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To find flecks of gold, workers devour the rainforest floor with water cannons. "There are a lot of accidents," says one. "The sides of the hole can fall away, can crush you." (Ron Haviv / VII)

The Devastating Costs of the Amazon Gold Rush

Spurred by rising global demand for the metal, miners are destroying invaluable rainforest in Peru's Amazon basin

“Please remember,” Huaquisto says, “that about 30 to 40 percent of what I make is taken up by petroleum and the cost of pumping all the water. Plus, of course, the workers, who I pay a lot of overtime to every day. This is a very good job for a local person.”

“But how much do you get a day?”

“There are other costs, as well,” he goes on. “Environmental remediation. Social programs. Reforestation.”

After a long pause, he answers: After expenses, Huaquisto says, he nets between $30,000 and $40,000 a week.

By our second morning in Huepetuhe, after Ortiz, Haviv and I have interviewed gold buyers and liquid mercury sellers, shop owners and grocery clerks, the atmosphere begins to grow hostile. A miner stops and stares at us. “You’re going to f--- us,” the man says. “F--- you!” He continues down the street, turning back to shout more expletives. “We have machetes,” the man shouts. “I’m going to get my friends and come back for you. You stay there! Wait!”

A pit-scarred landscape near the outskirts of town is said to be one of the region’s largest and newest mining sites. Runaway excavation has created a desolate gold-mining plain, jutting into still-virgin rainforest. At a new settlement for the nomadic miners, a wooden bunkhouse, office, cantina and small telephone exchange have been erected. The outpost is surrounded by recently denuded and eroded hills.

As our drivers and guides enter the bunkhouse, hoping to get permission to look around and conduct interviews, two miners on a motorbike brake to a stop as I call out a greeting.

“How long have you been working here?” I ask.

“Five months,” one of them replies.

I gesture across the swath of destruction where rainforest once stood. “How long has this mine been here?”

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