Illegal mining on the Madre de Dios river. Image by Stephen Sapienza. Peru, 2011.
Illegal mining in Guacamayo turns rainforest to desert. Image by Stephen Sapienza. Peru, 2011.
Aerial of illegal mining in Madre de Dios rainforest. Image by Stephen Sapienza. Peru, 2011.

The plane from Cusco broke through the low-lying clouds to reveal the tiny airport of Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the remote and unruly Madre de Dios region of Peru.

There are basically two reasons people come to Puerto Maldonado: rainforest tourism and gold. I’m here for the latter—well, actually to report on the extraction of gold.

At baggage claim I study the exuberant faces of European and South American tourists who have come to explore one of the most biologically rich and unique places on Earth. Bags in hand, the tourists climb into waiting safari transports bound for the surrounding lodges in the Tombopata Nature Reserve. I scan the crowd for my fixer, Antonio, and my eyes briefly lock on two gruff-looking, weather-beaten characters standing in the midst of the clean-shaven, neatly dressed jungle tour operators. As soon as “I hope those dudes aren’t here to meet me” crosses my mind, they call to me and wave me over.

We roll into town in Antonio’s beat-up Toyota compact, stopping at a restaurant just off the main plaza in Puerto Maldonado. Over a couple of cold Cusqueñas and some pollo a la plancha, Antonio tells me of his move to the Madre de Dios region from Lima some 15 years ago. It was Antonio's fascination with wildlife that drew him to Peru’s raw, untamed Madre de Dios Amazon region, but it was his efforts to save the endangered Harpy eagle that propelled him deeper into the region’s indigenous and rural communities. Today, he's a well-regarded Peruvian biologist, dedicated to the conservation of the Amazon rainforest. He maintains strong contacts with people who live and work throughout the region.

Antonio, like many residents of Puerto Maldonado, is alarmed by a gold rush that is drawing thousands of migrants from Peru's poor highlands to the rainforests and rivers of Madre de Dios.

A growing legion of 20,000 people are believed to live off the profits of illegal gold mining here. Many are armed, operating with little fear of interference from environmental groups or local law enforcement. Thousands of tons of nutrient-rich soil and forests have disappeared or been buried beneath waste left by years of intense illegal mining. For every gram of gold, it takes up to three times more mercury to extract it. It’s estimated that gold mining activity annually releases more than 35 tons of toxic mercury into the air and rivers of Madre de Dios, poisoning the food chain.

Of course, it’s the global demand for gold, with the metal becoming a hedge against financial uncertainty, that’s driving illegal mining in Madre de Dios. By the time I cross the threshold of my hotel this evening, the price of gold has reached $1669.25 an ounce, a new record high.

Project

A third of a million Peruvians make their living from gold mining, but illegal tactics and deforestation methods are damaging the environment and inflicting health risks on the local population.

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