Gold Mining Has Devastated The Peruvian Amazon

Aerial view taken from a police helicopter shows a jungle devastated by gold mining in an area known as La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Illegal wildcat mining has been ravaging pristine jungle and contaminating it with tons of mercury.
Aerial view taken from a police helicopter shows a jungle devastated by gold mining in an area known as La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Illegal wildcat mining has been ravaging pristine jungle and contaminating it with tons of mercury.

When Meraldo Umiña moved to the Madre De Dios region of Peru in 1983, the toxic gold rush that’s destroyed swaths of Amazon rainforest there was in its infancy. There were no laws regulating informal or illegal mining, and artisanal miners like him were few.

“Gold was cheap,” Umiña, 59, told ThinkProgress in Spanish — “a gram was about $12.” Using simple but still harmful chemical methods, miners worked just by the rivers then, and the gold was easy to get, he said. There was no need to encroach on the jungle, and no financial incentive to use machine-intensive techniques of extraction.

But as the 1980s waned and the 1990s rolled in, the Peruvian economy that had been in shambles improved as insurgency groups were defeated, and corrective macroeconomics took hold. Foreign markets turned their eyes on Peru. The price of gold gradually increased, Umiña said, and people from other areas of the country soon saw the same opportunity he had discovered years before and migrated to Madre de Dios. “People started to invade the lands of established residents,” he said, and “it was hard to control the labor.”

Yet land disputes were just the first bump that mining brought to the least populous department of Peru. Alluvial mining, in which small gold flecks are sifted out of sandy sediments deposited by runoff from the Andes over centuries, has now also caused a wide range of environmental harms that have reached catastrophic levels in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Most miners in Madre de Dios use liquid mercury to extract gold from soils they explore with suction hoses, and during the purifying process, the mercury is burned off and at best recovered in water if miners have the equipment available. Mercury pollution contaminates soil, water, and air — and when it enters the human body, it can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.

Now some four decades after mining moved into Madre de Dios, rivers are polluted, fish are toxic, people have elevated levels of mercury running through their blood, and deforestation is rampant, according to authorities and studies. Between 1999 to 2012, illegal mining in Madre de Dios went from less than 25,000 acres to more than 123,000. For perspective, one acre is roughly the size of a football field, which means large forests that served as biodiverse carbon sinks are instead greenhouse gas emitters thanks to mining machinery, all while soaking up toxic waste.

All reached for this story agree that a state of emergency issued last week for Madre de Dios is unlikely to alleviate a problem that’s been years in the making. The country is also poised for presidential elections in less than a week, and experts said any emergency plan will suffer from the uncertain policies of a new administration. Experts also agree that balancing the livelihood of informal miners versus the pressing need to end illegal mining will be a lengthy, cumbersome process as regional and national agendas often conflict with each other.

“The outlook is quite grim, and this probably won’t change in many years,” Gisselle Vila, social scientist and professor at the Catholic University of Peru, told ThinkProgress.

This aerial photo shows a deforested area known as La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region.
This aerial photo shows a deforested area known as La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region.

Environmental degradation has been a problem in the Amazon for decades. But whereas before deforestation stemmed from poor subsistence farmers, now industrial activities like oil extraction and mining are playing a larger role in the world’s biggest rainforest. Attention on the topic has intensified in recent times in every Amazonian country facing the long-lasting effects of chemical pollution, particularly after the collapse of two dams in Brazil tainted the ecology of two states and caused the largest environmental disaster in Brazilian history.

For its part, Peru has been dealing with series of oil spills — most recently in the north of the Amazon — while in the south it’s tried to stifle illegal mining to no avail. In fact, mining pollution has become so severe that last week Peru declared a 60-day emergency to curtail mercury poisoning from illegal gold mining. “Forty-one percent of the population of Madre de Dios is exposed to mercury pollution,” Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal said when announcing the move, Reuters reported. The government said it will give uncontaminated fish to residents, set up mobile health clinics and monitoring centers, and implement educational campaigns. There are also talks to start a massive reforestation plan, though all reached for this story doubt the emergency plan because of the presidential elections. President Ollanta Humala will leave office on July 28.

Like many administrations before, the incoming president will inherit thousands of informal miners like Umiña who may have lawfully leased lands but nonetheless live in a legal limbo since laws were introduced in 2002. Moreover, thousands of uncounted illegal miners live off protected wildlife areas, or pay natives to exploit ancestral lands like those that exist in Madre de Dios. Thus far, efforts to formalize procedures have failed and policing hasn’t fared much better. In February, more than 1,000 police and soldiers raided camps and dynamited and dismantled mining machinery valued at $3 million, the Associated Press reported. That raid came on the heels of many others, but Umiña, vice president of the Peruvian National Society Of Small Scale Mining (SONAMIPE), said illegal miners often know of the raids ahead of time and simply return to the camps once officials leave.

