By Carla Samon Ros
Puerto Maldonado, Peru, Oct 6 (EFE).- A barren and muddy wasteland is all that is left of what used to be a lush Peruvian jungle that was pillaged during the so-called gold rush which transformed the area into a criminal hub of illegal mining.
Some 25,000 hectares of Amazonian jungle have been destroyed in La Pampa, Peru’s largest illegal gold mining area in the Tambopata national reserve located in the Madre de Dios region.
Despite pouring millions into the region to avoid deforestation on a massive scale and environmental pollution, organized crime is rife and the region has seen an escalation of violence, especially against women, and human trafficking.
“In La Pampa, there is no state presence or any authority that is in control of everything that unfolds there,” Madre de Dios regional governor Luis Hidalgo told EFE.
PERU’S WILD WEST
Deep in La Pampa there is a town with no name. Its 40,000 strong-population devotes itself primarily to illegal mining, the provincial prosecutor in charge of environmental issues of Madre de Dios, who requested anonymity, told Efe.
In this makeshift city, luxury is sparse, but there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, bars and, above all, brothels. The dimly lit saloons conjure images of cowboys in the Old West.
The growth of mining camps in the area was coupled with a sharp spike in gold prices in 2011 when the metal reached $2,000 per ounce, and the completion of the Interoceanic Highway, which connects Brazil and Peru.
The gold rush has caused irrevocable environmental damage. As well as the ruthless felling of trees, the use of mercury to extract gold is highly toxic and has affected the health of local people.
“They are exactly the same procedures that were done at the time of the Californian gold rush (…). Nothing has changed,” environmental activist Víctor Zambrano told Efe.
BEGGARS SITTING ON GOLD
Before reaching the refineries, the gold, which sells at around 200 soles ($48) per gram, is smuggled across the border between Brazil and Bolivia.
Seventy percent of gold production in Peru is sourced in Madre Dios. Despite the area heavily relying on mining, with around 70% economic activities related to metal extraction, only 10% is legal.
Clamping down on the black market would cripple the region. Regulating mining could secure the region the 2.5 billion soles ($600 million) a year that is lost through tax evasion, according to the governor’s calculations.
“We should receive 5% of everything that is extracted (…), but they do not leave us a single sol,” lamented Hidalgo.
People of Madre Dios are “beggars sitting on a bench of gold”, Hidalgo said, quoting Italian explorer Antonio Raimondi who once described Peru in those terms.
The Peruvian government launched Plan Mercurio in February 2019, a mega-operation that resulted in dozens of arrests, rescuing of victims of human trafficking and deportations of illegal miners.
According to the Monitoring of Deforestation in the Amazon (MAP), deforestation by gold mining in La Pampa plummeted by 90% after the operation.