A Mega-Dam Dilemma in the Amazon

A huge dam on Peru’s Inambari River will bring much-needed development to the region. But at what cost?

The dam, to be built at the confluence of the Inambari and Araza rivers, is one of dozens expected to power South America's economic ascent. (Ivan Kashinsky)
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Antonio Rodriguez, who came to the area from the mountain city of Cuzco in the mid-1990s in search of work as a lumberjack, summed up the prevailing attitude: “We are colonists,” he told me when I met him in the relatively new village of Sarayacu, which overlooks the Inambari. Thousands of men like Rodriguez made quick work of the surrounding forests. Mahogany trees that once lined the river are gone, and all we could see for miles was scrub brush and secondary growth. Thanks to the resulting erosion, the river is a waxy brown and gray. “These days only a few people are still interested in lumber,” he said. The rest have moved on to the next bonanza: gold. “Now it’s all mining.”

Indeed, with world prices up by some 300 percent over the past decade, gold is a particularly lucrative export. Peru is the world’s sixth-largest gold producer, and while much of it comes from Andean mines, a growing portion—by some estimates, 16 to 20 of the 182 tons that Peru exports annually—comes from illegal or quasi-legal mining along the banks of Madre de Dios’ rivers. Small-scale, so-called artisanal mining is a big business in the region; during our five-day boat trip along the river, we were rarely out of sight of a front-end loader digging into the bank in search of deposits of alluvial gold.

Less visible were the tons of mercury that miners use to separate out the gold and that eventually end up in the rivers. Waterborne microorganisms metabolize the element into methylmercury, which is highly toxic and easily enters the food chain. In perhaps the most notorious instance of methylmercury poisoning, more than 2,000 people near Minamata, Japan, developed neurological disorders in the mid- 1950s and ‘60s after eating fish contaminated by runoff from a local chemical plant. In that case, 27 tons of mercury compounds had been released over 35 years. The Peruvian government estimates that 30 to 40 tons are dumped into the country’s Amazonian rivers each year.

A 2009 study by Luis Fernandez of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Victor Gonzalez of Ecuador’s Universidad Técnica de Machala found that three of the most widely consumed fish in the region’s rivers contained more mercury than the World Health Organization deems acceptable—and that one species of catfish had more than double that. There are no reliable studies on mercury levels in the local residents, but their diet relies heavily on fish, and the human body absorbs about 95 percent of fish-borne mercury. Given the amounts of mercury in the rivers, Madre de Dios could be facing a public health disaster.

But Peru is eager to move beyond artisanal gold mining and its hazards. Over the past few decades the country has adopted a number of strict mining laws, including an embargo on issuing new artisanal-mining permits. And in May 2008 President García named Brack, a respected biologist, to be Peru’s first minister of the environment.

At 70, Brack has the white hair and the carefully trimmed beard of an academic, though he has spent most of his career working in Peru’s Agriculture Ministry. He speaks rapid, near-perfect English and checks his BlackBerry often. When I caught up with him last fall in New York City, where he attended a meeting at the United Nations, I told him I had recently returned from the Inambari. “Did you try any fish?” he asked. “It’s good to have a little mercury in your blood.”

Under Brack, the ministry has rewritten sections of the Peruvian penal code to make it easier to prosecute polluters, and it has won significant budget increases. Brack has placed more than 200,000 square miles of rain forest under protection, and he has set a goal of zero deforestation by 2021. Thanks in part to him, Peru is the only Latin American country to sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an effort led by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make the mining industry more accountable to public and government scrutiny.

Brack has also taken over enforcement of artisanal-mining laws from the Ministry of Energy and Mining. “There are now 20 people in jail” for breaking Peru’s environmental laws, he said. A few days before our meeting, police had raided a series of mines in Madre de Dios and made 21 arrests. He told me he wants to deploy the army to protect the country’s nature preserves.

But Brack acknowledged that it is difficult to enforce laws created in Lima, by coastal politicians, in a remote part of the country suffering from gold fever. Last April thousands of members of the National Federation of Independent Miners blocked the Pan-American Highway to protest a plan to tighten regulations on artisanal miners; the demonstration turned violent and five people were killed. Brack said several police officers involved in anti-mining raids had received death threats, and the Independent Miners has demanded that he be sacked. “I have a lot of enemies in Madre de Dios,” he said.

Unlike the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela, Peru and Brazil have been led, of late, by pragmatic centrists who see good fiscal management and rapid internal development as the key to long-term prosperity. By aggressively exploiting its resources, Brazil has created a relatively stable society anchored by a strong and growing middle class. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor as president, says she will continue her mentor’s policies.


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