It’s a few hours before dawn in the Peruvian rainforest, and five bare light bulbs hang from a wire above a 40-foot-deep pit. Gold miners, operating illegally, have worked in this chasm since 11 a.m. yesterday. Standing waist-deep in muddy water, they chew coca leaves to stave off exhaustion and hunger.
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In the pit a minivan-size gasoline engine, set on a wooden cargo pallet, powers a pump, which siphons water from a nearby river. A man holding a flexible ribbed-plastic hose aims the water jet at the walls, tearing away chunks of earth and enlarging the pit every minute until it’s now about the size of six football fields laid side by side. The engine also drives an industrial vacuum pump. Another hose suctions the gold-fleck-laced soil torn loose by the water cannon.
At first light, workers hefting huge Stihl chain saws roar into action, cutting down trees that may be 1,200 years old. Red macaws and brilliant-feathered toucans take off, heading deeper into the rainforest. The chain saw crews also set fires, making way for more pits.
This gaping cavity is one of thousands being gouged today in the state of Madre de Dios at the base of the Andes—a region that is among the most biodiverse and, until recently, pristine environments in the world. All told, the Amazon River basin holds perhaps a quarter of the world’s terrestrial species; its trees are the engine of perhaps 15 percent of photosynthesis occurring on landmasses; and countless species, including plants and insects, have yet to be identified.
In Peru alone, while no one knows for certain the total acreage that has been ravaged, at least 64,000 acres—possibly much more—have been razed. The destruction is more absolute than that caused by ranching or logging, which accounts, at least for now, for vastly more rainforest loss. Not only are gold miners burning the forest, they are stripping away the surface of the earth, perhaps 50 feet down. At the same time, miners are contaminating rivers and streams, as mercury, used in separating gold, leaches into the watershed. Ultimately, the potent toxin, taken up by fish, enters the food chain.
Gold today commands a staggering $1,700 an ounce, more than six times the price of a decade ago. The surge is attributable to demand by individual and institutional investors seeking a hedge against losses and also the insatiable appetite for luxury goods made from the precious metal. “Who is going to stop a poor man from Cuzco or Juliaca or Puno who earns $30 a month from going to Madre de Dios and starting to dig?” asks Antonio Brack Egg, formerly Peru’s minister of the environment. “Because if he gets two grams a day”—Brack Egg pauses and shrugs. “That’s the theme here.”
The new Peruvian gold-mining operations are expanding. The most recent data show that the rate of deforestation has increased sixfold from 2003 to 2009. “It’s relatively easy to get a permit to explore for gold,” says the Peruvian biologist Enrique Ortiz, an authority on rainforest management. “But once you find a suitable site for mining gold, then you have to get the actual permits. These require engineering specs, statements of environmental protection programs, plans for protection of indigenous people and for environmental remediation.” Miners circumvent this, he adds, by claiming they’re in the permitting process. Because of this evasion, Ortiz says, “They have a claim to the land but not much responsibility to it. Most of the mines here—estimates are between 90 or 98 percent of them in Madre de Dios state—are illegal.”
The Peruvian government has taken initial steps to shut down mining, targeting more than 100 relatively accessible operations along the region’s riverbanks. “There are strong signals from the government that they are serious about this,” says Ortiz. But the task is enormous: There may be as many as 30,000 illegal gold miners in Madre de Dios.
The pit that we visited that day is not far from Puerto Maldonado (pop. 25,000), capital of Madre de Dios, a center of Peru’s gold mining because of its proximity to the rainforest. In a supreme irony, the city has also become a locus of Peru’s thriving ecotourism industry, with inviting hotels, restaurants and guesthouses in the forest, at the threshold of a paradise where howler monkeys leap in tall hardwood trees and clouds of metallic blue morpho butterflies float in the breeze.
On our first morning in Puerto Maldonado, photographer Ron Haviv, Ortiz and I board a small wooden boat, or barca, and head up the nearby Madre de Dios River. For a few miles upstream, wood-frame houses can be glimpsed along heavily forested bluffs. Birds dart through the trees. Mist burns away on the tranquil, muddy-brown river.