LA PAMPA, Peru (AP) — They sweat through 28-hour shifts in the malarial jungle of the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru, braving the perils of collapsing earth and limb-crushing machinery to come up with a few grams of gold.
Most illegal miners hail from impoverished highlands communities and even here barely earn subsistence wages. They chew coca leaf, a mild stimulant, to ward off the fatigue that can lead to fatal accidents.
Life is cheap in the mining camps. Deaths go unrecorded and the mercury miners use to bind the gold compounds the risks. Tons of mercury dumped into the environment poisons the food chain for society at large, starting with the miners and their families.
Peru’s government wants to end all that, rooting out the estimated 20,000 wildcat miners whose toil has left a huge scar of denuded Amazon rainforest known as La Pampa, an area nearly three times the size of Washington, D.C.
Peru’s government declared all informal mining illegal on April 19 and began a crackdown. It raided the older boomtown of Huepetuhe, dynamiting backhoes, trucks and generators. Troops even destroyed the outboard motors of canoes used to ferry mining equipment across the Inambari river.
In La Pampa, miners fear they are next. Their gasoline supplies have already been choked off by authorities.
Some buried their equipment after the crackdown began only to unearth it days later when no raid came. But come it eventually will, the government says, because there no legal mining concessions exist in La Pampa.
The government’s point man on eradicating illegal mining, Daniel Urresti, says the real criminals aren’t the miners, but an estimated 50 people they work for, who own the illegal machinery and buy the gold.
People in La Pampa say that if the authorities eradicate their livelihood, it must make good on promises to provide employment alternatives.
“Motors are my life. I’m a mechanic. If the government comes and destroys them, then from what will I and my family live?” said Leoncio Condori.
The 51-year-old, a native of the Andes city of Cuzco, has been fixing motors in La Pampa ever since artisanal gold miners began carving out lawless, ramshackle settlements from Amazon jungle there in 2008.
Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno and Frank Bajak in Lima contributed to this report.
In this May 4, 2014 photo, a miner holds an amalgam of mercury and gold he mined after working a 28-hour shift at an illegal gold mining process, in La Pampa, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Thousands of artisanal gold miners sweat through the long shifts and endure, for a few grams of gold, the perils of collapsing earth, limb-crushing machinery and the toxic mercury used to bind gold flecks.
In this May 3, 2014 photo, a jet stream of water passes above two miners known as “Maraqueros” who remove stones and chunks of tree trunks that have been released with the aid of a rustic type of hydraulic jet known locally as a “Chupadera,” in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. The Chupadera aims powerful jet streams of water at earth walls, releasing the soils that hold the sought after flecks of gold.
In this May 4, 2014 photo, a miner uses a boot to fill with water the radiator of a rustic type of hydraulic jet known locally as a “Chupadera,” used to to mine for gold at a gold mine process in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Miners sweat through 28-hour shifts in the malarial jungle of the Madre de Dios region in southeaster Peru, enduring for a few grams of gold the perils of collapsing earth and limb-crushing machinery.
In this May 4, 2014 photo, a miner continues his search for gold in mud-drenched clothes inside a crater at an illegal gold mine process in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. The informal miners of La Pampa know they will soon be evicted, their engines blown up and settlements burned after Peru’s government declared all informal mining illegal on April 19. The government claims that the informal miners have destroyed the surrounding forests and polluted the environment by using mercury in the gold extraction process.
In this May 3, 2014 photo, Prisaida, 2, sits in the shallow waters of a polluted lagoon as her parents mine for gold nearby, in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. The lagoon emerged as a result of miners bombarding the earth with jet streams of water in search of gold. The miners know they will be soon be evicted, Peru’s government declared all informal mining illegal on April 19.
In this May 5, 2014 photo, a motortaxi delivers a cargo of mattresses to a mining camp in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. An estimated 20,000 wildcat miners toil in the malarial expanse of denuded rainforest known as La Pampa, an area nearly three times the size of Washington, D.C
In this May 5, 2014 photo, after it stopped raining, Johan tied his father’s raincoat around himself while playing in the front yard of their temporary home next to their satellite tv dish at a mining camp in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. It’s not just miners who are threatened with economic catastrophe from the government’s campaign to wipe out illegal mining operations, said a mining camp cook. For every miner there is a family that eats because he works, she said.
In this May 5, 2014 photo, a sex worker who is employed by an informal bar playfully sticks out her tongue while posing for a photo, outside her place of her employment in La Pampa in Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Since artisanal gold mining took hold in La Pampa, miners began carving a lawless, series of ramshackle settlement out of the Amazonian jungle territory in 2008.