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E-IPER Dissertation Defense : Rachel Engstrand "Human & Environmental Dynamics of Artisanal Mining"

Tuesday, Mar 9, 2021 2:30 PM
Zoom Webinar
Faculty/Staff, Students, Alumni/Friends
Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources

Zoom Webinar

"The Human & Environmental Dynamics of Artisanal Small-Scale Gold Mining in The Peruvian Amazon"

The idea of the Amazon as a primeval tropical rainforest, undisturbed and stable since the dawn of time, is a myth. While the forest provides a myriad of valuable local and global ecosystem services, such as biodiversity conservation and carbon storage, it is also host to numerous human activities, such as farming, logging, and mining, that impact this system at a continuously expanding rate. Of these human activities, artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is thought to have the most destructive environmental impacts due to the large-scale deforestation, soil disturbance and heavy metal contamination associated with this activity. Understanding how forests respond to and recover from gold mining induced changes is crucial to ensure the future provision of ecosystem services for the future.  

Due to its illicit nature, little is known about the drivers and dynamics of ASGM in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, an area which is renowned for having both some of the highest levels of biodiversity and gold mining activity in the Amazon. To address this, I first examine the human context in which ASGM occurs in this region. I use qualitative data collected from semi-structured interviews with miners and other local stakeholders to learn about the social-environmental drivers, impacts, and the perceived future of ASGM. I then leverage remote-sensing to complement these human stories with an understanding of the dynamics and spread of ASGM over a 36-year time-period. I expand on this data using machine learning to identify which environmental and social factors can predict the intensity of future mining in any given area.  

Finally, I discuss the results of a field study in which I collect soil samples and conduct vegetation surveys on a 15-year chronosequence of abandoned gold mines. I look at how gold mining impacts vegetation structure, soil biogeochemistry, and soil microbial communities over time to understand the potential for natural recovery in a post-mining ecosystem. I analyze these results in the context of the human and spatial perspectives explored earlier. This combination of on-the-ground, aboveground, and underground perspectives is used to create a holistic understanding of the broad-scale impacts of ASGM and to help inform policy and decision makers working to regulate ASGM to create a brighter ecological future for this region.  

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