Artisanal gold mining is a growing threat to tropical forests, even inside protected areas (Villegas et al., 2012). While this threat is beginning to get acknowledged for the Amazonian rainforests (Asner & Tupayachi, 2017), it is as yet an unrecognized threat for Madagascar's protected areas. Here, we report on our recent experiences from Ranomafana National Park, in Madagascar, that we believe puts gold mining as a priority threat in the country's conservation agenda.
Over the course of 10 years we have been undertaking research and education projects at Ranomafana National Park (RNP), one of the flagships of conservation success of Madagascar. Despite cycles of local tensions, and conflicts between the Park and the local populations at the Park's boundary, the forest cover, within the RNP, has remained stable and biodiversity has been protected (Eklund, 2016). While conservation programs in Madagascar have faced many setbacks following the 2009 political turmoil, with surges of illegal exploitation in protected areas, such repercussions were not so apparent in RNP; assessments of protected area effectiveness, across Madagascar, placed RNP as one of the five most successful conservation areas (Eklund, 2016). However, recent satellite images uncovered large forest cover changes taking place in the core of the Park. These dramatic changes appear to be the footprint of a growing, rather unacknowledged threat that is, illegal gold mining. RNP's director expressed concern about the matter, and explained how the problem is escalating, while detailing incidents requiring the intervention of armed forces. Researchers are also starting to voice concerns (Gerety, 2017). We set out to uncover the issue by visiting the area in December 2017, and interviewing locals, nature guides, researchers and park officers.
When attempting to visit the affected area within the northern block of the Park, we faced difficulties finding willing guides, because they feared the consequences of helping to assess the threat of gold mining. After weeks of enquiries, a trusted local guide took us to the mining areas through a secondary trail, avoiding gold miners on the way. Upon arrival, we faced a completely devastated Ranomena wetland extending over an uninterrupted extent of 50 ha (Fig. 1a). A multitude of circular inundated marks (Fig. 1b), signs of artisanal extraction, could be seen, as well as extensive damage to the unique Pandanus forest which had been cut and burnt along the valley and up the slopes. Although this is possibly the most notorious patch of devastation in the Park, several other smaller areas are also affected – typically targeting the bottom of valleys where the increasingly rare forest wetlands are found.
We want to bring attention to gold mining as a serious growing pressure in the Park, which requires urgent action and hands-on research, for the following reasons:
Madagascar is an up-and-coming mining country, anticipated to be one of the best gold exploration targets in Africa (Nasdaq 2011). Artisanal gold mining has been practiced for centuries in Madagascar, although it has long been considered an illegal and dangerous practice. Despite legalization of the extractive activities in 1995, the Government policies (Malagasy Mining code : LOI n° 99-022 du 19 Août 1999 portant Code minier (Journal.Officiel. n° 2595 du 30 Août 1999, pages 1978 et suivantes) modified by LOI n° 2005-021 du 17 Octobre 2005 (Journal.Officiel. n° 3015 du 20 février 2006, pages 1569 à 1597)). for gold exploitation have been inconsistent, with export regulations (DECREE N°2006-910 of December 19, 2006, concerning the enforcement of the Mining Code, The Ministry of Mines.) that lead to important illegal channels for gold trading (World Bank, 2015). In 2012–2013, the government reported 150 kg of gold exported, while at the same time, just the United Arab Emirates reported to have imported over 800 kg from Madagascar (World Bank, 2015). With the present government targeting foreign investors, interest in Madagascar's gold has increased (2833 kg of gold exported in 2017), leading to further incentives for illegal mining.
Rapidly changing threats and need for adaptive management. RNP has a well-recognized level of law enforcement, and a well-developed collaboration between the Park's administration and local populations; however, Park officers find themselves unprepared to deal with this growing threat. RNP's effectiveness in supporting conservation outcomes has, in part, resulted from educational, capacity building and development projects at the boundary of the Park (Wright, 2004). But such programs are unable to tackle the current pressures, when incentives for illegal gold mining come from outside the local communities as increasingly do the gold miners themselves (pers. comm. CJ. Ralazampirenena). Furthermore, part of the effectiveness of RNP is known to stem from the presence of researchers (Wright, 2004; Wright et al., 2012; Tranquilli et al., 2014), however, as we experienced, the gold mining has altered the safety within the Park, resulting in no research activities in the affected area.
Gold mining has dramatic impacts on a very threatened ecosystem of Madagascar, that is, rainforest marshlands and wetlands. Little research has been done on freshwater wetlands in Madagascar. Recently, Bamford et al. (2017) showed large-scale degradation of the island's wetlands, associated with decreased abundance of several biodiversity indicators and important impacts on endemic waterbirds. Similarly, interviews with local guides, and researchers, leading the Tropical Ecology and Assessment Monitoring Network at RNP, report local population declines, and even disappearance, of many of these birds of conservation concern, including the Meller's duck Anas melleri (EN) and the Slender-billed flufftail Sarothrura watersi (EN), the Malagasy marsh-harrier Circus macrosceles (EN), the Madagascar snipe Gallinago macrodactyla (VU) and the Grey emutail Amphilais seebohmi (LC) (ZICOMA, 2000). Further research is urgently needed to update the current regional distribution and population estimates of these species. Their status may warrant relisting in the very near future.
Gold mining can impact biodiversity through several direct and indirect consequences, and have far-reaching effects beyond the area of exploitation. This is the case when artisanal gold miners use mercury, with this pollutant entering the food chain and having damaging consequences, not only for local habitats and biodiversity, but also for the local human populations (Gibb & O'Leary, 2014). Although there is no direct evidence of mercury use in Madagascar's artisanal gold mining, the link to external investors makes this a growing risk. Amphibians are known to be sensitive to mercury poisoning (Bergeron et al., 2011), and multiple frogs have been found dead in the exploited wetlands of RNP (pers. comm. CJ Ralazampirenena). The uniqueness of Madagascar's amphibian fauna, with 99% endemicity, and more than 120 species in just RNP, highlights the need for studies of mercury in the water and fauna in RNP and its potential impacts on people.
Here, we highlight that, although protected areas in Madagascar have been influenced by a number of threats in the past, and are reported to mitigate deforestation overall (Eklund et al., 2016), their effectiveness is fragile in the face of changing threats. Tackling the growing artisanal gold mining issue will require changes at many levels, starting with political stability, gold export and investment regulations, protected area legislation and law enforcement. It will also require a different approach to capacity building, and education, at the boundary of the nation's Parks. Importantly, it requires that researchers continue to work in the area, investigating the multifaceted impacts of these activities. Most urgently, studies on traces of heavy metals, and their bioaccumulation in local fauna are needed, as well as research on the impact of habitat loss on the endemic, wetland-dependent bird fauna, which seems to be rapidly disappearing. We also call for proactive research that assesses and monitors the status of biodiversity in areas identified as potential future gold mining hotspots in the island.
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