Huepetuhe, Peru was a gold mining boomtown until the government took action against illegal mining. Events such as terminating gasoline shipments and sending troops to destroy mining machinery have caused more than 22,000 people to leave the town, leaving only 3,000. In the people’s absence, Huepetuhe’s reliance on the gold market became clear. Mayor Marco Ortega says, “the economy has collapsed”; without gold, hardware stores, hotels, and other town businesses have shut down.
Huepetuhe is part of the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon, which over the past ten years has been exploited for its gold. Miners have extracted 159 million metric tons of gold, an amount that could sell for about $7 billion. The profit from gold comes at an extreme cost to the Amazon environment as areas are hacked and destroyed in order to reach the ground where gold is embedded. Once the vegetation is stripped away, mercury is added to bind to the gold and make it easier to sift out of the sediment. Mercury is toxic to the environment and people, contaminating water sources and accumulating in the food chain.
Since the government crackdown, miners are out of work and struggle to support their families. One man, Joel Maceda, operated mining machines, earning a little over one thousand dollars a month. Due to new mining restrictions, his wife helps to make up for the lack of income needed to feed themselves and two children. The government intends to provide replacement jobs for former miners, but Ortega says that they are still waiting on this relief.