Project Management

What Hath Gold Wrought (PG-13)

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First up: a quick geography quiz: Most of us know that the Amazon rainforest is mostly in Brazil.  That is true… but the question is -True or false: The Amazon also extends into Peru.

Answer: Very much true.  In fact, only 60% of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil.  The next largest chunk is in Peru (13%), Colombia contains 10%, and the Amazon also extends into Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

Why this question?  I was intrigued by an article in Nature’s most recent edition called “Can A Rainforest Destroyed By Gold-Miners Bounce Back?”.  That forced me to better understand the extent of the Amazon, since the article is about gold mining in Peru, and its effects on the Amazon.

About the blog post’s title

The title of this blog post is a slight take-off (one letter away) from the first telegraph message sent by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844.  The PG-13 is there because of an expletive in the first sentence of the Nature article.  Who knew that a respected science journal would start off this way?  But I sort of like it – and when you read about it, you will see that it fits.

So here is how the article starts:

“Holy shit!” Miles Silman gasped as his motorized rickshaw rattled out of the forest and onto a desolate beach. All traces of the trees, vines and swamps that once covered this patch of the Amazon had vanished. In their place were sun-baked dunes and polluted ponds created by illegal gold-mining. Silman, a conservation biologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was there to document the carnage.

The size of the area is not trivial – we’re talking 5 and a half Manhattans.  It’s big, and it’s ugly. How would one describe this? Photographer Jason Houston of the International League of Conservation Photographers, describes it this way:

“The temperature as we left the Interoceanic Highway at km98 was climbing towards 101 and the humidity was almost as high, hinting at the hellish landscape I was about to witness. A few hundred yards drive from the main road, through back alleys lined with squatter’s quarters and makeshift sundries shops, we came to a wall of black sandbags and a corrugated metal gate. Beyond this militarized guard post was one of the main tracks into the infamous, lawless, otherworldly gold mining region of La Pampa. A short ride in a three-wheeled cargo cart through some leftover forest, the view exploded open and I entered the belly of a beast that I’d dreamed of exploring since my first, crushing introduction to the region in 2015.”

The reason I’m writing about this in a project management blog is simply that the concepts of project management are threaded throughout.

NOTE: to best understand this two-part blog post, it’s best if you start with some background and context.  I highly recommend you start with this article from The Guardian.

That article starts like this:

Located along a jungle highway in the Amazon around 60 miles from the nearest city, La Pampa was a place you entered at your own risk. At night it was a riot of neon lights and pulsating cumbía music from “prostibar” brothels, frequented by roaming groups of men flush with cash. Neither authorities nor outsiders – and particularly not journalists – were welcome.

This modern-day gold-rush town, home to about 25,000 people, was both a hub for organised crime and people trafficking and a gateway into a treeless, lunar landscape pocked with toxic pools created by illegal gold mining, stretching far into one of the Amazon’s most treasured reserves.

But if you are a visual learner (like many of us project managers) you will actually do better looking at some pictures with a bit of narrative.

Photo by Jason Houston / iLCP - see much more here.


This site gives not just ‘pictures’, but amazing, detailed, professional imagery that will make this very, very compelling to you.  Visit this ‘storymap’ provided by the aforementioned iLCP, the International League of Conservation Photographers.  It’s worth it.  Then come back here.

A project that will become a Portfolio of Programs and Projects

After the Peruvian government raided the area to rid it of illegal miners, it began an initiative – you could think of it as a Portfolio.  From the article, the initiative includes:

a major reforestation effort — as well as the jobs that it might produce. Working with CINCIA, Peru’s park service and environment ministry have already launched their pilot reforestation project on 30 hectares of the Tambopata National Reserve. The agencies are planning to replicate that work across more than 750 hectares in the reserve.

Baselining Mercury

One of the problems with gold mining is the use of mercury to bind the gold.  Anyone can collect the local silt, which contains gold dust.  Even a ‘beginner’ can mix in mercury, to recover as much as several hundred dollars’ worth of gold a day.

So the restoration project needs to start with an identified baseline of where the mercury is, and how it got there – so that risk can be properly identified.


Risk – and cause/effect – is really a theme throughout this story.  In fact, the entire situation of ruined land is a matter of doing this mining without thinking of consequences.  But it goes beyond that.  In the restoration project itself, project risks (threats and opportunities) are rife.  Here’s an example:

“What happens if the price of gold is very, very high?” (Silman) asks. “Maybe the illegal miners come back to La Pampa, and there will be conflict with the people who are working in reforestation.”

The government would like to make this land useable again.  That means farming and fishing.  To do that, the land and water must be safe (for example clear of mercury), because if not, the fish from the ponds will contain mercury as well – a major health threat.  So far the testing indicates that the land is safe but the ponds are heavily contaminated with mercury.


Part 1 has focused on the cause (the mining) and the effect (the poisoning and destruction to the Amazon).  Part 2 will go much further into the restoration project.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: February 18, 2020 11:22 PM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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Dear Richard
Interesting your perspective on the topic: "What Hath Gold Wrought (PG-13)"

Thanks for sharing

I will be watching the publication of part 2 of this article

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