By Alejandro Davila Fragoso
When Meraldo Umiña moved to the Madre De Dios region of Peru in 1983, the toxic gold rush that’s destroyed swaths of Amazon rainforest there was in its infancy. There were no laws regulating informal or illegal mining, and artisanal miners like him were few.
“Gold was cheap,” Umiña, 59, told ThinkProgress in Spanish — “a gram was about $12.” Using simple but still harmful chemical methods, miners worked just by the rivers then, and the gold was easy to get, he said. There was no need to encroach on the jungle, and no financial incentive to use machine-intensive techniques of extraction.
But as the 1980s waned and the 1990s rolled in, the Peruvian economy that had been in shambles improved as insurgency groups were defeated, and corrective macroeconomics took hold. Foreign markets turned their eyes on Peru. The price of gold gradually increased, Umiña said, and people from other areas of the country soon saw the same opportunity he had discovered years before and migrated to Madre de Dios. “People started to invade the lands of established residents,” he said, and “it was hard to control the labor.”
Yet land disputes were just the first bump that mining brought to the least populous department of Peru. Alluvial mining, in which small gold flecks are sifted out of sandy sediments deposited by runoff from the Andes over centuries, has now also caused a wide range of environmental harms that have reached catastrophic levels in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Most miners in Madre de Dios use liquid mercury to extract gold from soils they explore with suction hoses, and during the purifying process, the mercury is burned off and at best recovered in water if miners have the equipment available. Mercury pollution contaminates soil, water, and air — and when it enters the human body, it can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.
Now some four decades after mining moved into Madre de Dios, rivers are polluted, fish are toxic, people have elevated levels of mercury running through their blood, and deforestation is rampant, according to authorities and studies. Between 1999 to 2012, illegal mining in Madre de Dios went from less than 25,000 acres to more than 123,000. For perspective, one acre is roughly the size of a football field, which means large forests that served as biodiverse carbon sinks are instead greenhouse gas emitters thanks to mining machinery, all while soaking up toxic waste.