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Stunning NASA photo shows 'gold' Peruvian Amazon rivers -- but there's a dark backstory

The expression goes, everything that glitters is not gold, as a recent photo taken from the International Space Station reveals (ISS).

According to NASA's Earth Observatory, which released a photo taken by one of its astronauts, what seem to be rivers of gold flowing through the Amazon rainforest in Madre de Dios state in eastern Peru are probably prospecting holes, presumably left by independent miners.

The pits are usually obscured from the view of those on the ISS, but due to reflective sunlight, they stand out in this image.

The picture depicts the River Inambari and several pits surrounded by muddy spoils in deforested areas.

Independent gold mining helps tens of thousands of people in the Madre de Dios area, making it, according to NASA, one of the world's largest unregistered mining industries.

Mining is still the region's main deforestation cause, and mercury used to mine gold pollutes rivers, the agency said.

With the inauguration of the Southern Interoceanic Highway in 2011, gold prospecting in the region has increased, rendering the field more accessible.

The only road link between Brazil and Peru was intended to improve trade and tourism, but NASA reported that "deforestation may be the larger result of the highway,"

The photo, which was publicly released earlier this month, was taken on 24 December.

About the size of South Carolina, where macaws and apes, jaguars, and butterflies flourish, Madre de Dios is a pristine chunk of the Amazon. But although some areas of Madre de Dios are shielded from mining, such as the Tambopata National Reserve, hundreds of square kilometers of rainforest in the state have been turned into mining.

Jungle boomtowns, complete with pop-up brothels and gun wars, have been generated by gold price spikes in recent years as tens of thousands of people from across Peru entered the new gold rush.

According to the community Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Initiative, known as MAAP, a research report in January 2019 found that gold mining deforestation killed an estimated 22,930 acres of Peru's Amazon in 2018. Based on analysis carried out by the Center for Amazonian Science Innovation at Wake Forest University, that's the highest annual number on record dating back to 1985.

According to MAAP, deforestation in 2018 eclipsed the previous record high of 2017, when gold mines dropped an unprecedented 22,635 acres of land.

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