Peru’s Headache: A gold rush and a mercury flush

By Raquel Orejas, Forestry Project Coordinator at Nature Services Peru

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Madre de Dios, a colorfully-named region in Southern Peru, was overlooked by explorers and locals alike until gold was found there in the early 1990s. In their relentless Andean search for El Dorado, Spanish conquistadores in the 15th century did not even bother searching for the mineral in the remote area.  It wasn’t even until the construction of the Interoceanica road  – linking the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans via Brazil – that the region became accessible by land.

Gold comes from the Andes where, after millions of years locked in geological formations, it now rests in the floodplains and rivers of Madre de Dios. There, the process of extracting is simple and inexpensive: migrants come from all over the country, purchase or rent a small boat, a suction dredge (basically a powerful underwater vacuum cleaner) and small amounts of mercury.

Madre de Dios is a hotspot for biodiversity, what with the biggest national park in the country, Manu National Park, growing ecotourism and Brazil nut production

What it isn’t a hotspot for, however, is legal gold mining. Indeed, 99% of current mining in Madre de Dios is illegal, making illegal gold mining an even bigger illicit revenue stream than the drug trade.

The consequences are devastating.  Since gold is concentrated in thin layers between the surface and few meters underground, deforestation is inevitable.  Furthermore, miners in order to separate gold from rocks and soil use mercury., and handle it in unscrupulous ways. Studies show that, beyond the immediate exposure amongst miners, mercury intake levels by other locals are many times higher than World Health Organization recommendations. Moreover, agriculture producers, wood concessions and indigenous communities are suffering from mine invasions, increasing violence and the social conflicts that result from a disorganized resource rush.

In February last year, the Peruvian government decided to establish a gold mining zone comprising 500,000-hectares , requiring all miners interested in developing the area to register. After conducting interviews with agriculture groups this week in Puerto Maldonado, capital of Madre de Dios, it is clear that even the meager efforts of the government are not abating this worrisome development. The irony is, despite the quick profits that can be made from gold, many of these brazil nut and other crop producers are hoping that, among the riches in their soil gold isn’t one of them.

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