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Gold Lures Illegal Miners to Peru’s Rainforests

November 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In southeastern Peru, where the Andes Mountains meet the Amazon, lies one of the world's richest ecosystems and the destructive lure of gold. In a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Steve Sapienza reports on illegal gold mining in Peru.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the destructive lure of gold in the remote reaches of Peru.

Our report is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

It comes from special correspondent Steve Sapienza in Peru.

STEVE SAPIENZA: In southeastern Peru, where the Andes Mountains meet the Amazon lies one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

Roughly the size of California, the Madre de Dios region not only attracts tourists, but also those trying to cash in on this region’s abundant natural resources. Rampant illegal gold mining has authorities here scrambling to protect the Amazon’s last untouched tracts of rain forest. At stake are countless rare plant and animal species and the sanctity of indigenous tribes, some still living in self-imposed isolation.

Rising gold prices and the near-complete Brazil-Peru Interoceanic Highway have combined to propel fortune hunters deeper and deeper into the Amazon. A few hundred miners first settled along the new highway in 2007. Now dozens of ramshackle mining towns line the road, catering to every need and desire of the miners. Close to 30,000 people tied to mining activity now call the region home, with more arriving daily.

In the region’s capital, Puerto Maldonado, recent efforts by local officials to halt illegal mining have been met with violence.

JOSE LUIS AGUIRRE, Department of Madre de Dios (through translator): This is a problem that grows every day. And it is a macro problem. It is a problem that, if it is not stopped, and if we do not receive the necessary and immediate help, then I’m certain that this will be one of the first issues that the new government of Mr. Ollanta Humala will have to face.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Gov. Jose Luis Aguirre wants Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, to declare a state of emergency in Madre de Dios in order to receive federal troops and funds to deal with the negative impacts of illegal gold mining.

JOSE LUIS AGUIRRE (through translator): The problem with the mining is that it brings other problems along with it. It brings human trafficking, child exploitation. It also brings many cases of sexually transmitted diseases. It brings criminality. These problems exist because these areas are no-man’s-land.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Drive the Interoceanic Highway north about one hour from the capital, Puerto Maldonado, and you enter a red-hot zone for illegal mining called La Pampa.

Forester Alfredo Vracko has lived here for 36 years and manages 6,400 acres of rain forest granted to him by the government. The owners of farm and forestry concessions like Vracko now face a daily threat of invasion by illegal miners who jump property lines or claim to have mining rights to their property.

ALFREDO VRACKO, forestry concession owner (through translator): The highway itself doesn’t do any damage. But the fact is, the miners are illegal.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Two years ago, miners invaded Vracko’s property. He now walks the trails of his concession several times a month in search of illegal miners.

ALFREDO VRACKO (through translator): At this moment, we are arriving at the spot where two years ago they entered my concession, two miners with two machines. That is how they started this illegal work. We can see some regeneration because this area has not been touched since. They work for about three days here installing the machines. That is how it starts. Then there can be 20, 30, 40 engines, and the devastation is completely harsh. Sand. It’s all sand.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Vracko ran the miners off his property, but the scars remain. He now heads a coalition of farmers and foresters that lobby the government to stop illegal mining.

ALFREDO VRACKO (through translator): We notified the authorities so they could take action because it was affecting the condition of the forest and of the area. And, regrettably, here we are in 2011, and things have gone up 1000 percent.

STEVE SAPIENZA: This is what landowners like Alfredo Vracko are worried about.

We’re just a few miles up the road from his house. And what you can see just off the highway is a mining operation. This — right behind us here is a former mining pit that’s been filled in with water. All the nutrients have been taken out of the soil. The miners have long moved on. And as far as you can see into the distance, this entire area has been turned into a desert.

Victor Zambrano is an elected official who manages the buffer zones that protect the 3.7 million-acre Tambopata National Reserve.

VICTOR ZAMBRANO, Tambopata Management Committee (through translator): We have laws for farmers. We have laws for forestry concession. We have laws for everything. We have laws for small-scale mining. However, nobody obeys those laws.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Illegal mining in La Pampa is so rampant and the miners so brazen, that the equipment and open pits are easily visible from the highway. Walk a few hundred yards from the road, and you can see the full extent of the damage. And yet the government seems powerless to stop the miners. This farmer claims miners invaded her property by force.

WOMAN (through translator): First, there were 10 or 15. Then, before I knew it, there were 80. And they had guns and wouldn’t leave.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Local police gave me this video of a raid on a mining operation in La Pampa. After a short standoff with the illegal miners, the police moved in and confiscated the motors that run the mining equipment.

One day after the raid, I returned to the illegal mining area to see what had changed. On the highway, miners were already arriving with replacement parts. I caught up with this miner, who confirmed the raided mine was back in operation.

MAN (through translator): Things are normal. Just now, I saw a few miners, and they were working as normal.

STEVE SAPIENZA: From the looks of it, the entire La Pampa region was back to mining.

Just across the highway from where the police raid occurred, I filmed several illegal mines in operation. With a small force that numbers 400 police and a region awash in guns, local authorities have little ability to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes.

ALFREDO VRACKO (through translator): We know that gold is not a permanent resource. However, the forest and agriculture have a future because they are renewable. They can grow again and again all the time. But the mining leaves nothing. We say bread for today and hunger tomorrow. That is how we describe what will happen in La Pampa if they don’t stop this.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Earlier this year, the police attacked and destroyed mining dredges on the Madre de Dios River. But the police action had no impact on the hundreds of small-scale mines that work the gold-rich riverbanks. Miners are pushing further and further upriver, and are now on the shores of indigenous tribes like the Boca Inambari.

The tribe’s chief is not keen on the mining, which he believes is corrupting tribal traditions and culture.

MANUEL KAMENO YOREY, Boca Inambari (through translator): Some of us are very sad that our communities are filled with gold. They have changed. And the natives are now moving to the mainland. They take the money they make to Puerto Maldonado, and they have nice homes. We were not made for that. We get bored.

STEVE SAPIENZA: His son, who invited the miners on to their territory, sees few existing options to earn a living.

VICTOR KAMENO MANUAJE, Boca Inambari Tribe (through translator): From the indigenous point of view, on the subject of agriculture, I think it could be an alternative. So, if we would leave mining, then the only option would be in agriculture.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Each miner earns roughly $30 a day after the concession owner and pit boss take their cuts, not enough to get rich, but far more than they earn farming in the surrounding highlands. Once the gold is gone, these miners will move on, leaving a polluted, open wound in the earth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are more stories by Steve Sapienza about mining in Peru’s rain forests on the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting website. Find a link on our site.