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Gold Mining vs. Biodiversity in Suriname

Many would be hard pressed to find Suriname on a world map. Surely, the estimated 12,000 working in illegal, wildcat gold mining in the isolated Amazonian rainforest of the northern South American nation would probably prefer to keep it that way.

However, anonymity became more difficult last month.

Researchers from Conservation International put the country in the spotlight by presenting findings from a 2005 wildlife expedition and 2006 follow-up survey that underscored an incredible degree of biodiversity in Suriname’s pristine hinterland.

Highlights from the expedition include the discovery of a gorgeous, lavender-patterned frog that has never before been seen by scientists, as well as the rediscovery of the dwarf suckermouth catfish (Harttiella crassicauda). The catfish was previously thought to have been driven to extinction a half century ago by mercury contamination from local gold mining.

All in all, the expedition documented 467 species, over twenty of which have been tagged as new species. It is believed that many other new species are still waiting to be found.

According to Conservation International, Suriname and its neighboring countries in the Guyana Shield region of South America are home to the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical rainforest on Earth.

The Guyana Shield also hosts rich mineral deposits. With the continued bull market in gold that has pushed prices beyond US$650 an ounce, there has been a proliferation of illegal mining in Suriname. Operating beyond the reach of government influence and regulation, the practices of these small-scale mining operations, “which include the liberal use of mercury for extraction and a legacy of voluminous tailings,” threaten to harm the delicate balance of this vulnerable ecosystem.

Conservation International’s expedition was co-sponsored by subsidiaries of international mining giants BHP Billiton and Alcoa. Both have agreed to fund follow-up research to help make future decisions on whether to pursue mining projects in Suriname’s rainforests.

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