Dr. Gregory Asner didn't need hyper-spectral imaging to tell him something was very wrong with Earth's mightiest rain forest.
In fact, none of the super-sensory techno-gadgetry aboard his research plane -- dubbed the Carnegie Airborne Observatory -- would tell a more horrifying tale than a basic pair of wing-mounted cameras.
"It was the wing cameras -- those simple HD wing cameras -- that grabbed everybody's attention," Asner, a professor at the California-based Carnegie Institution for Science, told the Huffington Post.
They revealed vast tracts of dead zones slicing ever-widening swathes through the once-emerald expanses of the Amazon -- the trails of a modern-day gold rush.
"A lot of poor folks from up in the Andes have migrated down to partake in a very classic-style gold rush," Asner explained. "It's totally illegal. It's totally unplanned. It's totally informal.
"It's somewhere between 300 per cent and 500 per cent higher than the government thought was going on. There might be 50,000 of these miners now."
And, as their operations rake claws across the Amazon, the toll not only on the land but the people who have long called it home has become impossible to ignore.
"It is amazing to see the gold mining expand so rapidly," Asner noted. "I've been on the ground, covertly, in the mines, and it is horrendous for the people who are working and living there, but they don't care because gold is so valuable currently."
Indeed, the Amazon may be the most vital victim of the 2008 financial crisis. Amid the bailouts, collapse of financial institutions and market panic of that dismal year, the price of gold skyrocketed.
Asner estimates before the crisis, the Amazon was being studded with some 2,100 hectares of goldmines annually.
And after gold prices surged?
"The rate went up from 2,100 to 6,500 new gold mines every year-- and it has gone up since then."
Rich man, poor mankind.
Since being uploaded to YouTube on Sept. 16, Asner's clip has gone viral, eliciting outrage from viewers around the world, as well as local politicians.
“Deforestation isn’t a strong enough term to describe what’s happening there," Peruvian journalist and politician Guido Lombardi told Amazon Aid Foundation. "It’s truly devastation. It’s as if you put a piece of desert in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest."
And, like the moonscapes they resemble, the gashes of heavy mining have left the land contaminated and incapable of growing new vegetation, Lombardi noted.
And that's just the picture from above. On the ground, the situation is even more dire.
Greg Asner, whose team comprises Peruvians, Americans and Canadians, describes the classic horrors of gold fever -- "a whole awful heartbreaking cycle" that includes the brutal dealings of 'gold lords', prostitution and child abuse.
And then there's mercury -- the highly toxic element miners use to separate gold from the soil.
The drive to plunder the Amazon, which covers about 4.1 million square kilometers of South America, is sowing a lethal legacy in its wake.
In Peru's Madre de Dios region, where countless small-scale mining operations have set up shop, a study published earlier this year suggests mercury levels have surged. Tailings produced by operations, the Guardian reports, have contaminated much of the fish -- a staple in the diet of indigenous peoples -- exposing locals, particularly children, to unacceptable levels of mercury.
The study, by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project, noted native communities had levels of mercury five times the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe -- a number that falls to just twice as much in people living in the region's urban areas.
“You go out to these communities that are so incredibly poor, and there is money buried in the dirt,” graduate student Jason Scullion, who witnessed the ravages first-hand, told the science journal, Nature. “It is not surprising that they want to go out there and dig it up.”
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Mining operations are hardly alone in carving up -- and contaminating -- the Amazon. In September, Brazil looked at the devastation from an even loftier perspective. According to Reuters, the company's space agency used satellite imagery to point a cosmic finger at logging operations -- claiming nearly 2,766 square kilometres of forest were razed between August 2012 and July 2013.
Or roughly twice the size of Los Angeles.
The death of the Amazon -- dubbed the 'Lamborghini of biodiversity' by conservation biologist Dr. Reese Halter -- could spell a mortal blow for all of us.
Statistics compiled by savetheamazon.org offer this stark reality check on the inroads of mining, logging and development in the Amazon.
The rain forest exhales a fifth of the world's oxygen into our atmosphere. Another fifth of the planet's freshwater is found there. And a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from rain forest plants.
Certainly, this vast -- and still largely unexplored region -- lives up to its namesake as the lungs of the world.
But it is an organ that appears to be failing.
As Halter wrote in a September blog, the jungle is "now regularly breaking down. Droughts are ravaging these rain forests laying waste to millions of square miles - not only killing billions of trees, but turning them, too, into mass decaying graveyards bleeding gigatons of more heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere and worse.
"As the Amazon forests die, the Earth also loses its awesome cloud-making machines and instead it's forced to absorb incoming solar radiation rather than reflect it."
A reflection, indeed, of our own excess.
"Illegal mining in Madre de Dios has exploded in the past decade due to rising gold prices and increased access," says Sarah duPont, executive director of the Amazon Aid Foundation, "And is causing mass devastation in what was once one of the most pristine and biodiverse areas in the world."
Working in the Amazon for the last 15 years, duPont can attest to the horrors of the gold rush -- particularly its ravages of the rain forest.
She produced an hour-long documentary last year, called Amazon Gold, attesting to the devastation.
"Because the mining takes place in remote, mostly unregulated areas," she explains, "It's hard to know how extensive the problem is, which is why documenting it with video is so important."
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