Grim prospects for sustainable miners in Peru

by @saul_elbein September 21, 2015 5:30AM ET

Small-scale miners aggressively targeted in government crackdown on illegal gold mining

Gold miners attempt to move a gold mining raft that is stuck in the Malinowski River of the Madre de Dios region in Peru.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on how Peru’s environmental policies and highway development projects have contributed to deforestation in the Amazon.

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru When the raiders arrived one humid afternoon last May, Cesar Suracayo was standing on his raft in the southern Amazon, mining gold from the river bottom with a 4-inch hose. The hose was attached to a brain-rattling Chinese motor loud enough to overpower the calls of birds in the forest, so loud that Suracayo didn’t hear the engines heading his way. By the time he saw the two launches, flying the Peruvian flag and packed with rifle-toting marines, they were almost on top of him.

A tall man in his mid-30s with deep brown skin and an aquiline nose, Suracayo has spent 15 years on the rivers of Peru’s lawless southern Amazon, filtering river mud for flecks of gold. On a good day, he could make hundreds of dollars — enough to support a middle class life in nearby Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region. So when the Peruvian state began cracking down on gold mining in the area, in particular along the Tambopata National Reserve, across the river from where Suracayo lived and worked, he kept mining illegally. He felt secure doing this: Usually friends downriver sent word when the marines were heading toward him, buying him time to hide equipment.

But this time no one called. There was no time to waste. The motor cost $1,000, bought on credit. If the soldiers captured it, they would destroy it. If they captured him, he would face prison. He heaved the motor into the chocolate brown waters of the Malinowski River, then jumped in his launch and raced upstream. Behind him marines were clambering onto his raft. As he cut up the creek behind Apaylom, the mining settlement where he lived, he heard dynamite echoing over the river. He lay in the woods until he heard the boats leaving. When he returned to the mining site, he found the burned hulk of his raft floating on the water amid a film of spilled motor fuel.

A woman walks through the rubble of the makeshift homes that belong to miners after police destroyed the illegal mining camp in La Pampa in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, May 16, 2014.

This scene is common in Madre de Dios, a sparsely populated region famous for its biodiversity and its burgeoning ecological crisis. Over the last two decades, uncontrolled gold mining has spread across the jungle like a creeping infection, poisoning the region with heavy metals and cutting holes in the forest that are visible from space. In response to the devastation and accompanying social ills, since 2012 the central government has targeted the region’s gold miners with a carrot-and-stick approach: Miners must formalize — get legal status and follow environmental laws — or face the consequences.

This strategy has been widely criticized. Critics in Madre de Dios, from environmentalists and civil society organizers to the miners, say that the legalization process has made things worse, alienating moderate miners while spurring the very environmental destruction and illegal activity it was supposed to prevent. After three years of formalization proceedings and repeated raids on mining camps around the country, deforestation and gold production continue at high rates. Meanwhile, though thousands of miners in Madre de Dios have applied for legal status, not a single one has managed to complete the process.

These problems are especially evident in Apaylom, a cluster of a dozen stilt houses scattered among tropical orchards beside the Malinowski River. Over the last 15 years, as the gold-mining industry in Madre de Dios has become infamous around the world for its environmental and social costs, Apaylom and the miners’ associations of the Malinowski River have become regional symbols of the kind of sustainable mining now under threat.

Strength in small numbers

In the center of Apaylom, the porch of the community’s president, Julia Dueñas, looks out over clusters of broad-leafed banana trees that give way to dense forest. In the branches above the general store, yellow-tailed cacique birds flit back and forth between hanging nests, with reeds in their beaks.

“Instead of helping us, they’re waging war on us,” Dueñas said, reflecting on the government’s efforts to bring the region’s gold mining under control. At 46, she has bright eyes and cheekbones prominent as handlebars. For five years, she has led the local miners’ association in the fight to get legalized, and she found herself in a bureaucratic nightmare. “We’ve protected this forest for 20 years, and the government won’t support us and won’t offer a solution.”

Julia Dueñas stands in the kitchen of her home in the Apaylom gold mining community in the Madre de Dios region of Peru.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

Dueñas, like most of the other hundred or so settlers at Apaylom, came from a poor farm in Peru’s Quechua-speaking south. For her, gold mining was a ticket to a stable middle-class life. Peru is the fifth-largest gold producer in the world, bringing in about $10 billion a year in gold, and the sector is full of opportunity, even for the poor and undereducated. Mining in Madre de Dios accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s gold production and for 40 percent of the region’s GDP. In the late 1990s, Dueñas and Suracayo moved in together and joined forces — he working from the raft, she managing the business — and with their income from mining, they managed to buy a papaya farm and a house in town. She got her three children into college in Puerto Maldonado; one is a nurse, and the other two are studying forestry engineering.

