Gold rush in the Amazon destroys the most biodiverse region in the world

A 21st-century gold rush has brought lawlessness and destruction to the once pristine Madre de Dios region of Peruvian rainforest

Illegal goldmining is laying waste to Madre de Dios, the most biodiverse region in the world Photo: Miguel Bellido

We sped across the jungle along a narrow manmade path. ‘Quick! Hide the camera! If they see this, they’ll beat us up,’ shouted the motorcyclist who was driving me.

Visitors are not welcome in Guacamayo, one of the biggest illegal goldmining sites in the world, so large it is visible from space. Above the noise of the bike we could just make out a distant rumble of machines.

A sharp turn of the wheel later and the trees vanished, replaced by a vast desert dotted with shacks covered in blue plastic sheets where thousands of miners live. We were at the heart of a 21st-century gold rush that, environmentalists warn, is rapidly destroying the Amazon’s Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region in south-east Peru, 33,000 square miles of low-lying, dense rainforest containing the richest biodiversity on earth.

As we crossed endless sand dunes, groups of men became visible among the filthy swamps. They were busily keeping diesel generators going, powering pumps that suck up mud, then spew it down carpeted ramps where gold particles are trapped. They work round the clock, only pausing at dawn to wash out the carpets and extract the gold that ends up in the markets of London or Zurich.

It was scorching hot and humid and the driver stopped to scour the horizon, trying to find his bearings. Next to us, leaning against a bare trunk, was a simple white cross bearing the name Julio Cesar Zabala, aged 29, together with his birth date and the day he died – a reminder to those passing that deaths caused by landslides are a daily occurrence here; most workers are inexperienced and take no basic safety precautions.

Half an hour later, we reached the thinning line of trees marking the edge of this wasteland. We met Marco Suarez, a miner from Moquegua in southern Peru, who arrived here two years ago hoping to make a quick buck and return to his village to buy a plot of land.

‘This is hell,’ he said. ‘We’ve been in this spot a week and work sometimes 24 hours a day depending on how it goes. We find five, six, seven grams of gold a day, and I make up to 100 soles a day [£25]. We’re simply trying to survive. I wish there were other jobs.’

As he spoke, a couple of goldminers approached suspiciously, asking the motorcycle driver what I was doing there.

‘People here don’t like to speak,’ Suarez resumed, wiping the sweat from his brow with his shirt, and pouring out the brownish water that had accumulated inside his green rubber boots. ‘I know we’re destroying the forest, there were only trees here before, but what are we supposed to do?’ He smiled faintly, and then turned around and went back into the swamp. His colleagues looked on from below but no one else wished to talk and the driver began to get nervous so we drove on.

Suarez is one of about 10,000 miners working in Guacamayo (no one knows the exact number), an area that already occupies nearly 60 square miles, despite being little more than three years old.

This is the largest illegal goldmining operation in Madre de Dios, though countless other sites have sprung up elsewhere in the region. This is in addition to the legal mining concessions, whose numbers, according to miners’ unions, jumped from 500 in 2004 to more than 2,600 today. Record-high gold prices are fuelling the fever, doubling in the past two years to more than £800 per ounce, a rise caused by investors’ fears over the global economic crisis.

Enabling all this activity is a new road that has cut a huge swath across this once inaccessible territory. The 1,600-mile Trans-Oceanic Highway links the Amazon river ports of Brazil with the Pacific ones of Peru. After 40 years of planning and construction, the road was finally inaugurated in December 2010, and in January the achievement was marked by a Peru-Brazil car rally (although structural problems found in a bridge in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, mean the highway won’t be fully finished until April).

The £570 million highway is viewed as South America’s infrastructure project of the century. But it sounds the death knell for the local environment, and has unleashed a tidal wave of land exploitation and corruption.

