I stumble out the door of the hotel at 5 a.m. and make it to the taxi with my sleepy eyes barely able to focus. Waiting inside is Juan, a local miner who runs a small-scale mining operation on a large concession about 40 miles from Puerto Maldonado. I felt lucky to get the front seat, until I noticed a previous passenger left a spider-web imprint with his forehead on the windshield directly in front of me.
The driver revs the engine and within minutes we hit the new roundabout on the edge of town, merging with other morning traffic on the Interoceanic Highway, which at this hour consists of a couple stray dogs and a lone moto-taxi.
After 50 minutes on the dark highway, we abruptly pull off and stop at a large gate that is the entrance to the mining concession. Juan pays a toll to the guard and the taxi bumps down the road. Morning sunlight pierces the tree branches as a lush jungle landscape reveals itself out the window. The taxi halts at a small path that disappears into the forest. Camera and tripod in hand, I follow Juan down a path and soon we’re walking between large, conical piles of stones about 10 to 15 feet tall and at least as wide. The area is stripped of trees and the muddy ground has become a soft, pliable sand. We soon pass a large open pit, filled with shallow, brown water and three men wrenching on a diesel motor at the base of a crude, wooden ramp-like structure. We say buenos dias and they reply in Portuguese. “Brazilians,” Juan mutters under his breath. We pass a small mining camp, then more pits and more small-scale miners, all preparing for the day’s work.
The mining in the Madre de Dios region is not done deep within mountains, but instead in the alluvial deposits of existing and old river courses. These areas contain sediments rich in small flecks of gold that are extracted manually with the use of water pumps, floating dredges, bulldozers and cranes. The soil we walk across is within the one hundred year flood plain of the Madre de Dios River and it is loaded with nutrients that produce lush trees and vegetation, host to all kinds of jungle critters big and small.
As we walk, Juan tells me that the owner invites miners to excavate different plots on the property and that each is expected to give 10 percent of the daily haul of gold back to the owner. Juan says his mine is legal, but I heard later that the entire concession was never fully approved as a mining area by the government. At any rate, all mines here are supposed to comply with local environmental laws, but none of the mines in this concession has ever been certified as environmentally sound by local authorities.
We arrive at a large muddy clearing with several tall wooden sluices placed around the edges of a large open mining pit. It’s just past sunrise and the miners are already pulling thick, dark, bristled carpets off the wooden sluices, rolling them up and walking them down a hill of gravel into the mining pit. The motorized pumps are silent, having run through the early morning, sending a chocolate slurry cascading across the carpets, trapping heavy particles—small stones and soil weighted with with prospect of gold—in the thick bristles.
Most of these miners are young, single men who took the new highway from either Cusco or the Puno highlands over 450 miles away. They are part of the wave of some 20,000 migrants who have been lured away from farming or agriculture-related business in search of fortune. Some strike it rich, but most miners earn about $300 to $700 a month in the Madre de Dios gold rush. Not a lot of money, but enough to keep them from returning to the farm.
Standing in ankle-deep water at the bottom of the pit, two men rhythmically shake the sediment from the carpets over a wooden box lined with a blue plastic tarp, while other men bring the next round of carpets. After an hour or so of shaking sediment into the wooden box, I watch the men pick up a corner of the tarp and carefully pour the heavy sediment into waiting buckets. The buckets are then dumped into open-topped petrol drums.
With the heavy sediment in the petrol drums, the miners add water and about three tablespoons of mercury from a small bottle. A miner then takes his rubber boot off one foot, sticks his leg in the barrel, and begins to swirl his leg in a clockwise motion to agitate the mercury and sediment. As the mercury swirls with the soil and water, the heavier gold particles are attracted to, and cling to the mercury, forming bigger and bigger clumps of a mercury and gold amalgam at the bottom of the barrel. I ask the miner if he worries about his bare skin being in contact with the mercury. He assures me that mercury is only dangerous for women, especially pregnant women, and that he is safe. The miner tells me that mercury is easy to get in the region, and it is sold in mining supply shops without government registration or restrictions. The latest study, by the NGO Caritas, found that over 50 tons of mercury are used by small-scale miners in the Madre de Dios region each year. Globally, small-scale mines like this one are believed responsible for one-third of all mercury released into the environment—an average of 1,000 tons per year. And with gold prices reaching record highs, the demand for mercury will only go up.
After 45 minutes of stirring, the miners dump the water and lighter sediment back into the muddy pond, leaving the heavier sediment and mercury at the bottom of the barrel. The process of stirring and rinsing is repeated a couple more times, each time reducing the amount of heavier sediments at the bottom of the barrel, until finally the heaviest sediments—small stones, and a gold mercury amalgam—are all that remain at the bottom of the barrel. With a careful hand, the mercury and gold mixture is dumped into a shallow bowl, and the miners cheerily crowd around and start to guess out loud the gram weight of the gold. Trente-seis, trente, trente-cinco…until I’m told that the gold probably weighs about 40 grams. The next stop for the miners will be at the local gold shop, where the mercury will be cooked off and the true weight of the gold revealed.
Juan and I bid farewell to the miners, and climb the steep gravel slope out of the pit. On our way back out of the mining area, we pass huge tree stumps, and trudge through bleached sand that once was nutrient-rich forest floor. On the riverbank, Juan points to a destroyed draga, a large illegal mining barge that was destroyed last February by government helicopters in a military action designed to halt illegal mining on the rivers. We jump into a small motorized canoe and travel down the Madre de Dios to a tiny river port. As we climb the steep hill up from the river to the local taxi spot, we pass men carrying gold mining supplies—suction hoses, PVC pipes, buckets, and petrol cans—down to the waiting boats.
On the taxi ride back to Puerto Maldonado, I was in the middle of telling Juan my plans to visit La Pampa—ground zero of illegal mining along the Interoceanic Highway—when the cab driver suddenly turned up the radio. The governor of the Madre de Dios region was strongly denouncing the runaway destruction and environmental damage caused by illegal mining to the rainforests and rivers of the region. He also declared a state of emergency on behalf of the environment, threatening that the government would take all means necessary to halt illegal mining operations in the region. Juan leaned forward from the backseat and told me it was bad idea for me to go to La Pampa the next day—he said it was “too hot” now and the miners there would not want to see my camera. I took Juan’s comment seriously, but I had two invitations to visit the illegal mining area to see the destruction, and I was curious to see if there would be any government action to halt the miners, so when I got back to the hotel I put the camera batteries on recharge.