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Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)

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

PI: Mónica Moreno Brush (, Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología
U.S. Partner: Eddy Langendoen, United States Department of Agriculture/ Agricultural Research Service
Project Dates: January 2020 - February 2022

Project Website:

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.

8-235 Mining Area8-235 River Sampling
The mining site in the study area.A member of the research team collects sediment samples on the river (photo courtesy of Martin Pillaca).

Summary of Recent Activities:

Following are updates on the various work packages (WP) being carried out by the team under the direction of Dr. Monica Moreno Brush during the third quarter of 2021:

Mercury Pollution: The analysis of total mercury in sediment samples was concluded and presented to the rest of the team. Selected samples will be sent for isotope analysis to the University of Toronto. The writing of the research briefs with the preliminary results of mercury in fish and riverine transport of mercury is still in progress.

Sediment Transport Modelling: The computational mesh of the model was improved and it is ready to run. In collaboration with the Hydrogeomorphology team, the Modelling team calculated the transport of suspended sediments in the Madre de Dios River for 2020, and they have begun drafting a scientific paper on the research results.

Remote Sensing: The team completed the calculation and statistical analysis of various parameters of the Madre de Dios River. The multitemporal analysis maps showing the morphological changes of the river in eight years between 1984 and 2020 are being prepared and will be published in the coming months along with the calculated river parameters in the open-access platform Dancing Rivers from UTEC. In parallel, the team is drafting an instruction manual for studying geomorphological changes in rivers in the Madre de Dios region using Google Earth Engine and other software.

Hydrogeomorphology: The team has been processing and interpreting available field data on sediment transport, hydrodynamics, and bedforms from previous field campaigns according to their updated research objectives and approach. The research plan has also been refined and presented to project partners and collaborators. Logistical arrangements are being made for a new field campaign in November 2021.

Hydrobiology: The team is still writing their research brief on the study results.

Communication: The team has adjusted the project’s Communication Plan based on feedback received from their participation in pilot testing of the new Research Translation Toolkit from USAID’s Research Technical Assistance Center. They also began writing an updated version of the project’s fact sheet and organized two online events. The first was held July 15-16 under the title “Retos y desafíos en la gestión de sedimentos en las cuencas Andino-Amazónicas” and offered a space to share expert knowledge and discuss alternatives for efficient monitoring and management of sediments in Amazonian rivers. The event included the participation of decision-makers, including regional authorities from Madre de Dios, and three researchers on the project participated as panelists. The event was co-organized with a Moore-funded research project from CITA, project partner CINCIA, and the National Weather Service and Hydrology of Peru (SENAMHI). The second event, held on July 22, was entitled “Estudio de Calidad de Sedimentos en la Unidad Hidrográfica de Madre de Dios.” It was co-organized with the Water National Authority in Madre de Dios (stakeholder) and had the aim to raise awareness about available information about the quality of water and sediment in the Madre de Dios watershed. The information would allow planning and implementing strategies for the conservation and protection of natural aquatic ecosystems. Two project researchers participated as panelists.

The remaining months of the project leading up to its current end date at the end of February 2022 will be very busy for Dr. Moreno and her colleagues. They will be consulting with their external collaborators from the University of Toronto to decide which samples will be sent for isotopic analysis to identify the source of mercury at the study site. Other work groups on the project will continue working on running models for simulation scenarios, completing statistical analysis and map generation, and writing their manual on planimetric characterization in Amazon rivers. A final field campaign is also planned in November to collect additional sediment data. As part of their advocacy activities, the team will invite stakeholders from the Office of Management of the Tambopata National Reserve (SERNANP) and the Water National Authority in Madre de Dios (AAA-MDD) to participate in the field campaign to learn the techniques and working protocols required to monitor parameters of river geomorphology. Several team members will present their work at the VIII Latin American Congress of Sedimentology (CLS). In addition, team members will meet with the DAR project and present their work to the Observatorio de Infraestructura Sostenible de la cuenca Andino Amazónica (Sustainable Infrastructure Observatory of the Andean Amazon Basin), a group of organizations, including the Frankfurt Zoological Society, WCS, Conservation Society Fund, and others focused on nature conservation in Madre de Dios. Finally, together with the communication team of CINCIA, PEER project staff will also organize a face-to-face event to meet with girls and adolescents from Puerto Maldonado participating in CINCIA´s program Women in Science. Female team members will share their experiences in science and conduct activities to encourage the girls to pursue STEM careers.

Previous Presentations:

On August 5, 2020, UTEC and CINCIA organized the webinar “Impactos ambientales de la minería ilegal e informal en la Cuenca del río Madre de Dios,” which was focused on the environmental impacts generated by artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Madre de Dios region. The event was open to the public, with English-Spanish interpretation provided, and approximately 300 people were in attendance. Claudia Vega opened and moderated the event, and local keynote speakers were Luis Fernandez and Jorge Abad. Additional invited keynote speakers were Liset Rodriguez (Amazonian National University of Madre de Dios, UNAMAD), Monica Moreno-Brush (University of Freiburg), Heileen Hsu-Kim (Duke University), and Bridget Bergquist (University of Toronto). For more information, please visit the recording link:

At the V National Water Congress held at UTEC March 12-14, 2020, 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

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