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Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)

Impacts of alluvial mining in the Madre de Dios Basin: physical effects and mitigation planning

PI: Jorge D. Abad (, Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología
U.S. Partner: Eddy Langendoen, United States Department of Agriculture/ Agricultural Research Service
Project Dates: January 2020 - December 2020

Project Overview:
Despite many efforts in the Madre de Dios Basin to estimate the impacts of alluvial gold mining with regard to mercury concentration, deforestation, and socioeconomic implications (e.g., human trafficking, tax evasion), very few investigations have been conducted to understand the effects of extensive alluvial mining operations on the rates of sediment supply and morphodynamics of the rivers in southeastern Peru and on the spatiotemporal distribution of mercury concentrations. This is a time-sensitive project because mining activities advancing rapidly, producing drastic physical alterations to river systems, and the Peruvian National Government lacks adequate impact assessment methodologies of alluvial mining concessions, many of them already operating. Currently, basic analyses with satellite imagery feature these assessments, rather than analyses with multi-temporal and historical data to elaborate predictive models to determine principal sources and sinks of mercury across the watershed and gold deposits that indicate potential areas to be targeted for mining. The location and topography of the Madre de Dios headwaters, where alluvial gold mining occurs, create a high potential for escalating this environmental and public health problem, putting large portions of the basin at risk. There is a critical need to provide both a baseline of river morphodynamics and linkages between aquatic ecosystems and landscapes to develop not only decision-relevant indicators for environmental quality but also methods for identifying trends to determine environmental quality in the future.

This PEER-supported project will involve an integrated assessment of a coupled natural-human system in southeastern Peru where there is an urgent need to develop science-based sustainable practices and conservation of natural resources. By combining state-of-the-art techniques in field measurement, remote sensing, and mathematical modeling of riverine processes, this project will explore the interactions between flow, sediment transport, and channel change in rivers in association with the distribution of mercury along the food chain. The outcomes will provide useful insights for land managers and decision makers on river morphodynamics and function, a crucial gap in the understanding of rivers, currently a critical national priority for Peru. Local authorities and partners working in the region will be encouraged to share their knowledge about sediments in rivers in the area, as well as gaps that can be fulfilled with this research. They will also be encouraged to incorporate best practices and environmental standards in their management efforts and to include river morphodynamics as a component of natural resource management. Developing a more sustainable approach for the use and monitoring of the environment will promote and support responsible economic activity in the Amazon region through viable economic alternatives to illegal exploitation of natural resources and the development of alternative processes for extracting gold with the least possible negative impact on the surrounding ecosystems.

Summary of Recent Activities:

After the project commenced at the start of January 2020, the PI completed recruitment of three research assistants: Karla Paiva (B.S. in Environmental Engineering), Paula Sisniegas (B.S. in Environmental Engineering), and Flor Fuentes (B.S. in Civil Engineering). Their duties include (1) understanding fluxes of water and sediments from the deforested floodplain into the rivers by using remote sensing techniques, (2) developing a hydrologic model to estimate the transport and fate of sediments and mercury produced in the basin, and (3) field measurements of quality and fluxes of water and sediments (samples and post-processing) and morphodynamic features such as bedforms. Additionally, the team is in charge of developing field campaign logistics and coordinating with project partners in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA). On January 20, the team held an official launch meeting with visiting USAID and NAS staff at the UTEC campus in Lima, during which they presented their previous studies in the Peruvian Amazon basin to demonstrate their capabilities and strengths in conducting river science. UTEC also presented the project planning, details of each research activity, and the development of the logistics with USDA and CINCIA.

8-235 Puerto Maldonado8-235 Site Visit 2020
Dr. Abad (at right) speaks to participants in the February 2-4 meeting with CINCIA and UTEC staff in Puerto Maldonado. (photo courtesy of Dr. Abad)PEER PI Dr. Jorge Abad (center) and colleagues welcome USAID Research Advisor Dr. Lily Sweikert and NAS Program Officer Ms. Lina Stankute-Alexander during their January 2020 visit to UTEC. (photo courtesy of Lina Stankute-Alexander)

On February 2-4, the PI and his colleagues also held a kick-off meeting with CINCIA staff in Puerto Maldonado to discuss details of the first field campaign and technical workshops (initially scheduled for March 17 through April 15, during the high-flow season). The UTEC researchers presented a detailed description of the field measurements of hydrodynamics, hydrogeomorphology, and hydro-sedimentary processes, as well as the required logistics to transport instrumentation and equipment in the field. CINCIA also presented the methodology of hydrobiology field measurements and mercury analysis. The main objective was to integrate the field logistics from both teams into one campaign. The UTEC staff also had the opportunity to visit the CINCIA Mercury Laboratory, where mercury coordinator Claudia Vega presented the current methodology for processing field samples and analyzing data. Additional discussions focused on logistical arrangements for the participants, who will include students, faculty, government employees, and technicians for the technical workshop and members of the broader community for the public outreach workshop. Prof. Liset Rodriguez of the Universidad Nacional Amazonica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD) has been invited to coordinate, and a flyer has been created to promote the events.

At the V National Water Congress held at UTEC March 12-14, CINCIA and UTEC personnel presented the project in both oral lectures and scientific posters. UTEC presented the general outline of the project, preliminary measurements in the region, and future steps, which CINCIA covered data on mercury concentrations found in sediment and fishes along the Madre de Dios river, current changes in land cover (from forests into contaminated wetlands), and the loss of biodiversity. Abstracts can be downloaded from

Activity on the project came to a sudden halt on March 15, however, when Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra declared a State of Emergency suspending all domestic and international travel and imposing other restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Peru. U.S. partner Dr. Eddy Langendoen of USDA was planning to visit Peru beginning in mid-March to participate in the field work, but his trip had to be postponed indefinitely pending resolution of the crisis and lifting of the travel restrictions put in place by both Peru and the United States. On April 13, the Peruvian government declared an extension of the current State of Emergency in the districts of Tambopata, Inambari, Las Piedras, and Laberinto (Tambopata Province) and in the districts of Madre de Dios and Huepetuhe (Manu Province, Madre de Dios Department) until late June 2020. Therefore, given rapidly rising concerns, UTEC and CINCIA agreed to postpone the workshops (one technical and one designed for the broader public) and field work until the safety of all the participants is guaranteed. It is important to emphasize that the field measurements were planned to characterize river dynamics during the wet season, thus, the next dates will probably consider the transition from the wet to the dry season. A no-cost extension on the project will be required due to the pandemic-related delays.

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