The Apaylom community has been allowed to keep mining on the borders of the Tambopata Reserve because of an environmentally motivated alliance with the central government. As the mining business in other parts of Madre de Dios grew bigger and more industrial, in 1999 the Malinowski miners struck an agreement with the government that would allow them to keep mining near the reserve as long as the settlement stayed small. They formed an association, Apaylom, and signed agreements promising to only use small motors for their mining pumps, to stay out of the forest and to keep out new miners. They also banned prostitution — in those days, miners said, prostitutes visited the Malinowski communities by boat — and child labor. Miners who didn’t agree to these terms were expelled with the help of the park service. Though the form of mining they practiced was not harmless, the community organizations were much less ecologically destructive than the heavily mechanized businesses spreading through the rest of the mining corridor.   

Local conservation leaders saw small mining communities like Apaylom as powerful allies in protecting the forest from new waves of less scrupulous miners. “If we boot them out, will the land stay empty?” asked Victor Sambrano, the stentorian head of the Tambopata National Reserve Committee. “No. Miners will clear that land and then enter the reserve.” In 2010 he argued to the heads of the Ministry of the Environment in Lima that mining could make things a lot worse than they were in Apaylom. On a trip upriver with the country’s first minister of the environment, Antonio Brack Egg, Sambrano pointed at the banks, free of mining-induced erosion, and at the caimans swimming in the river. Brack, in a detail endlessly repeated by Apaylom residents, was impressed enough to say the miners could stay.

“If it weren’t for us, this place would have become another Pampa,” Dueñas said, referring to the infamous illegal mining zone that sprawls along the new Interoceanic highway, a target of government raids since 2012.

Creating an outlaw economy

Gold miner Reynaldo Cavero walks on a gold mining raft in the Malinowski River of the Madre de Dios region in Peru.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

For the last 100 years, migrants like Dueñas have traveled down to the Amazon to try their fortune in the region’s resource booms, in rubber, timber and gold. The gold latest boom began in 2004 and exploded as the global economic collapse of 2008 sent investors worldwide diving for safety. From 2004 to 2014, gold prices nearly tripled, sucking thousands of new miners into the region.

The principle of alluvial mining is brutally simple in concept: Workers feed river mud through a sieve, filter out the gold and throw out the waste. By the time of the 2008 boom, mining technology was dangerously effective. Cutting-edge mining operations used bulldozers to flatten the forest and powerful motors to suck up the ground, leaving nothing but open plains punctuated by holes full of rust red water. The spike in gold prices, coupled with the completion of the highway, took a toll on the land: from 1999 to 2012, deforestation rates exploded, from 10,000 hectares (about 40 square miles) a year to almost 50,000 hectares annually, according to the Carnegie Airborne Observatory.

The boom also brought about a public health crisis. After miners filter out lighter materials, they use mercury to pull gold from the sandy slush, forming a blob of gold and mercury. They wash the gold by climbing into big buckets of mercury solution and jumping up and down, then vaporize the mercury with butane torches, fumes crawling around their faces. In addition to the risks to miners, alluvial gold mining each year dumps 30 to 40 tons of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into the region’s rivers and atmosphere — the equivalent of about 6 million lethal doses. According to studies by the Carnegie Amazon Ecosystem Project, about two-thirds of fish sold in Puerto Maldonado contain mercury above acceptable doses, and about three-quarters of people in Madre de Dios have noticeable levels of mercury in their bodies.

“Clearly, something had to be done,” said Cesar Ipenza, a legal adviser to Brack. After taking office in 2008, Brack made it a mission to bring environmentally destructive mining under control — changing the government’s long-standing approach to mining, which was either to neglect or promote it. According to Ipenza, the new aim was not to end gold mining in Madre de Dios but to limit the size and destructive power of mining equipment and to stop the use of mercury.

Officials were underprepared for the task at hand. While government in Peru is heavily centralized, in Madre de Dios, Ipenza said, “there is no state at all.” Only 500 Peruvian National Police patrolled the region, which is roughly the size of Maine, and roads are so bad that cars can get stuck for days. Also, in contrast to the rest of Peru, where mining operations are dominated by a few large corporations, mining in Madre de Dios was artisanal, run by tens of thousands of small entrepreneurs in largely off-the-books businesses. Fewer than a third of residents had legal title to the land they lived on, and land conflicts were common — as were accidents and disappearances.

He compared the ministry plan to building a table with four legs. First, there was formalization — establishing a legal regimen, officially accrediting miners and getting them to follow best practices. Then Lima would move against miners who refused to adapt and would allocate funds for reconversion — help interested miners transition to more sustainable businesses. Finally, the government would disburse grants to rehabilitate lands degraded by mining. “All legs are necessary,” he said. “If you have any without the others, it won’t work.”

