Grad student researches small-scale gold-mining's impact on biodiversity in Peru

September 2, 2016
Kate Markham collecting soil samples that will be analyzed for mercury content at Los Amigos Biological Station in Peru
In Peru, Kate Markham collects soil samples that will be analyzed for mercury content.

Madre de Dios, in the northern Amazon region of Peru, has been hard hit by the devastating environmental effects of gold-mining. “Whole areas have been transformed into veritable deserts and wastelands,” The Guardian reported recently.

That ongoing damage drew Kate Markham, a second-year student in Clark University’s Environmental Science and Policy master's degree program, to the area to conduct research for five weeks this summer – and she plans to return to Peru next year.

In general, Markham studies “biodiversity as it pertains to conservation and human-wildlife interactions using an interdisciplinary approach. I draw from the fields of ecology, anthropology, and geography, particularly remote sensing and GIS, to better comprehend changes in land use and to make more informed and well-rounded conservation decisions.” She has a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria in Canada and a B.S. in biological anthropology from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In Madre de Dios, Markham is applying many, if not all, of her research interests. The area's forest loss has increased 400 percent in 13 years, and “NGOs, academics and media over the last few years have highlighted the appalling impacts and conditions,” according to The Guardian. “These include the destruction of forests and river-banks, contamination of rivers by mercury and cyanide, contamination of people, fish and other foods by mercury, indications of forced labor, 10,000s of child workers, prostitution, sexual exploitation of minors, people trafficking, appalling health and safety, numerous fatalities, money laundering, the razing of indigenous peoples’ land, violence and alcoholism.”

Seven Continents, One Summer 2016

This story is part of our 7 Continents, 1 Summer series, which highlights the interesting work that Clark students, faculty, alumni and staff are doing all over the world.

In an email, Markham recently discussed her research at the Amazon Conservation Association’s Amigos Biological Station – also known by its Spanish acronym CICRA (Centro de Investigación y Capacitación Rio Los Amigos) – and in the city of Puerto Maldonado and the surrounding area:

“Specifically, my project looks at how artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru may impact biodiversity.

“Thanks in large part to the funding I was awarded – Clark’s George Perkins Marsh Institute Geller Student Research Award and a travel award from the International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE) department – I was able to verify the accuracy of a land-use map I created and took soil samples, which I will test for mercury (used in the gold mining process and a known neurotoxin). I was also able to conduct qualitative fieldwork, interviewing local stakeholders about changes in land-use and their perceptions surrounding wildlife and biodiversity.

“This research is part of my master's degree, and I plan to publish it so that more well-rounded conservation decisions can be made in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
“I am working in collaboration with a newly formed organization, Centro de Investigación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA), based out of Wake Forest University.

“When I was in Peru, the lab wasn’t fully up and running, so I plan to return to Puerto Maldonado in January or possibly over spring break to analyze my samples, mentor a Peruvian student and deliver workshops to local Peruvian university students. Part of my agreement with CINCIA is to help build scientific capacity within Peru, something I am more than happy to do. 

“I’ve greatly enjoyed my research and would like to continue it for my Ph.D. if at all possible. Once in the country and speaking to experts and local people, I was able to gain a much better grasp of the problems surrounding development, mining, the environment and so forth in Madre de Dios, and I would be thrilled to continue working in such a biologically and culturally rich area.”