Though not unique to Peru, illegal gold mining in southeastern Peru has been perniciously impacting the local environment for nearly three decades and the damage is increasingly far-reaching. Scientists have discovered unprecedented amounts of mercury – toxic to nearly all forms of life in large quantities – in the leaves of trees and the feathers of birds in the Amazon.
Shockingly, this problem is not just in the city of Puerto Moldonado, where the illegal gold mining actually takes place, but throughout the Southeastern portion of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest known as “Madre de Dios” or Mother of God. As devastating as this news is, it does not even begin to encapsulate how extensive the damage of these illegal gold mining camps is. Issues like human trafficking, murder, and mercury poisoning in local people are just some of the ever-growing aspects of this problem.
The Origins of the Problem
The roots of illegal gold mining are economic in nature. The modern Peruvian economy relies on international trade; commodities like silver, gold, copper, fishing, agriculture, coal, and natural gas, all allowed Peru to take advantage of the 2000s commodities boom and experience rapid economic growth. While other commodity-dependent nations have suffered from harmful oil extraction and processing, Peru’s main environmental burden has been from mining processes. As the 12th largest producer of gold worldwide, there are both big corporations and illegal “entrepreneurs” looking to make a profit off of gold and other mineral resources.
Many illegal gold miners are local people trying to profit off of an economic system that prioritizes city dwellers and often leaves rural communities behind. Often, though not exclusively, these are tradesmen who sell agricultural products and turn to gold mining in times of economic hardship. These communities often do not have access to basic amenities, good education, or job opportunities. In recent years, Andean people have started migrating to this region for a chance to make money as well.
Mercury and its Environmental Impact
The type of mining happening in the Madre de Dios region is called “artisanal and small-scale gold mining” which is almost always done illegally and is the largest source of mercury pollution in the world.
Mercury binds to gold which separates it from river sediments. After separation, the mercury is burned off in an open fire oven and the smoke carries it into the air. These air particles then become embedded in leaf tissues after making contact with the ground through rainfall and being absorbed by trees. In some ways, the way the Amazonian trees absorb mercury is good for the local environment. Capturing mercury is, in a way, like sequestering carbon, and it is much better for the mercury to be kept out of the aquatic system where it turns into methylmercury, an extremely poisonous bioaccumulative environmental toxicant. However, if the trees were to be cut down or burnt, the captured mercury would be released into the environment and cause even more damage.
Mercury is far more likely to transform into methylmercury in the Amazon than anywhere else because of the sheer quantity that has been put into the environment combined with the wet floor bed of the forest. Moreover, in some parts of this region, there’s been a 670% increase in land areas covered by abandoned mining pits where the low-oxygen conditions of these mining pits accelerate the transformation of mercury into methylmercury. The impact on the flora and fauna is devastating and could potentially result in a reduction in the reproduction rates of Amazonian birds and birth defects in larger mammals who consume the poisoned water.
The mercury that is poisoning the trees and birds is also poisoning the humans who live in the region. Some of the potential health risks of mercury poisoning include tremors, muscle weakness, vision and hearing impairments, and loss of coordination and balance. In severe cases, it can cause birth defects or death. Gold miners themselves are, of course, at exceptionally high risk for contracting severe cases of mercury poisoning.
Human Trafficking and Murder
Mining endeavors in Puerto Maldonado, where most of the illegal activity in the Madre de Dios region takes place, have become increasingly secretive and complex since its inception. Since 2008, the exuberant rise in gold prices has attracted criminal organizations who get involved and exploit the local miners through extortion. When the government declared a State of Emergency in 2019 and began using military force to arrest illegal miners, the groups became even more violent and organized and began featuring more illegal activity than just mining.
The process behind implementing the State of Emergency has proven ineffective. By the time the military operation shows up, miners have often already moved deeper into the rainforest. The groups frequently change locations to avoid authorities often leaving behind waste and machinery in favor of avoiding legal repercussions. However, these “pop-up” mining sites are not as simple as one might imagine. Mirroring small villages, these mining sites are always accompanied by “prostibars”, which are usually full of underaged girls who have been trafficked. The biggest example is La Pampa, located outside Puerto Maldonado. This area is one of the poorest in Peru and, uncoincidentally, is one of the most affected by human trafficking.
Sadly, younger girls are particularly sought after as having sex with a virgin is thought to bring good luck to the miners’ endeavors. Some of these girls, as young as 13, are tricked by friends or fake adverts that they could make extra money as a nanny or restaurant workers. Some are migrants, passing through the area looking for employment, with illegal options being most accessible to them. Regardless of how they got there, these girls and women are violently exploited and struggle to escape the horrors of the camps.
The Impact of Covid
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic made this bad situation even worse, attracting Peruvians who might otherwise never consider this type of work. Before the Pandemic, Carlos* was a tour guide in Cusco. When Covid caused the near elimination of the tourism sector, Carlos found himself in a difficult financial situation and in need of work. He knew that one of his family members had been working in the rainforest for years and had become extremely wealthy from it, joining what is known as an elite class of small-scale gold mining entrepreneurs. Carlos spent a month with him in 2020 to learn more about his work.