Erick Vargas, a gold miner in the Apaylom community of Madre de Dios, pours water containing mercury into the Malinowski River as part of the process where miners use mercury to pull flakes of gold out of sediment sucked from the river.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America
After Ollanta Humala took office, the central government initiated an aggressive strategy aimed to stop illegal mining entirely. Miners who used banned machines or worked in prohibited zones would be deemed illegal — that is, they would be regarded as criminals.

The ministry began to implement the plan in 2010, and at first there was support from miners concerned about losing their claims to a flood of new migrants. The Apaylom miners, like 5,000 other artisanal miners across Madre de Dios, began formalization proceedings that year. Led by Dueñas, they took part in a pilot program run by a nonprofit and were given four gold-cleaning machines that worked without mercury. They also began working on an initiative to sell sustainably mined fair trade gold in Europe.

Then in 2011, the halting environmental progress fell apart. A new president, Ollanta Humala, took office, and under his watch the central government initiated an aggressive strategy aimed to stop illegal mining entirely. It barred mining in all bodies of water. It banned the heavy vehicles used in illicit mining — everything from exotic river barges and powerful vacuums to common construction equipment such as front-end loaders and tanker trucks. It also prohibited the use of mercury and sharply restricted the sale of fuel needed for gas-guzzling mining motors.

Perhaps the farthest-reaching innovation was one that turned an administrative problem into a more serious one. Before 2012, Madre de Dios miners were seen as simply informal actors, like the women selling tonics from pushcarts or kids hustling gum on the street. That year, however, lawyers for the Humala government created a new category. Miners who used banned machines or worked in prohibited zones would be deemed illegal — that is, they would be regarded as criminals.

After burning off mercury that holds gold shavings together, gold miners in the Apaylom community of Madre de Dios, Peru, weigh a piece of gold.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

While the mining business in Madre de Dios was extremely casual before the new regulations, miners soon discovered that getting legal status was nearly impossible. Accreditation entailed completing 15 steps involving boxes of paperwork and five ministries at the regional and national levels. Laws often contradicted each other, and to complicate matters, rules were always changing. In 2011, Apaylom miners lost thousands of dollars when they were forced to abandon an expensive environmental impact study the association started pursuing the year before. For many miners in Madre de Dios, the process was simply impossible to complete, since so few people had formal land titles.

Virtually every element of a business that was ubiquitous was suddenly outlawed, and 30,000 miners were made illegal with the stroke of a pen. This, according to Josue Ayvar Zamorro, a public information officer in the Madre de Dios branch of the Peruvian National Police, created a public order problem to add to ecological and social ones. The state vastly increased the number of criminals whom local police were supposed to pursue and tasked them with enforcing the restrictions on gasoline and mercury, key supplies for one of the region’s chief industries. It was a huge job, he said. “But they didn’t give us any more personnel or resources. They passed lots of laws, but laws without implementation do nothing.”

In the aftermath of the new regulations, the Humala administration, under heavy pressure from the national press, decided to take a more aggressive approach to stemming the crisis in Madre de Dios. Toward the end of 2011, it turned to interdiction, a concept borrowed from the U.S.-backed coca-eradication campaigns against farmers in the high valleys of the Andes. The government gathered a task force of air force detachments, soldiers, marines and police from across southern Peru and set its sights on its first target: Apaylom and other formalizing communities on the Malinowski River.

Things fall apart

A boat belonging to gold miners in the Malinowski River.
Danielle Villasana for Al Jazeera America

At dawn one morning in November 2011, government helicopters landed on the beach across from Apaylom. It was a surprise attack, and soldiers blew up rafts and mining equipment. After the raid, the units dispersed, leaving a stunned community to reflect on the damage. “I was traumatized,” said Victor Sambrano, the head of the Tambopata Reserve Committee, over coffee in Puerto Maldonado’s central square. He said the Ministry of the Interior told him the raids were coming but promised the Malinowski communities would be spared. He shook his head angrily. “It was just the easiest thing for them. They needed the raid to go well, and it let them look as if they were doing something against illegal mining.”

Armando Carpio, one of Apaylom’s leaders, said the raids forced miners into a vicious cycle of working in order to pay off debts from destroyed machines. This left many miners disillusioned about the formalization process and feeling bitter toward the government. “The perspective was, ‘We worked hard, and we organized to do things right,’” he said. “But once they come and burn your machines, which you bought on credit, you’ll keep working however you can.”

Government officials, however, see things differently. Humberto Cordero, the regional director of Madre de Dios’ Ministry of the Environment, said that, in essence, the raids were the miners’ fault. “Apaylom is in a protected zone,” he said. “They’re working even though they know it’s prohibited.”

In the aftermath of the raid, Apaylom’s efforts toward sustainability were largely lost. The organization that gave them the gold-cleaning machines took them back, and miners returned to using mercury. With no progress toward legalization, the fair-trade gold initiative collapsed.

