El Espanol is the preferred mercury brand used by miners in Madre de Dios. Image by Stephen Sapienza. Peru, 2011.

I step out the door of Hotel Paititi, named after a legendary Inca city rich in gold believed to lie hidden within the rainforests of southeast Peru, and onto the streets of Puerto Maldonado, the dusty, dirty, and bustling real-life manifestation of Paititi.

The town has a little of that Wild West feel, with gold shops, casinos, strip clubs and cheap hotels. I walk under the “no prostitution” sign on the main drag and head toward the city’s main plaza. The streets buzz with brightly clothed people in moto-taxis and on motorcycles, which far outnumber the cars of this jungle town.

Just past the plaza I reach a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers. This is the point where Spanish explorer Faustino Maldonado first paddled up the Madre de Dios river and founded Puerto Maldonado in 1902. The city has been a center for extraction industries in the Madre de Dios region ever since.

The early extraction was primarily timber and rubber. It was would-be rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarald who first linked several remote river systems of the Madre de Dios region to access the southern rubber tree forests. He enslaved native peoples to achieve his goal of opening up the region to intense rubber extraction, which would eventually account for as much as 23 percent of Peru's total production by 1915. If you have not seen Werner Herzog’s classic film "Fitzcarraldo," based on the real-life story of Fitzcarald, it is an absolute must-watch movie. Equally if not more entertaining is Les Blank’s documentary "Burden of Dreams," which features several spectacular rants by director Herzog on the challenges of filming in Madre de Dios. In one rant, Herzog warns there is a curse weighing on the land here and “whoever goes to deep into that landscape, has a share of that curse”—wise words that still ring true with many pursuits in this jungle region today.

Standing on the overlook it is impossible to miss the construction of a gigantic new suspension bridge spanning the Madre de Dios River. The bridge, now almost completed, will the provide the final link to a highway, called the Interoceanic Highway, that will stretch from Brazil's Atlantic coast to Peru's Pacific ports. Many here worry that the highway, coupled with rising global gold prices, will flood the region with illegal miners, and accelerate the destruction of one the most bio-diverse rainforests in the world.

I walked the river road, turning a corner toward town, only to be confronted by three snarling street dogs. The biggest of the bunch had my attention as he moved toward me barking loudly, but it would be the smallest dog who out-flanked me and bit my ankle. I jerked my leg and yelped in pain and the dogs backed off. I retreated across the street to inspect the damage. Just a small cut. Maybe one tooth mark in my leg.

More angry than hurt, I headed toward the plaza to meet my fixer, Antonio. I found him and we left for the local hospital, not to treat my wound, but because I already had planned to shoot an interview with a local doctor who studies the health impact of mercury in the region. I set up the sticks and camera for Dr. Carlos Manrique, chief of the Health Department’s epidemiology office, who met us outside the hospital for the interview. He has personally observed miners with symptoms of mercury poisoning—headaches, tremors and gastrointestinal problems—but says health officials here lack the testing equipment and resources to fully evaluate the level of exposure. He says because mercury poisoning is invisible, local authorities still don’t know how serious the problem is. What he does know is the number of miners drawn by the region’s gold rush continues to rise, and mercury continues to slowly poison the people, plants, animals and fish of Madre de Dios.

I think about getting my dog bite looked at by the hospital staff when a wounded miner arrives by taxi. He’s hunched over, clutching his ribcage in a huge amount of pain. They help him slowly move toward the emergency room. His friends say they were cutting down a tree in a mining area when he was struck by a falling tree limb. I wonder if the rainforest is fighting back or perhaps that Werner Herzog is right—this man has found his share of the curse.

It’s happy hour in the blazing heat of Puerto Maldonado. Antonio and I sit in a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas talking about our plans for work in the lawless La Pampa mining region later that week, and waiting for his mining contact, a man called Juan to arrive. The small-scale miners in Madre de Dios fall into two categories: those with concessions and those without concessions, or illegal miners. Juan falls somewhere in between. He is a slightly chubby, good humored native man in his late 30s who pays for access to mine on a large concession about 40 miles from Puerto Maldonado. This is how most miners in Madre de Dios get access to land. What they share in common with illegal miners is an utter disregard for the environment driven by the tireless pursuit of gold. Antonio has arranged for me to visit Juan's mining area, so I see how small-scale mining operations work. Juan says to get ready for a 5 a.m. pickup and I can't wait to escape this gritty city for the day.

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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