© WWF / Dado Galdieri

The gates of hell

 In June 2011, WWF staff writer Gretchen Lyons visited southeastern Peru to understand the threats and opportunities for conservation in the Amazon. Gold mining is one such threat.
 The alarm sounded at 3:30 a.m. Again. At 4:00 we departed Puerto Maldonado, a city that reminds me of a teenage boy – growing too fast, slightly greasy and pocked, alternately well behaved, raucous or ill tempered. This is the capital of Peru’s Madre de Dios region, where tourists in quick-dry pants set off to explore the Amazon, and illiterate millionaires sell the flecks, specks and nuggets of gold they have managed to wrest from the earth.

Madre de Dios is a crucible where strong and contradictory forces are colliding, with uncertain but undeniable consequences for the region’s people, wildlife and landscapes. It is home to 45 per cent of Peru’s protected areas, including iconic Alto Purus and Manu national parks, and 60 per cent of its ecotourism concessions. It is also home to an estimated 40,000 miners, the vast majority of whom are working illegally. This means they are not beholden to environmental regulations, nor do they enjoy any social protections.

This “anything goes” atmosphere is fueled by a global gold market that seems to have no upper limit. The ounce that traded for US$600 in 2006 had doubled in price to US$1,200 in 2010, and was going for US$1,600 in July 2011. I guess it’s hard to keep your head when it seems like there’s free money buried in the soil beneath your feet. The closer we got to our destination, the mining town Huepetuhe, the more visible the symptoms of epidemic gold fever became.

Along the way, we drove through a shantytown that had recently sprung up on both sides of the highway. “Las puertas del infierno,” remarked our seasoned photographer. The gates of hell. Ever on the lookout for a good story, he asked if we could stop and poke around. “No. Four people were killed there last month,” was the driver’s answer. We drove on.

The triple threat: cows, trees and gold

Through that gauntlet, the way became more rural. We passed hectare after hectare of empty pasture. “Where are the cows?” I asked. “Probably dead from drinking ‘el agua metalico’,” deadpanned the driver, referring to the mercury used in gold mining, which is dumped straight into the rivers after use.

In truth, the cows were just spread over vast tracks of land. Cattle ranching in this part of Peru is expansive and inefficient – the poor soil of the Amazon doesn’t support very nutritious fodder, so each head needs a hectare or more of pasture to graze. Seeing the deforestation caused by farming was good perspective – while we were going to learn about the relatively new and aggressive scourge of mining, the forests of Madre de Dios already face the “chronic” threats of logging and agriculture.

All that glitters…

It’s hard to feel relief when arriving in Huepetuhe. The muddy roads lead only two directions – to the mines or away from them. In between are chicken restaurants, mechanics’ shops and public showers and toilets. But still, the drive had been long and rough – probably little had improved since the early pioneers settled this mining outpost some 30 years ago – so it was good to step out of the truck.

We started our visit with a brief conversation with the mayor. Suffice to say, one would have to be a little crazy to want to try to govern Huepetuhe. Still, I was grateful for this sage advice: “Of course you can talk to people and take pictures. Just don’t breathe a word about the environment.”

Not surprisingly, miners have a combative relationship with the Ministry of Environment. “We don’t want any reports that will bring the state down on our heads,” one miner told us, a thinly veiled threat issued during a barrage of questions about our purpose and intentions. In other words, nothing that would add urgency and national and international support for the regulations that are so sorely lacking.

But in a quieter conversation with two sisters who were doing laundry and watching their children play in one of the small lakes formed by mine runoff, we didn’t need to skirt the issue of the environment. The women are two of the rare lifelong residents of Huepetuhe, and they have seen plenty of changes. “This used to be all forest before the big machines came. Now they are the only ones that can get the gold. We put screens in the river to try to catch what they miss. If we’re lucky we might get a gram a day,” said one. “If I could change one thing it would be that the big machines go away. But that’s not going to happen. More come every day."

Making mining pay

This is the recurring theme when talking about mining in Peru: It’s not going away. Mining preys on the hopes of the poor, and each day, more people give up traditional livelihoods in hopes of finding their fortune underground. Can the industry be made to pay to support their aspirations instead?

Leaving Huepetuhe behind and crossing the Rio Inambarí as the sun began to set, we stopped to chat with several “artisanal” miners. This quaint misnomer could lead you to think that work done by hand isn’t harmful to the environment. You’d be wrong. The scale of destruction is smaller than in major mining centres, but the riverbanks are still deforested, the earth still dug up and washed into the river, the toxic chemicals still used and discarded without precaution. Multiply this by the tens of thousands of hands at work, and it becomes clear that the big machines aren’t the only threat to the Amazon.

The men we met on the riverbank have yet to strike it rich. However, if Peru’s gold resources were managed properly, they wouldn’t need to hit pay dirt in order to benefit. If regulated, the mining industry would finance schools, hospitals, roads and police; but, as it is, only a fraction of the gold taken is certified and taxed. The mayor of Huepetuhe lamented, anyone who challenges the system is called an “enemy of the miners”, and is likely to lose his or her office, at a minimum.

Despite the opposition, courageous individuals and groups are working to change the rules of the game. This is the only way to stop people and rivers from being poisoned with mercury, to protect forests that regulate our climate and to turn Peru’s wealth of natural resources into the foundation for a prosperous, green economy.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 The desolate, denuded landscape of Huepetuhe shatters romantic notions of the lush Amazon rainforest.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
Farmer Pedro Racua crosses the Interoceanic Highway with his bull near La Novia, Peru.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Cattle ranching in the Amazon is notoriously inefficient, with hugh swaths of forest cut to graze small herds.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 The children of Huepetuhe bathe and play in water that runs off the gold mines.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
 Gold dust glitters from the dark mud picked from the Inambari riverbanks in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
© WWF / Dado Galdieri
Self-employed miner Michael Frano has yet to strike it rich in Madre de Dios.