Illegal miners “have methods of communications, they have Internet, they have cell towers. As soon as police are leaving for the camps they know and prepare,” Umiña said. “We believe there is terrible corruption when it comes to policing.”

Formalizing miners has proved a daunting task plagued with bureaucratic hurdles since the idea was introduced almost three administrations ago. Part of the problem is that the government has used a uniform policy for all artisanal mining, experts said, when in fact, mining in Peru is different depending on the region. In the highlands mining mostly happens underground whereas in the rainforest it happens outdoors. As a result, the one-size-fits-all standard creates confusion or permitting tools simply don’t exist. For instance, getting a permit for tree logging is a requirement prior to mining, but Umiña said no agency gives out that permit. “The state doesn’t have the will to say who will authorize the land,” he said.

Hundreds of police officers gather for the second day of an operation to eradicate illegal mining in the area known as La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region in Aug. 2015.
Hundreds of police officers gather for the second day of an operation to eradicate illegal mining in the area known as La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region in Aug. 2015.

Experts and activists reached agreed with Umiña. “There was no will,” Franco Arista, gold program manager for the nonprofit Solidaridad, told ThinkProgress in Spanish. He said about 70,000 artisanal miners have tried to formalize across Peru, but only 2,000 miners from the highland have succeeded. “None of those are in Madre de Dios,” he said.

Some studies suggest that at least 90 percent of gold mining in Madre de Dios is either illegal or informal, and note that dangerous mining practices now threaten other parts of Peru as the price of gold is generally on the rise. Through May, gold was over $1,200 per ounce. On a good day, a mining team of about 10 people in Madre de Dios can get about 45 grams (just over an ounce and a half). Some 87 percent of Peruvian gold goes to Switzerland and Canada, while the rest goes to the United States and Italy.

While much-needed revenue is moving into areas that would otherwise profit from agriculture, tourism and fishing, mining is bringing an added harm that’s making conservation and even public health more complicated. That’s because sustainable mining is difficult to achieve. On top of that, mercury is intertwined with gold mining, yet often miners mishandle the substance or simply disregard proper practices. Important “soils are being washed to extract gold,” said Arista. “Mining there needs extensive technical assistance.” In the past 20 years, more than 3,000 tons of mercury have been dumped into Amazonian rivers, according to the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law. Moreover, some 78 percent in Madre de Dios, a region of more than 100,000 people, have elevated levels of mercury. Some natives even reportedly go over the safety levels by a factor of six.

Peru, the top gold-producing country in Latin America, has been unable to placate this mounting problem for multiple reasons, including business pressure. “In Peru, people can mine almost anywhere they want,” said Lenin Valencia, researcher at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law. In part, the corporate mining lobby has pushed against laws that could hamper them while national politics have traditionally favor business and the market as a source for solutions and growth, Valencia told ThinkProgress.

However, other forms of politics are also at play. Vila, the social scientist, said pro-mining local governments and regional candidates are many times at odds with the central government — or have a different agenda altogether — causing “a divorce in their vision of development.” As a result, strong police actions become the only alternative to the lack of coordinated political solution, said Vila, who went on to add “policy should be less oriented towards criminalization and more towards flexibility.”

The Tambopata River, which traverses the Tambopata National Reserve in Madre de Dios. CREDIT: FLICKR/Esbux
The Tambopata River, which traverses the Tambopata National Reserve in Madre de Dios. CREDIT: FLICKR/Esbux

Experts and activists reached also said the emergency declaration seemed to be coming too late and didn’t include more funding for agencies to respond accordingly. “But it was necessary. I hope this is the beginning of more serious actions,” Valencia said. Yet whether swift actions will come before the environmental wound grows deeper is unclear, and for many, unlikely in the short term.

Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of convicted President Alberto Fujimori, favors formalizing small-scale mining, but said she wants to start from scratch.

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who in polls is trailing the former Peruvian first lady by 5 percentage points, wants to continue the formalization process while creating a financing bank for miners who want to be environmentally friendly through better technology.

Umiña, the miner, is in the meantime taking matters into his own hands. He said he’s leading a small group of miners who want to be certified as environmentally friendly in buying equipment that extracts gold without the use of mercury, or even borax, which is a substance that can remove gold from soils while polluting less. Environmental mining means investing more time to extract the gold, Umiña said, but it’s the only way forward.

“We know that mercury is a toxic liquid that evaporates and accumulates in people and the environment, so we have to figure out a way to reach economic, environmental and social sustainability,” said Umiña, adding his group is reaching that goal. “And once that happens and others see us,” he said, “everybody will want to work like this.”