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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“Their families are gone a long time ago,” he replies. “Some are orphans. Many were taken and put into slavery or forced labor before they knew the name of their village.”

Guadalupe tells the story of a 10-year-old girl brought to them two years ago. Originally from the outskirts of the highland capital of Cuzco, she was from a family who had been tricked by a woman working for the gold mines. The woman told the girl’s parents, who were very poor and had other children to feed, that the daughter would be brought to Puerto Maldonado and given work as a baby sitter for a wealthy family. The girl would make a good income. She could send money home. The parents were given 20 Peruvian soles (about $7) to give up their daughter.

Instead, the girl was taken to a gold camp. “She was put into the process of becoming a slave,” Guadalupe says. “They made her wash dishes at first, for no money and only food, day and night, sleeping in the back of the restaurant. This life would break her down. She would soon be moved into prostitution. But she was rescued. Now she is with us.”

He shows me photographs of girls they are sheltering. The youngsters appear to be in their early teens, sitting at a large dining table, set with bowls containing salad and rice, platters of meat, and glasses of lemonade. The children are smiling. Guadalupe points out the girl from Cuzco, who has glossy jet-black hair and a small birthmark on her cheek.

“Does she want to go home? Back to her parents?” I ask.

“We have not found her family. They may have moved,” Guadalupe says. “At least she is no longer leading a life in the gold town. She is 12 years old, trapped between two worlds that have shown no care for her. What is she to do? What are we to do?”

Guadalupe stares into the distance.“With a little help, a little support, even the ones who were previously lost can make a positive contribution,” he says. “We maintain hope.”

On our way by car to Lamal, a gold-mining settlement roughly 60 miles west of Puerto Maldonado, we pull off the road into a kind of way station, the site of a restaurant. In the muddy parking area, drivers with motorbikes await paying passengers.

With motorbike headlights on, we take off on the 25-minute ride. It’s 4 a.m. A single track leads into impenetrable black jungle. We jolt along rickety wooden boardwalks elevated on wooden stilts above streams and swamps. At last we emerge onto muddy, deforested plains, passing skeletal wood huts near the trail, their plastic tarps removed when inhabitants moved on.

We pass a settlement of shops, bars and dormitories. At this hour, no one seems to be awake.

About Donovan Webster
Donovan Webster

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

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