- Associated Press - Monday, September 6, 2010

PARAMARIBO, Suriname | It looks like a meteor strike: From out of nowhere, a huge clearing appears in the jungle — a deep rust-colored pit surrounded by mounds of dirt and thick stands of trees pushed to the side in dense piles of overturned soil.

But this is no act of nature. It is the result of the steady labor of fewer than a dozen barefoot men, who have blasted away at the earth for three days with high-pressure water hoses and earthmovers, searching for gold and destroying a swathe of rain forest.

The miners near a small town called Nieuw Koffiekamp, at the edge of Suriname’s vast rain-forest hinterland, planned to spend a week tearing into the soil and filtering it through toxic mercury. Then, they will start over again somewhere else.

Juergen Plein, a 29-year-old miner, said he needs the work, and doesn’t know any other way to get at the precious metal.

“I think about it,” Mr. Plein, nearly shouting over the roar of generators, said of the damage. “But survival comes first.”

Thanks to record gold prices, hundreds of small-scale mining operations are proliferating along the northeastern shoulder of South America. Small-scale miners produced a record of nearly 16.5 metric tons of gold in 2009, according to Suriname's government.

Miners are tearing up trees, poisoning creeks with mercury and, in some places, erecting makeshift jungle towns with shops, prostitutes and churches. In their wake is a wasteland, said Dominiek Plouvier, regional representative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“All the topsoil has been removed, it’s finished,” Mr. Plouvier said. “This ecosystem is very fragile. It is very difficult to get it back in these areas.”

The miners, many of them illegal migrants from Brazil, are scattered throughout the northern Amazon basin, occasionally fleeing crackdowns by police or the military in Venezuela, French Guiana and Guyana.

But nothing seems to stop them in Suriname, a country rich in resources with the weakest law enforcement in the region.

The new government that took power in August is expected to at least attempt to address the issue. Vice President Robert Ameerali said they will seek to reduce the use of mercury, which is illegal but widely available to miners who use it to separate gold from ore.

Mining consultant Chris Healy said Suriname should set aside areas for small-scale miners and regulate their activities, providing training and assistance to acquire less-polluting technology.

“You can make all kinds of laws and enforcement,” he said. “But there is nobody there to enforce it.”

An estimated 14,000 small-scale miners and service providers work in Suriname’s interior, said Marieke Heemskerk, a consultant and anthropologist who has tracked mining in the country for years.

The rampant and unrestricted subletting of mine concessions is illegal, but it’s largely tolerated by the government — and it gives people work.

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