GOLD HAS BECOME SOUTH AMERICA’S MOST ILLICIT COMMODITY

A gold buyer in La Pampa displays a recently purchased flake of pure gold extracted from the mines. All photos by the author

Peru has the second-largest amount of rain forest in the world, but swaths of it are rapidly disappearing. Illegal gold mining—farmers digging up ore and selling it on the black market, so that it may eventually end up wrapped around your fiancée’s finger—is one major cause. According to former environmental minister Antonio Brack Egg, gold mining has devastated nearly 370,000 acres of the Peruvian Amazon. That’s an elevenfold increase since 2000. Because of the devastation, criminality, and profits that have risen in tandem with the illicit trade, some analysts have started calling gold South America’s “new cocaine.”

This April, during a turbulent thunderstorm, I arrived in the city of Puerto Maldonado, a hub of the industry located in the southwestern Amazon jungle. With no taxis in sight, I asked a woman selling snacks outside the airport for directions. She pointed east, toward the city. I began the soggy trek along a jungle road, my feet sinking in mud.

Within half an hour, I began to see streets filled with people and shuttered businesses, storefronts draped with signs reading: “Viva El Paro,” or “Long Live the Strike.”

Because of the environmental devastation (and international pressure to stop it), the Peruvian government has tried a variety of approaches to put an end to illegal mining. On March 25, a month before my visit, the government began reducing gasoline supplies to the region—depriving the miners of fuel for running the pumps and excavators they use to extract small bits of gold from the ground. In response, miners blocked traffic on the Interoceanic Highway for weeks, staged hunger strikes, and marched through the streets of Puerto Maldonado and nearby Mazuco. One miner died, and 50 were injured in clashes with police.

Now, just before my arrival in town, the government had declared that they were going to officially end all mining in the region—by military means or otherwise. But the 30,000 gold miners in Madre de Dios are some of the poorest people in Peru, and mining is their only source of income. They weren’t going to stop digging for gold without a fight. That’s what I was here to see.

A hunger-strike protester in Puerto Maldonado

In the city’s center plaza, I met Antonio Fernandini, an anthropologist who has been living in Madre de Dios for 22 years. Squeezing through a small metal door, we entered a restaurant that was serving coffee in secrecy, the scene reminiscent of a speakeasy. (All businesses were banned by the illegal miner’s union from operating during the strike.) Smoke crawled through the room while groups of old men hunkered down at small tables, sipping their steaming drinks, playing cards.

Antonio has been working hand in hand with both indigenous groups and miners in the region. He began to explain exactly why people were so upset about the government’s decision to cut off the region’s gas supply.

“Every day, ten to 20 trucks carrying 5,000 gallons of gasoline are used by illegal miners,” he said. “The miners need the gasoline to operate their machinery.”

Paco, a man at the table to my left who runs a local restaurant called Amazónica, said the strikes have been hurting business for everyone in Puerto Maldonado. Nonetheless, he sympathizes with the miners.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” he said. “Why attack gold miners? Why not focus their energy on cocaine producers in the Ayacucho region? That’s the real problem in Peru.”

But some analysts think illegal gold may be more important—and more dangerous—than cocaine.

Since illegal gold mining intensified 13 years ago, miners have not only razed the rain forest—they’ve also released 30 tons of mercury into the country’s rivers and lakes, according to the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Ecosystem Project.

Luisa Ríos Romero, who works for the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, an NGO, says the mercury, a highly potent toxin, is contaminating the local fish and entering the food chain.

“The mercury is detrimental to local wildlife and, more important, the miners and their families living near the mines,” she said. “Most of the people here suffer from mercury poisoning.”

An aerial view of the Tambopata reserve

Just before dawn the next day, I waited near the market with a few others until a local driver had enough passengers to fill his car. The taxi took us an hour outside the city on the Interoceanic Highway, to an area known as La Pampa, part of a nationally protected reserve called Tambopata. But the Tambopata National Reserve had been invaded. Stretched alongside the road, a small shantytown had sprung up at the entrance to the mines. The town bustled with motorbikes and street vendors; wood shacks draped in blue and black tarps lined the dirt streets. Small markets, mechanics, pharmacies, and brothels were among the many places of business.

