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Gold rush another blight to ailing Amazon jungle

June 12, 2011

An illegal gold dredge burns on a river near the Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado February 19, 2011. Army forces on Saturday initiated the destruction of illegal gold dredges on the rivers of the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios where every year, about 20,000 hectares of Peruvian rainforest are destroyed and 45 tonnes of mercury pollute the rivers due to illegal gold mining, according to the Environment Ministry. – Reuters Photo

DELTA 1, Peru: A gold rush that accelerated with the onset of the 2008 global recession is compounding the woes of the Amazon basin, laying waste to Peruvian rain forest and spilling tons of toxic mercury into the air and water.

With gold’s price soaring globally as the metal became a hedge against financial uncertainty, the army of small-scale miners in the state of Madre de Dios has swelled to some 40,000. The result: Diesel exhaust sullies the air, trees are toppled to get at the sandy, gold-flecked earth and the scars inflicted on the land are visible on satellite photos.

The work is dangerous and produces a fifth of Peru’s overall annual yield of roughly 175 metric tons of gold that make this country the world’s No. 5 producer. The mining also is almost entirely illegal.

‘‘Extracting an ounce of gold costs from $400 to $500 and the profit is $1,000 per ounce,’’ notes Peru’s environment minister, Antonio Brack. In just a decade, gold has more than tripled in value.

The situation in the southeastern state of Madre de Dios, which borders Brazil and Bolivia, is mirrored in dozens of the countries where gold is similarly mined, and where the desperately poor often end up working for the most unsavory of opportunists. Government controls are mostly futile.

Neighboring Colombia and Ecuador have mounted crackdowns in the past year _ Ecuador’s military last month dynamited 67 pieces of heavy equipment _ but when authorities depart, the diggers troop back and work resumes. In Madre de Dios, the informal production is unrecorded, untaxed and carried out on public lands where claims are awarded by regional officials, many of them grown rich in the process.

As the industry has grown, heavy machinery has moved in bearing Caterpillar, Volvo and other international trademarks into a state the size of Maine or Portugal, whose remotest reaches are believed inhabited by uncontacted Indian tribes.

In February the Peruvian navy dynamited 13 dredges which, working in violation of a government ban, were choking the Madre de Dios river with silt, killing plants and destroying habitats. Protesting laborers blockaded Madre de Dios’ only highway, and at least three people were shot and killed by police sent from Lima.

‘‘One of the big hydraulic dredges we destroyed could easily harvest a kilogram (worth about $45,000) of gold a day,’’ said Brack.

Rather than try to evict the thousands of protesting informal miners, the government decided to work to ‘‘formalize’’ their operations, which have denuded well over 180 square kilometers of jungle in Madre de Dios.

‘‘In practice, nothing happened. They moved against a small percentage of dredges that are not necessarily what hurts the environment most,’’ said Pavel Cartagena, an environmental activist who recently returned to Puerto Maldonado, the state capital, after death threats drove him away for a year.

Brack said the crackdown served notice to local politicians profiting from the industry. ‘‘We found that nearly all the public officials in Puerto Maldonado were involved,’’ the minister said.

‘‘In 2010, the regional mining director had a mining company. His No. 2 had one. His wife had one. His sister had one (as did) the sister of the No. 2. They were all in it. And you think anyone is going to regulate anything?’’

The state prides itself on its biodiversity and attracts eco-tourists for its monkeys, macaws and anacondas. Yet its forest is pocked with craters gouged by grime-coated men who tear the earth away with high-pressure water hoses.

And that is only the beginning. To capture the gold flecks, mostly the size of a grain of sand, mercury is used because it is the cheapest, easiest method. It then seeps into the air and rivers, an estimated 35 tons (32 metric tons) a year in Madre de Dios alone, slowly poisoning people, plants, animals and fish, scientific studies show.

Most of the migrant diggers, who have doubled the state’s population since the early 1990s, arrive nearly penniless. Some are criminals. Some are preteens sold by their parents into servitude, says Feliciano Coila, a lawyer with state child protection services.

The goal of the most ambitious newcomers is to gather enough gold to graduate from peon to subcontractor, put together a crew of a dozen or so miners, provide equipment and buy access to a claim.

‘‘You need a minimum of 50 grams ($2,200 worth of gold) to be invited into a camp’’ to work a claim, said Miguel Herrera, a mining organizer. Unskilled new arrivals generally can amass about a gram a day, currently worth more than $40. It is a princely sum for Peruvian highlanders accustomed to $3-a-day wages.