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Gold mining leaves heart of Peruvian Amazon a wasteland
In February, Peruvian authorities were sent in to the Amazon Rainforest to disrupt environmental devastation brought on by illegal gold mining. Satellite imagery now shows a 90 percent decline in new deforestation as the government and environmentalists try to initiate reforms. Special correspondent Leo Schwartz reports on the second of a two-part series by NYU’s Global Beat program.
Last night we brought you the story of Peru's military intervention to stop the Amazon Rainforest destruction that accompanies illegal gold mining in the country. In part 2 of our special report, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leo Schwartz and New York University's Global Beat Program show what else is being done to reform Peru's gold mining industry as the country attempts to restore the damaged forest.
In February, the Peruvian Government declared a state of emergency in the vast gold-mining region of Madre de Dios. It sent police and army units to try to end illegal mining and the environmental devastation it brought with it. The first results are promising. New satellite imagery already shows a 90% decline in new deforestation related to gold extraction. But the mining won't end as long as it remains lucrative for the miners. That's according to environmentalist Luis Fernandez of the independent Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, or CINCIA.
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.
Gold extraction isn't illegal everywhere in Madre de Dios, but is never allowed inside national reserves or the buffer zones around them. One such area has become a mining hotspot, La Pampa. It's the focus of the military intervention. Fernandez's group, which is run by Wake Forest University, is partnering with the government to reform mining practices in permitted areas, accelerating a process Peru started in 2011, but which had little impact. The goal is to improve environmental protections and working conditions in previously unlicensed mining sites. In exchange, it has allowed miners access to legal gold export markets, and legitimized their operations. CINCIA operates in centers of the gold trade, like the town of Laberinto. This scruffy river port is littered with stores selling mining equipment and its dock is the gateway to both legal and illegal mining sites up river. A half hour boat ride away, CINCIA has been working to convince miners that they can benefit from conducting business legally. Pedro Yfantes, a 61-year old lifelong miner, has agreed to reform his practices to bring them into compliance with the government's official mining program. Yfantes allowed us to film his gold mining operation. It starts where his employees work on a floating dredge. They pump up dirt from the bottom of a pool and filter the gold rich sand out of the rocky, wet sludge. Later it ends up in the final gold recovery facility.
Here we are processing the sand that we extracted during our work. It clarifies, and then it comes out here. We separate the black sand from the gold and then the gold comes out, and here the sand comes out but with a bit of gold in it still.
Yfantes is a pioneer in one very important area. He is one of the first miners to stop using environmentally toxic mercury to extract gold from the sand, even though it makes his work more difficult.
We do what the law says. If the law says do not use mercury, we do not use it so that you contaminate less. Look, it takes a little bit more time, that is true, but it is better for the employees, better for us, and for the environment. Therefore, it is something that we should do.
Even with miners like Yfantes on board, there is the daunting challenge of what to do with the vast swaths of rainforest that have already been destroyed. That task is also falling to CINCIA. The organization is now in the process of reforesting about a hundred acres in Madre de Dios. Some of its experimental plantations, with rows of tree saplings, are just a stone's throw away from still-active mines. Mining and mercury pollution makes it almost impossible to get trees to grow in the depleted sand. So, using a special charcoal additive designed by CINCIA, workers are planting a variety of species to see which can survive. Jhon Farfan, a forest engineer, says one year ago, this area was a wasteland because of illegal mining.
This is a Massissa. In one year it will grow about four meters tall. This is incredible how trees can adapt to this type of soil.
CINCIA has planted 70 different species, including ecologically important indigenous ones. The results are already promising.
People who have supported us are fascinated because no one thought that they would see the results in such a short time, they thought it would be slower. Here I can tell you, for example, that in about 40 years, you are going to see a forest that already has a good size, a good place to host birds, wildlife. We are doing something for the community.
While the military continues its patrols and environmentalists plant their trees, regional governor Luis Hidalgo is campaigning for investment and economic development to further diminish the lure of gold. He was elected in 2018 on a platform of stopping illegal mining.
I believe that the government has to invest in changing mining activity for agriculture and tourism. Take the example of Costa Rica. People go there because they have conserved their nature. We can do the same here in Madre de Dios. That is what I want the most for my region, to have a sustainable economy that is no longer based in mining.
Luis Fernandez is cautious, but optimistic that a corner has been turned in Madre de Dios, but it will take time to know for sure. Meanwhile, he says, the global public can play a role.
Consumers, I think, really need to be aware about this and ask, where does my gold come from? If the consumers do not demand that their gold is mined responsibly and only from areas that adhere to the strict environmental and labor standards, they are essentially going to subsidize environmental destruction and other things that I think they wouldn't be wanting to be associated with.
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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