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

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)
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Today, Huaquisto is a very wealthy man. He stands at the edge of the 173-acre backhoe-dredged canyon that is his mine. Although he has a large house nearby, he spends most days and nights in a windowless shack next to his gold sluice. The sole concession to comfort is a cushioned armchair in the shade of a tiny porch. “I live up here most of the time,” he says, “because I need to watch the mine. Otherwise, people come here and steal.”

He is also the first to admit that he has obliterated as much of the upper Amazon jungle as anyone. “I have done everything within the law,” Huaquisto insists. “I have the concession permits. I pay my taxes. I live inside regulations for the use of liquid mercury. I pay my workers a fair wage, for which taxes are also paid.”

Yet Huaquisto acknowledges that illegal miners—essentially squatters—dominate the trade. The area surrounding town, he adds, is overrun with black-market operations. Law enforcement authorities, says Enrique Ortiz, “have decided that this zone of forest has already been sacrificed, that this is one place where mining can just happen long as it remains somewhat contained.”

Huaquisto takes me to the edge of a cliff on his property and points downhill, where a series of collecting mats have been placed inside a narrow, eroded gully. Water flowing from Huaquisto’s sluice has cut this gash in the land. “All of those mats down there?” he says. “They’re not mine. That’s no longer my property. There are 25 or 30 illegal people down there, their mats trapping some of the gold my workers dig, gathering it illegally.”

Huaquisto’s mine is sobering in its scale. In the middle of a stony, barren plain that was once mountainous rainforest, two front-end loaders work 18 hours a day, digging up soil and depositing it in dump trucks. The trucks rumble to the top of the highest hill, where they empty their loads into a several hundred-foot-long sluice.

“As you dig, do you ever find anything else that’s interesting?” I ask.

“Yes,” Huaquisto says. “We often find ancient trees, long buried. Fossil trees.” He watches the next truck as it passes. “Four trucks make one circuit every 15 minutes. When they go faster, there are accidents. So that is the rule I have made: one trip every 15 minutes.”

I point out that this equals 16 dump-truck loads of rock, stone and soil every hour. “How much gold do you get?” I inquire.

“Every day?”

“Yes, every day.”

About Donovan Webster
Donovan Webster

Donovan Webster is a journalist and author. He writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

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