt. However, Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery, and the accuracy of its geolocation, allows a better understanding of the situation and enables law enforcement to plan and execute better-informed missions.

Maxar satellites collected images of mining barges along rivers in Colombia.

The Puré River National Park and the entire Amazon remain highly vulnerable to illegal mining activity. This is why Maxar’s efforts are increasingly needed to support monitoring illegal mining, by tasking satellites and providing imagery to local partners in Colombia.

About Maxar Purpose Partners

Maxar believes its geospatial data and analytics, as well as team member expertise, can have a significant impact on the nonprofits chosen as Purpose Partners. These organizations reflect Maxar’s mission to create a better world and maximize space ingenuity. They receive donations of imagery, analytics and services.

About the Amazon Conservation Team

The Amazon Conservation Team partners with indigenous and other local communities to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture. We envision a region of thriving biological and cultural diversity, conserved in perpetuity by local peoples able to utilize the best of traditional and western knowledge to protect their ancestral lands. With our community partners, primarily in Colombia, Brazil, and Suriname, we conduct initiatives in line with three strategies: promoting sustainable land management and protection, promoting communities' secure and sustainable livelihoods, and strengthening communities' governance and structure.

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