Part of the Amazon rainforest, devastated by destructive mining methods.

More illicitly mined gold comes from Peru than any other country in the world, amounting to billions of dollars worth of gold exported every year. Informal or illicit mining now controls an estimated 20% of Peru’s gold, though in certain regions like Madre de Dios, that number may be close to 100%. Its profits now surpass the illicit drug trade in Peru.

But how has illicit activity this big managed to stay in the shadows for so long?  It may have started on a small scale, with individuals from poor communities extracting gold here and there via “artisanal” methods, in hopes of improving economic circumstances for themselves and their families. But while illicit miners continue to hide behind this image of the artisanal miner, the reality is much darker and deeper. Current government efforts are focused on the criminal organizations that now control gold mining enterprises. “We’re not going after the single mother who is panning for gold in a stream,” said Ernesto Raez of the Ministry of the Environment. “The problem is the gold mining mafia, and it goes very high up.”

“Informal” mining means that these miners exist outside the reach of any laws or regulations that could protect them and the environment currently being destroyed by invasive and outdated methods. Without legal recognition, mining bosses are under no obligation to protect workers’ safety, or prevent contamination of the environment. The Peruvian government has given informal mining operations the chance to register with the government on the condition that they receive legal authorization to use the lands where they are mining. Once they become formalized, miners must abide by the law. So far they have received 70,000 applications, about half of which are in the process of formalization; many others, which the government finds “suspicious,” will not be approved.

Bringing informal miners into the light would help not only workers and their communities, but also bring more revenue into the nation’s economy.  However, many mining communities continue to resist government influence in regions that were previously a gold free-for-all. AAF is working with a coalition of government groups and NGOs towards developing strategies for supporting the Peruvian government and people in this struggle while protecting the natural wonders of the Amazon.