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Peru Cracks Down on Illegal Gold Miners

A boom in outlaw mining activity in the last five years is polluting rivers, poisoning people and destroying forests in the Peruvian Amazon

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Since the Great Recession, gold prices have had a pretty good run. Terrorist attacks, up and down economic news and curveballs like the Brexit all send investors into the relative safety of the shiny yellow commodity. It also sends illegal gold miners deeper into sensitive forests and habitats. According to David Hill at The Guardian, wildcat mines are hitting parts of Peru particularly hard, with miners moving into Amazon conservation areas, cutting down forests, polluting rivers and digging up large swaths of land.

Recently, the Peruvian government began sending in military forces and rangers to evict the miners, reports Suzanne Daley, who traveled with Peruvian marines for The New York TimesAccording to Daley, the government is setting up military posts and raiding mining camps along the Malinowski River in the Tambopata Nature Reserve in the southern part of the country.

As recently as a year ago, Daley explains, Tambopata was virtually untouched. Now, satellite photos show large areas of deforestation and reveal that miners have diverted the river, polluting it so much it that it now runs a milky brown. Daley reports that rangers say the fish from the river is gone.

Mercury from gold processing has poisoned the surrounding Madre de Dios region. In May, the government declared a health emergency across three provinces because of the roughly 40 tons of mercury dumped into the region’s rivers by miners every year, writes Colin Post at Peru Reports. Health officials found more than 40 percent of residents in 97 villages in the area suffered from heavy-metal poisoning. Daley reports. The miners also cut down about 250,000 acres of forest each year, and create lawless zones where human slavery and sex trafficking take place.

“The consequences of mining activity in Madre de Dios will be with us for the next 80 years, and that must be fought at its roots,” environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal tells Post.

Soldiers and rangers have worked to foil miners by dynamiting their equipment and setting their camps on fire, reports Daley. But chasing off the 5,000 to 10,000 miners in the remote Tambopata is not so easy. She writes that the group of marines she traveled with trekked many miles, sometimes through water up to their chests with few supplies to reach the camps. They eventually ran out of dynamite, resorting to smashing generators with hammers.

The problem is not limited to the south either. Cecilia Jamasmie at Mining.com reports that illegal mining across Peru has increased fivefold since 2012 and the business directly employs about 100,000 people. Hill writes that mining has recently begun in the northern regions of the Peruvian Amazon as well. “The shift to the north, where in the Santiago basin [it] started within the last three years, is something new,” Esteban Valle Riestra, a consultant with Peru environmental group DAR tells Hill.

It could greatly impact the indigenous Awajúns and Wampís communities who live in the area. Daley writes that some politicians in Peru, however, openly argue that the mines are good for local people and allow them to earn a living. Critics allege that the government is not really interested in stopping the mines and that its enforcement initiatives are half-hearted.

Earlier this year, Post wrote for Peru Reports that the government has spent $20 million on mining raids, conducting 62 raids in 2015, alone. As of March 2016, they had destroyed about $14 million in mining equipment. Still, Post reports that the military rarely arrests the miners and that their camps soon becomes operational again

“Two weeks after we clear them out, they set up in the same place or maybe somewhere else,” an anonymous official in Madre de Dios told Post in March. “There is too much gold in the ground and it’s not too difficult to get it out. They make too much money.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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