Peru made its boldest move ever against illegal gold mining in mid-February by sending 1,500 troops in a combined army-police -navy operative aimed at destroying dredges but had to cut the operative short March 1 due to fear of unrest of some groups, including Natives.
The Peruvian Defense Ministry had said February 19 it had started surprise actions aimed at “halting and destroying the main dredges operating illegally” in the Madre de Dios southern rainforest. It said they were respecting citizen rights and that there had been no confrontations. Reporters flew with the military in helicopters to film the operations.
The actions were the result of months of coordination between officials determined to put an end to lawlessness in the region, where rampant use of mercury in illegal gold operations have extensively damaged extensive areas. As gold prices gained in recent years, illegal gold miners have grown richer and stronger, forcing Peru to resort to its armed forces to fight them.
Yet on March 1 the entire operation to fight illegal gold miners–groups who have been responsible for damage to thousands of acres of rainforest–was stopped due to pressures mounting from several groups including Natives.
According to a statement distributed by the indigenous organization AIDESEP, which claims to represent some 350,000 Native individuals across Peru, indigenous populations from the area where the intervention occurred were demanding an immediate stop to the dredge destruction.
The use of explosives to sink dredges was “putting at risk the rivers, lakes and valleys and our communities while generating pollution by spills of oil and mercury with death of fish occurring from the dredge destruction,” the natives had said, according to the statement signed by Native community leaders from the Madre de Dios region.
The Peruvian military, however, was only using a minimal quantity of explosives to render the equipment useless, according to local media reports.
The Native discontent echoed that of other groups, mainly those of political leaders from Madre de Dios who fear regional unrest. Illegal gold mining is the main industry in this remote, little-developed region that to Peruvians was little more than a remote Catholic missionary outpost until just a few decades ago.
Under conditions of the truce declared on March 1, gold producers will have a year to become formal permitted operators. A total of 35 dredges were destroyed in the operation before it ended on March 1, officials said.
Gold, prostitution, child labor
According to estimates from the guild of local formal miners, the region may have been yielding more than 30 metric tons of gold annually. Natives were affected by the illegal mining, mainly as the soil where they lived was being destroyed.
In addition, according to reports from local press, a gold fever was intensifying social problems in the region, including child labor and prostitution, affecting mostly indigenous groups.
Madre de Dios is the region of Peru bordering Bolivia and Brazil. Besides gold, this area of the rainforest is known to contain very large reserves of hydrocarbons, but Peru protects it from development in order to safeguard a national park.
Peru is a leading worldwide gold producer but its legal producers operate in tunnels and pits in the highlands.