Every day, using this road, some 300 people arrive in Madre de Dios from neighbouring dirt-poor highlands, seeking work and the promise of a better life. Two thirds of them head to illegal goldmining sites such as Guacamayo, accessible only by motorcycle from bustling Wild West-type shanty towns several miles away, which sprang up almost overnight along the highway.

The Trans-Oceanic Highway has made it so much easier to bring in the key supplies required for goldmining: petrol, bulldozers, heavy diggers and the mercury used to separate the sand from the precious metal. The highly toxic mercury, which miners handle with their bare hands, is imported from the United States and Spain and sold openly in stores. Environmental organisations estimate that more than 40 tons of it are dumped every year in the region, polluting rivers to the point that the fish are now inedible and can be sourced only from small fish farms.

Illegal goldmining in Peru has grown into a £390-million-a-year industry, employing 100,000 people nationally (it was only a few thousand some years ago), mostly in Madre de Dios where, according to the government, more than 2,000 square miles of forest have already been destroyed (environment groups say this figure is three times higher). ‘Madre de Dios is the most biodiverse region in the world because it was so remote and inaccessible,’ the botanist Oliver Whaley told me from his office at Kew Gardens in London. ‘The Trans-Oceanic Highway is like putting a knife into the last large area of rainforest left on earth.’

Previously, much of the Madre de Dios region could be reached only by boat or not at all. Whaley believes the new road will leave the same trail of destruction that it wrought in Brazil, when that section was completed in the 1980s. But he warns that the effects in Peru will be starker. ‘Madre de Dios is the source of the Amazon, the upper watershed, so everything knocks on from there. The way seeds are dispersed, the fish moving upstream to this region to find breeding grounds, they’re the base of the nutrient cycle. If Madre de Dios collapses, everything will collapse.’

Despite the scale and potential consequences of the destruction, this issue only hit the headlines in November 2009 when a Peruvian national news­paper ran a front-page story vilifying illegal goldmining that provoked an uproar in the country. President Alan Garcia went on to call it ‘a savage form of mining because it’s completely unregulated and doesn’t pay taxes’. His environment minister, Antonio Brack, a German-trained agronomist engineer and former television host, called it a ‘cancer’ and one of the most important environmental problems facing Peru.

Last April, the authorities moved to establish a mining exclusion zone in Madre de Dios. But they backed down following three days of violent demonstrations by thousands of miners who blockaded the main coastal road, the Panamericana, leaving six people dead and bringing the whole south of the country to a standstill.

Luis Alfaro, the head of Peru’s National Parks, insists that there is more control than there used to be. ‘For example, in Peru as a whole we now have 40 inspectors for each national park compared with 10 in 2008. But the problem is not a lack of inspectors, it’s the current high price of gold and the ease with which illegal goldminers and loggers can purchase and bring in their supplies, especially fuel, made worse in Madre de Dios by the new highway. Until now we’ve largely managed to protect the five national parks in Madre de Dios, but the threat keeps growing. Our strategy now is to try to prevent the invasions of land around the national parks but we’re fighting an uneven battle. The government isn’t doing enough to tackle this problem.’

Brack maintains that they are taking measures to combat all this. ‘We’re preparing a law to forbid pumps used by miners from being operated in rivers,’ he told me. ‘We’re setting up police checkpoints and working on a new legal framework to limit the transport of gas and diesel used by illegal miners, though applying these measures will take time.’

Massive deforestation is not the only consequence of illegal goldmining. Every year an estimated 1,200 girls aged between 12 and 17 are drafted into child prostitution rings operating in the area. They are brought from all over the country to brothels that have sprung up in the middle of mining camps, lured by the promise of jobs paying 10 times more than they would normally earn – jobs that turn out to be non-existent. Most arrive with no money at all. The miners warn brothel owners about any girl trying to escape, so, with no authority or police around to complain to, the girls are trapped.

Not so Teresa, a 14-year-old I met who had escaped a couple of days earlier from the brothel she had been taken to. She had arrived in Guaca­mayo under the impression that she was going to work in a restaurant, and she refused to become a prostitute.