What he found was shocking and heartbreaking. As a faithful follower of Pachamama (the Andean tradition of worshipping Mother Earth), Carlos couldn’t ethically commit to work that was actively killing the Earth around him. Witnessing not just the environmental devastation, but learning about the physical dangers of operating the machinery and the potential risk that a team member would turn on you, forced him back to Cusco where he found other, less lucrative ways to get by until tourism began to slowly reemerge in late 2021.
Carlos’s relative is an example of non-native workers living in and profiting off of the Madre de Dios region. As mentioned, not all of the miners are locals and many of them are Peruvians from other parts of the country, like the Andean highlands, looking for lucrative opportunities. Those who join the “elite” of the mining community will do anything it takes to preserve their way of life and have even been able to mobilize nationalistic political movements to “defend” Peruvian rights to mine over big, foreign corporations.
The situation has become so heated that even just mentioning illegal gold mining in Puerto Moldonado could be enough to put your life in danger, Romeo* – a local whose relative also has experience in this region – told TNGO. The risks can impact everyone from a random passerby who asks the wrong question to a human rights defender like Roberto Carlos Pacheco who was shot dead in 2020 by an unknown aggressor for his activism against illegal mining. In 2020 alone, four indigenous leaders were murdered in the Madre de Dios region for outwardly opposing illegal mining, logging, and trafficking on their lands. With the pandemic at the forefront of conversion nationally, these murders went relatively unacknowledged and the authorities did little in response.
Pachamama, Environmentalism, and Indigenous Communities
The practice of worshipping Pachamama is alive and well in Peru, especially in Andean communities. In the Amazon regions, Pachamama is not as prevalent because this area was never part of the Incan Empire that historically practiced it, but many forms of ancient spirituality have been preserved by indigenous communities, and reverence for the Earth is deeply tied to their ways of life.
All around the world, native communities have been able to find a voice politically alongside the environmental movement and have been using their spirituality as an argument against corporate endeavors. Think of India giving Rivers legal rights or Native Americans stopping the construction of the Keystone Pipeline in the US. In nearby neighboring Bolivia, environmentalism, justified through “Pachamamaism” was utilized by indigenous politicians running for office.
In Peru, a good example of a successful cross-over between political movements and environmentalism is the case of mining near Montana de Siete Colores or Rainbow Mountain. A World Heritage Site located in the Ausangate mountains, this unique, biologically, and minerally rich region of Peru is surrounded by snowy mountains and glaciers that locals have watched melt over the course of their lives. In 2015, The Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute (INGEMMET) authorized the request of mining company Minquest Perú S.A.C (owned by the Canadian company Camino Minerals Corporation) to exploit the entire valley including conservation areas, Rainbow Mountain itself, and land owned by the Chillihuani and Pampachiri communities.
Thanks to the investigative work of CooperAccion, a Peruvian non-profit civil association, which promotes the knowledge and exercise of social, environmental, political, cultural, and economic rights as well as the sustainable management of the territory with gender and intercultural approaches, this plan was thwarted through civil actions. The local people’s civic actions and pressure on the government are what ultimately stopped these ambitions. Some of the locals went as far as to travel to Lima in order to protest the mining of their land, a tour guide in the area mentioned to me.
The preservation of Rainbow Mountains demonstrates two key points. First, when land is owned by indigenous people and they are able to profit off of tourism directly, an endeavor like illegal gold mining becomes less appealing due to its dangerous nature. While tourism presents its own environmental risks, giving back to the local communities minimizes the risk of other problems developing alongside the environmental destruction, as is seen in the Amazon. Second, native communities which do play an active role in protecting the environment and can gain domestic or even international recognition are proven to be powerful. While locals are involved in the exploitation of the Amazon, most indigenous communities are against it and, as mentioned, the situation is primarily being exploited by criminal organizations and non-native “elite entrepreneurs”. By empowering indigenous communities and recognizing their land rights, there is a way out of the exploitative practices of artisanal small-scale gold mining.
The Path Forward
While the devastation of illegal gold mining is multi-faceted and complex, there are plenty of organizations doing amazing work towards stopping it.
In 2021, NASA and USAID began combating illegal mining alongside the Peruvian government by using satellite images to track the mining activities. The initiative provides near-real-time images and empowered locals to be able to prevent destruction by allowing for the groups to be tracked more efficiently and more safely than doing so on the ground.
Amazon Aid is also doing its part through many different initiatives including the Cleaner Gold Network which brings together consumers, scientists, artists, educators, indigenous communities, NGOs, and companies from the gold sector. The aim of this network is to connect actors who can discover and promote solutions to illegal gold mining.
Finally, The Artisinal Mining Challenge is driving innovative solutions by distributing $1,000,000+ in prizes to accelerate solutions to conserve the Amazon, protect communities, and transform artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the rainforest.
Permanent damage has already been done to the people, wildlife, and natural environment of the Peruvian Amazon. Without big, drastic changes, Peru and the world risk the loss of one of the most spectacular places on Earth.
- Can actions similar to those taken near Rainbow Mountain be taken to preserve the Amazon?
- How should illegal gold mining be punished to effectively deter locals and other populations from getting involved?
- Will this issue be solved primarily through government action or are non-governmental organizations more effective in this case? What about indigenous communities?
* The identities of interviewees included in the article have been anonymized to ensure their safety. No conflict of interest has been disclosed by the interviewees or the author.
Tracking Amazon Gold – Amazon Aid
Accelerated losses of protected forests from gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon – Gregory P Asner and Raul Tupayachi