On a side street tucked behind a woman selling corn juice, I met Abel Quisper, 23, a laborer at the mines. He agreed to take me into the jungle where he worked. I gripped the seat of his motorcycle, and we ripped through a narrow dirt trail surrounded by lush trees. Shouting over his shoulder, he said we needed to move fast, because there were often thieves along this trail waiting to rob miners of their gold.

As the pathway came to an end we exited the jungle. For miles, mines stretched out, undulating waves of dirt forming a bleak desert landscape. We scrambled over dunes and scurried farther into the camp where Abel works. He told me he’d been in the mines for a little more than a year and works 24-hour shifts with a team of nine others, making 100 soles—$35—a shift.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “Most days I am tired and hungry, but I feel lucky to have money for my family.” Abel migrated from Cuzco with his wife and daughter. Like many miners here, he cited the worldwide surge in gold prices—more than 300 percent in the past decade—as a factor that drew him in search of the gold buried beneath the forest.

We parked the bike next to a dilapidated shack that he and the others stay in. I was greeted with gringo jokes from the other miners, who chuckled while eating a meal of rice and potatoes. With mosquitoes swarming around us, we moved over to a swamp, where Abel began to work. He wore no protective equipment, and sweat slickened his face. Abel jumped onto a large, floating machine that sucked dirt from the bottom of a vast, water-filled hole in the earth. I followed close behind.

“In Cuzco there were no jobs,” he said, screaming over the sound of the roaring engine. “I didn’t have a chance to go to school because I was working at a very young age to help support my parents. This is the only work there is.”

Abel Quisper, 23, a miner in La Pampa

Eventually we returned to shore, and I flagged down a motorcycle heading back into town. We breezed along the narrow trail to the shanties. The brothels that lined the road had become busier, with young girls sitting outside talking to men. I paced around for a minute before walking into a colorful shack draped in Christmas lights.

Every year thousands of girls under the age of 18 are lured into child-prostitution rings operating in the area. They are brought from all over the country to brothels such as this one, which have sprung up in the mining towns to service the workers.

Inside, men swigged beer while young women flitted about. The stench of sweat fell over me like a wet blanket, almost unbearable. Standing at the bar, a young woman named Mariana approached me with a smile. I asked her how old she was, and she said she was 18. “Really?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I’m 15.” She was from Puno and had been working in La Pampa for a few months.

“My family thinks I am living with a friend, working at a restaurant,” she said. “My father would die if he found out what I was doing.”

Behind the bar, a tapestry had been draped over a door. As I passed through the entrance, a makeshift dormitory became visible. About 20 small bedrooms were divided by blue plastic tarps, the rooms only big enough to fit a small bed and plastic lawn chair. These are the girls’ bedrooms and offices, where they take clients to have sex. Abruptly, I left the brothel. I took a taxi back to Puerto Maldonado, the red sun setting on the devastated horizon.

Teenage prostitutes sit in a nightclub near gold mines. Thousands of young girls are trafficked into such brothels each year. Photo from amazonaid.org

On April 29 the military entered La Pampa. As I flew over the region in a government helicopter, the environmental destruction was clear to see. The area looked like a desert carved out of the jungle. With few trees left standing, this vast void is one of thousands being chiseled away today in the Amazon.

On the ground, the sound of exploding machinery assaulted the ears. Smoke rose from the disassembled pumps, and the earth shook as people scattered. They said they had seen this coming but were enraged nonetheless.

“We are not criminals; we are workers,” a man named Humberto Ugarte screamed. “We are not drug traffickers. We are hardworking Peruvians. We are families.”

Ugarte, a tattered old man, was joined by a large group of people shouting at officers, who were dismantling shacks and piling up machinery to bomb.

“What will we do now?” Ugarte yelled at the crowd. “We need to work. We are going to starve.”

A Special Forces police officer stands and observes the destruction from the raid.

A pile of motors and equipment is ignited in the makeshift town known as Mega 13, a sector of La Pampa.


This story originally appeared in Vice August 6, 2014.
See more of Michael Mullady’s work on his website and on Instagram.