Since then, the central government has conducted dozens of interdictions against Madre de Dios as part of a national campaign against illegal mining. The raids followed a common pattern: Soldiers from around the country gathered to attack miners in the Pampa or along the rivers and then retreated. Ipenza said the weaknesses of this strategy should have been obvious to anyone familiar with the coca eradication campaigns of the 1990s. “If you push them out of one area,” he said, tapping on the center of the table at a Lima cafe, “and don’t give them any reason to stop, then they’ll just go here next.” He drummed his fingers on a different spot on the table. Aerial surveys show mining penetrating deeper into the jungles of the Andean foothills and the Tambopata National Reserve. Miners, in other words, are heading deeper inland to escape police.

‘The Brazil nut growers, the pineapple growers, the banana farmers — none of them can get gas to run their farms. Now everyone has to break the law to do their job.’

Josue Ayvar Zamorro

Spokesman for Peruvian National Police

Since 2012, the criminalization of mining has swelled the size of the illicit economy and exacerbated Madre de Dios’ already serious governance problems. Thanks to the new laws, anyone who needs more than 5 gallons of gas now has to buy it illegally. This has not stopped mining — in Apaylom, contraband gas is delivered on ox-drawn carts and paid for in contraband gold flake — but it has “forced everyone to be criminals,” said Ayvar, the National Police spokesman. “The Brazil nut growers, the pineapple growers, the banana farmers — none of them can get gas to run their farms. The miners are just a fragment of the population, but now everyone has to break the law to do their job.”

Corruption has gotten worse. Police checkpoints on the highway, set up to search for contraband mercury, gasoline and gold, are notorious for soliciting bribes. Ayvar accused Madre de Dios’ prosecutors and judges of tipping miners off about upcoming raids. But even he did not appear to take operational security especially seriously. (When asked when the next raid would be, he offered to put a journalist on the interdiction-raid email list serve.)

The government raids briefly cut gold production. According to a Reuters study, operations against miners cut output from unregulated Madre de Dios mines by 50 percent from 2013 to 2014. But the following year, production rebounded when police shifted personnel and resources from Madre de Dios — ironically, to confront anti-mining protests against the Southern Copper Corp.’s proposed $1.4 billion corporate copper mine at Tia Maria. The raids provoked strikes and fighting between miners and police in Puerto Maldonado. In the fall of 2014, as the government claimed it would eliminate illegal mining in the region by the end of the year, a pro-mining party swept to power in Madre de Dios on a platform of stopping the raids. Neither side delivered on its promises: Both the raids and the mining continue.

Business as usual

After the marines blew up his raft, Cesar Suracayo walked into the forest with his chainsaw and began cutting down trees. He spent three days building a new raft and then started mining again. Like the rest of the Apaylom miners, he continues to struggle through the formalization process. They face constant friction from the new regional mining ministry, which is controlled by miners and opposes formalization. The Apaylom miners owe back taxes on their land despite not having been legally able to work. If they can’t come to an agreement with the state over the taxes, they’ll lose their mining concessions and be left with nothing.

Meanwhile, in the years since interdiction began, the strict environmental agreements that had held along the Malinowski have been breaking down. According to the Monitoring the Andean Amazon Mapping project, there was a “rapid increase” in deforestation along the Upper Malinowski River from 2013 to 2015, with 85 hectares of forest lost — 160 football fields’ worth. As of July, the once pristine banks bore scars of erosion from unrestricted mining, and miners were moving into the forest.

“They don’t listen to me and Julia anymore,” said Carpio, the Apaylom leader. “With the war that the state has waged on us, the [miners] became more rebellious. Now they don’t have faith in anyone.” Like Dueñas, he spends most of his time in Puerto Maldonado now or on his farm outside town, letting other people run his raft.

So far, Dueñas and Carpio have managed to keep most new arrivals out, but in the last few years, two miners who don’t follow the association’s rules have moved into the community. “They say, ‘You’re my equal. Who are you to tell me what to do?’” he said. He fears that more will come. “What if one day 30 people show up there? Are Julia and I supposed to throw them out ourselves? What if they kill us?”

One humid night in July, a group of Apaylom miners sat in Dueñas’ townhouse by the Puerto Maldonado bus station as a task force of 900 soldiers patrolled the Pampa, burning 40 gold mining camps and destroying machines. The miners speculated how long the raid would last and whether the soldiers would come for them. “They cut off our hands,” one miner said of the ruined equipment before angrily going home. As the night wore on, miners lounged in plastic chairs, wiping at the sweat on their faces and worrying about the mess that might be waiting for them back at their camp. But when the sun rose over the Malinowski, Apaylom was still standing, and the soldiers were on their way home to Puno and Cusco. Suracayo and the miners went back to their rafts, and everything proceeded as before.

This article was supported by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative.