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Gold mining leaves heart of Peruvian Amazon a wasteland

A decade of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon has left thousands of acres of rainforest a wasteland. Unpermitted miners cleared vast sections of trees near Peru's border with Brazil and infused the land with mercury, causing an environmental disaster. But some miners have fled after Peruvian troops moved in. Special correspondent Leo Schwartz reports in the first of a two-part series.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest is accelerating, with recent statistics showing 870 square miles was lost in July alone, nearly triple that of the same period last year.

    And the fires currently burning in Brazil are only part of the story.

    In Peru, where some 300 thousand square miles of the forest exist, illegal gold mining has caused devastation of its own.

    But, as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leo Schwartz and New York University's Global Beat Program report, there is one region where Peru is having some success against the trend.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    In the heart of the Peruvian Amazon lies a man-made desert. It was once pristine rainforest, but a decade of illegal gold mining has transformed it into a wasteland. Peru is the seventh largest gold producer in the world. The U.S. imports around $2 billion dollars-worth a year, despite the fact that an estimated 20% of it is illegally mined in places like the Madre de Dios region. It's a sparsely inhabited jungle the size of indiana, along Peru's borders with Bolivia and Brazil. Gold extraction isn't illegal everywhere in Madre de Dios, but is never allowed inside national reserves or the buffer zones around them. Government officials estimate that as many as 40,000 illegal miners have occupied these areas, clearing trees, digging pits and infusing the ground with mercury. The toxic chemical draws the precious gold out of the sand and dirt, but is then left behind, poisoning the landscape. But at least some of those miners are now on the run. In February, The Peruvian Government declared a state of emergency in Madre de Dios and sent in eighteen hundred army troops and police. Today, there are seven fixed bases and a network of field sites. It's called "Operation Mercury." Jorge Cotito is a colonel with the Peruvian National Police.

  • Jorge Cotito:

    The Miners had formed what we could call a paramilitary base and nobody could enter this area, it was a lawless zone. It was damaging the ecology of the Peruvian jungle, and the Amazon, which is one of the lungs of the world. If forceful action wasn't taken, deep ecological damage was going to continue.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    Peru's part of the Amazon alone makes up the 4th largest tropical rainforest in the world. It's a biodiversity hotspot, home to species found nowhere else. But the destruction of this precious resource has been accelerating.

  •  Luis Fernandez:

    What we see taking a look at the satellite data is that 2018 is the highest record on year for deforestation in this part of the Amazon.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    Luis Fernandez is a former U.S. EPA specialist who now runs the independent Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation in Peru. A decade ago, Fernandez saw what he calls a "perfect storm" brewing in Madre de Dios, starting with the construction of the Trans-Oceanic Highway that cut right across this gold rich land and drew impoverished Peruvians from around the country to previously uninhabited areas.

  • Luis Fernandez:

    The real tipping point was the economic crisis in 2008 because that is when the price of gold skyrocketed. It sparked a massive gold boom. So you have people flooding the area, going on a brand new road into an area that is supposed to not be habited. Then you had just weak local governance. Once those factors all came together and overlapped, then you saw like this, this massive explosion inside protected areas where you just never saw it before.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    With the influx of mining, entire settlements have sprung up, like this one along the highway. It exists only to serve miners and their families. Even under the state of emergency, it remains a dangerous place for authorities and outsiders. Police insisted we film it only with their armed escort.

  • Jorge Cotito:

    There was a great deal of illicit activity here. From human trafficking to money laundering, corruption, hitmen, even mass graves were found here. This was a totally lawless place and it was growing.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    And so government forces arrived in Madre de Dios with much fanfare. Patrolling populated areas and overflying the jungle canopy to identify remaining illegal mining operations. Sometimes they get tips from local residents as was the case on this day, leading colonel Cotito to assemble a small field patrol. It went deep into an area called La Pampa, the ground zero of illegal mining. An hour into the mission, the police officers find a man standing alone next to an abandoned mining site and detain him on suspicion of illegal gold extraction. He will be brought back to the main base to be interviewed by prosecutors. The patrol resumes the hunt and soon finds a squalid mining camp. The men here lead them to their nearby dredging platform. It appears to have been recently used. The troops strap dynamite to the rig, and then blow it up.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    Back at the camp, the troops set fire to the huts and all of the miners' possessions. They hope to ensure that no one can mine here again. An environmental crackdown of this intensity is new for a country well-known for corruption. The previous Governor of Madre de Dios had been a gold miner himself and allowed the illegal industry to grow unchecked. But that all changed with the 2018 election of a new Governor, Luis Hidalgo. He ran on the promise to end illegal mining and a wave of street crime that had come with it. Hidalgo believes previous attempts were half-hearted. He says this state of emergency will succeed.

  • Luis Hidalgo:

    All of the previous governments have come and conducted interdictions for only 15 days, destroying the machines, expelling the people that were working, and later leaving. And the people would return to those sites. This time these military bases are the beginning of a program of development and investment that my government has requested.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    Whether or not Operation Mercury succeeds will also depend in large part on the justice process that follows the interdictions and arrests. There are 80 national prosecutors embedded in the operation, including some specialized in environmental crimes, like Karina Garay.

  • Karina Garay:

    For the crime of illegal mining, we have penalties that can go as high as 12 years, depending on whether the crime was committed in an aggravated manner, like for example in a protected natural area. Here in the state of emergency we can use an expedited process when we see flagrant criminal acts, and we don't need more evidence. We can take it to court within 48 hours and within 8 days can receive a sentence.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    That all happens here, in this unassuming but ground-breaking environmental court. The Peruvian Government opened it last year. Besides mining, the court also hears cases on other environmental crimes like illegal logging and animal poaching. Garay scours satellite imagery for signs of new deforestation or emerging gold pits that require immediate action.

  • Karina Garay:

    We look at the forest, we look at the coordinates, we look at the access points, how we can reach them. And we provide this information to those who develop the operational plans – the army, the police, and the navy.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    Still, she admits it's a game of cat and mouse.

  • Karina Garay:

    Right now, there are people that have left La Pampa and are invading other areas. Yesterday we had to respond to a new location based on a complaint we received and it was indeed full of illegal miners in the middle of operations. We had to destroy everything we found, and this will continue to happen. It will always continue.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    The financial incentive for gold mining will never go away, says environmentalist Luis Fernandez.

  • Luis Fernandez:

    Practically speaking, it will be done in places like Madre De Dios because of the poverty that exists in many places in Peru. Gold is literally under people's feet. So if you cut down some trees and dig down in the soil, you can make 10 times or a hundred times what you would earn as a farmer in a month in a single day.

  • Leo Schwartz:

    After five months of the state of emergency, there was some sign of improvement. New research based on satellite imagery shows the rate of deforestation connected to gold mining has dropped more than 90%, compared to the same period last year. But even the government of Peru admits military might alone will not be enough to fully end illegal gold mining. In part two of this report, Newshour Weekend will explore what else can be done to reform production, create new economic opportunities, and even restore the damaged environment.

    This project was produced by New York University's GlobalBeat Program and Kira Kay, Jason Maloney, Alexander Tabet and Laura Zéphirin.

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