‘I was brought to the jungle,’ she said. ‘I had no money, nothing, at most 70 cents. They took me to this bar, a brothel; it was horrible. It had tables, chairs, lights, a pole in the middle with loudspeakers, and a room on the side where girls slept. After a few days, when everyone was asleep I ran and ran until I found a man who took me away.’

She was speaking from a refuge, the only one of its type in the area; only 72 girls have made it here since October 2008. It is a simple wooden building on a side street in the chaotic town of Mazuko, the main entry point into the Madre de Dios region, a couple of blocks away from the highway. It was late in the evening and Teresa was waiting impatiently for her parents to arrive from Lima to pick her up.

‘I was lost, I didn’t know where I was,’ she continued. ‘At night everything is dark, there are no lampposts or anything. The policeman told me that it was a miracle that I had escaped because no one can usually; they rape you and throw you in the jungle.’

Teresa had explained to the owner (ironically, a woman brought to this region as a girl years ago) that she was underage, but the owner replied that even younger girls worked in the other brothels and that police never came. ‘She told me that if I tried to leave, her husband would kill me. He had a gun; I saw it.’

Ana Hurtado is a Peruvian sociologist who arrived in the region in the 1990s and set up the refuge after seeing the children’s plight. Hurtado recounted the case of a 16-year-old girl who also had refused to sleep with miners. The brothel owner’s husband raped her and left her pregnant, forcing her later to have an abortion.

I had seen some of these girls in one of the many miserable tent villages dotting Guaca­mayo. When I arrived there the air stank of open sewers, and blaring salsa music drowned the noise of passing motorcycles. A few barefoot children were playing outside, next to a place offering a payphone service and another announcing ‘Se lava motos’ (motorcycles cleaned here). There was a row of brothels with suggestive pictures of naked women painted across the outside walls. As I sat down on a wooden stool to drink a beer, a couple of clearly underage teenage girls ventured outside one of these brothels.

I had asked Hurtado whether the police ever took any action, but she just made a resigned gesture. ‘We’re trying to encourage police interventions and sometimes we succeed – last February, 12 victims were rescued. But there are informers in the police who warn the brothel owners of any operation, so almost nothing happens. What we do is just a drop in the ocean.’

When I phoned the ministry in charge of dealing with child trafficking, a spokesman told me he recognised the scale of the problem but that only nine cases were reported in the region in the whole of 2008. He added that the jungle regions are virtually lawless, with no state presence, and that children who fall into these child trafficking rings tend to disappear, never to be seen again.

Senior government officials I spoke to admitted that illegal goldmining was getting out of hand. But they were keen to highlight the advantages that the new road will bring: an estimated 160,000 tourists, mostly Brazilians, are expected to arrive here every year on their way to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. They added, rather optimistically, that current talks with mining associations to legalise mining and resolve environmental and child prostitution problems are expected to bring about ‘immediate’ results.

Almost no one shares this optimism, however, especially not mining leaders. This is partly because of the influence that the mining sector exerts inside the government. Sixty per cent of Peru’s exports are minerals, and it is the sixth largest gold exporter in the world, which explains why mining extraction takes precedence over any other land use in the country.

Amado Romero, the head of the all-powerful local mining union, Fedemin, told me that part of the problem is the ease with which anyone arriving here can become an illegal miner, and that there is no political will to stop this. Anyone can buy a Chinese-built pump for about £420, and with £1,600 (to pay for fuel, food, transport costs, mercury) can head to the forest and set up their own personal mining operation. Those who own several pumps are given loans from regional banks almost immediately. Provided you have some simple equity or a friend who will act as guarantor, the whole process generally takes a week.

‘The state is completely absent here,’ Romero said. ‘They don’t care about the environment or try to legalise goldmining. If you check the regional government website you’ll find only three lines dedicated to mining – three lines when it’s responsible for 80 per cent of the economic activity in the region. It’s madness. If the state doesn’t take the necessary measures now, this will get out of control.’ He went on to elaborate on the danger that the national parks face, and accused journalists of focusing only on goldmining when other activities such as illegal logging and agriculture are equally destructive, having already wiped out hundreds of square miles.

