Peru cracks down on illegal gold mining to save deforested Amazon area

If it works, Peru would be stopping a practice that releases harmful mercury as well as drives sex trafficking and child labor in mining camps.
Peruvian military and police take over an illegal miners village during the 'Mercury' joint operation on Feb. 19, 2019 in the Amazon jungle over the river basin of the Madre de Dios region, in southeast Peru.Cris Bouroncle / AFP - Getty Images
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By Reuters

LIMA — Peru on Tuesday launched a drive to eliminate illegal gold mining in one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse corners, sending 1,500 police and military officers to a region that has suffered rising deforestation from wildcat mining.

President Martin Vizcarra’s government said it was suspending civil liberties and tasking the military with restoring law in Madre de Dios, a rainforest region known for its biodiversity, carbon-rich forests and indigenous tribes that shun contact.

The state of emergency was declared for two months and 300 troops were sent to the area for six months.

The operation got off to a rough start, with two police officers and a prosecutor killed when a bus transporting security forces flipped over, the interior ministry said.

If successful, the effort would mark the first time Peru has managed to stop the illegal mining, which releases tonnes of mercury into the environment and drives sex trafficking and child labor in mining camps.

An aerial view over a chemically deforested area of the Amazon jungle caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in southeast Peru, during the 'Mercury' joint operation by Peruvian military and police on Feb. 19, 2019.Cris Bouroncle / AFP - Getty Images

The crackdown might also impact gold shipments from Peru, the world’s No. 6 producer, as some illegal ore makes its way into the legal supply chain through shell companies.

The illegal gold rush in Madre de Dios, focused on extracting gold from alluvial deposits in river beds, was fueled by high prices for the metal during the 2009-2010 financial crisis.

“It’s been growing for better part of a decade,” said Luis Fernandez, a Wake Forest University ecologist who has studied the issue since 2007. “In every town there are little shops that buy gold from miners.”

Previous governments that have sent troops to destroy illegal mines in the region have failed to stop their expansion into a nature reserve.

Wildcat miners in Madre de Dios are often tipped off about government plans, allowing them to flee before regrouping once security forces leave. Environmentalists say criminal groups in the region are now more organized and violent.

In 2018, deforestation from wildcat mining in southern Peru, where Madre de Dios is located, peaked at 9,280 hectares (22,931 acres), according to a report by Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which uses satellite images to track deforestation for Amazon Conservation.

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Reuters