He is right. This became clearer as I travelled along the highway north towards Brazil, where whole stretches of smouldering forest extended on both sides, broken from time to time by Brazilian nut palm trees that provide one of the few sustainable products to indigenous communities living in the area. This land, which multiplied in value as the highway neared completion, will probably make way for cattle ranching; or African palm oil plantations that are being introduced to feed the growing biofuels market; or, in the future, soya plantations – that is, as soon as Brazil discovers a genetically modified crop that can adapt to this humid area.

But along with the indiscriminate goldmining, it is illegal logging that is the most immediate danger exacerbated by the highway. Nowhere is this clearer than in Alerta, a small town a few miles from the border, where Jose Cahuana, a local leader elected to represent the indigenous communities, lives. ‘I oversee 700,000 hectares [2,700 square miles] of forests and they’re destroying 40-50 per cent of it; they’re emptying everything,’ he said. ‘As soon as they complete the bridge in Puerto Maldonado the flow of wood will be unstoppable.’

Sitting in the wooden shack where he lives, he complained about receiving death threats, and a year and a half ago he narrowly missed being killed when the area’s vice-governor was murdered after confiscating a truckload of illegal wood. ‘We were unloading the logs and the owner’s son-in-law arrived with a gun. He found the vice-governor at the office and shot him eight times. I had left just a couple of minutes earlier. Since then we’ve stopped patrolling – there’s no point risking our lives. His widow hasn’t received any compensation from the state – nothing, nothing.’

Cahuana, 47, does not receive a salary and just manages to make ends meet thanks to sporadic carpentry jobs. ‘Corruption is the norm here,’ he said. ‘The police demand bribes from anyone transporting logs, legal and illegal. Everyone has to give them £12 per truck. If they know that wood is illegal they ask for £60; if it’s quality wood then they want £120. I’m going to resign this year, this is really hurting me. I’ve served for four years and had enough.’

With us stood Angel Gabriel Felix, 34, who had a similar brush with illegal loggers five years ago when he became the manager of the nearby Alto Purús national park, which covers 8,000 square miles of forest. He explained how illegal loggers operating deep inside the jungle initially offered him £1,100 to ignore every raft of logs leaving the area.

‘When I refused and continued to stop their shipments they sent me beautiful young women. When this didn’t work they threatened to kill me,’ he said. He was saved only when the newly appointed local army captain turned out to be an old school friend – when the officer heard what was happening he placed an armed bodyguard at Felix’s door until Felix changed jobs two years ago to join the Environment Sustainability Centre, a Lima-based NGO that tries to raise awareness on environmental issues and provide experts and scientists to support sustainable projects.

Not only did the police not do anything, Felix added, but his bosses in Lima kept pressurising him to turn a blind eye to illegal logging too. Things then got worse. When loggers finally managed to bribe one of his park rangers, they used this to denounce Felix in court with the connivance of a local judge. ‘I still have a trial hanging over me,’ he said. ‘Here, if you try to follow the law you end up either in jail or dead. Unless the government steps in soon, Madre de Dios will become a desert like Saudi Arabia.’

Later, I crossed the border into Brazil, leaving the new Trans-Oceanic Highway behind. Endless pastures extended on both sides of the road, created decades ago, interspersed by scattered peasant shacks and the odd carbonised tree trunk – offering a grim glimpse of what the future holds for Peru’s formerly pristine Madre de Dios region.

By Alfonso Daniels 9:00AM GMT 28 Jan 2011

Source: The Telegraph

1 thought on “Gold rush in the Amazon destroys the most biodiverse region in the world”

  1. please need contact information for the peruovian engineer who invent a new machine to extract gold from black sand without using mercury.


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