Protests among Peru’s indigenous
population against newly planned mining projects are escalating. People
are in affected areas are growing
increasingly resentful of
foreign mining companies, while wider concerns are also growing about illegal gold mining projects in the Amazon basin. The number
of illegally operating small-scale
prospectors has climbed
to 40,000 in the country’s Madre de Dios province. Continuously rising gold prices at the world market have triggered a Peruvian gold rush without equal in the country’s history.
Peru is the fifth largest gold mining country in the world, with
175 metric tons of gold mined
there each year. Illegal small-scale prospectors contribute about a fifth to Peru’s total mining
output per year. The gold rush in the country’s resource-rich
provinces during the last few years
has been particularly evident
across wide areas of the
Amazon basin, and the costs resulting
from the environmental
damage caused by illegal
gold mining activities
are rising. As Peru’s environment
minister Antonio Brack
has pointed out, the rise
in gold prices over the last few years has meant that the miners – both legal and illegal – are earning (pre-tax) about $1,000 per ounce
This has encouraged more and more Peruvians to seek work in mines in the Amazon basin – in Peru and well as in neighbouring Brazil and
Bolivia. Serious environmental
damage is being caused by some of these mines, as large areas of the rainforest
are cleared, with highly toxic mercury trickling into the soil, contaminating the local food chain. Small-scale prospectors usually use very rudimentary methods to extract gold from the mined ore. Gold ore is amalgamated with mercury, helping to isolate the pure
gold content. The mercury/gold alloy
is subsequently heated over fire resulting in an evaporation of
the mercury. At the end
of the process pure gold remains.
This method is also harmful for the health of the small-scale prospectors, since they inhale highly toxic mercury vapours.
Illegal gold mining
structures are particularly prevelent
in the province of Madre de Dios. These involve a large number of local politicians.
The best-organised enterprises
have the capital to invest in expensive
mining equipment and hydraulic dredges from companies such as Caterpillar and Volvo, thus
accelerating the illegal mining activities. Since illegally-mined gold is not subject to tax, the prospectors’
profits are astronomically high.
Less than $20,000 was transferred in taxes to Peru’s government last year arising from gold mining activities in the province of Madre de Dios. As in neighbouring Ecuador, police are starting to
conduct raids on illegal
mines, and are ordered to destroy mining equipment used in illegal activities. But given how
profitable these activities
are, the financiers of the rogue mines substitute destroyed
or confiscated mining equipment straight away in order to continue the mining activities.
While it seems to be difficult
for police to stop the activities of small-scale prospectors –
despite several casualties after clashes with police – media sources have reported a growing number of violent clashes between
miners and the Amazon basin’s
Indian natives as well.
The Indian natives fear
the devastation of their natural environment caused by the gold rush, which
has already affected over
180 square kilometers of the basin’s
jungle territory. Illegal
gold miners are coming under attack from Indians who are armed with guns and other weapons.
Tensions are also rising in the southern province
of Puno. Riots broke out following the news that the Canadian
firm Bear Creek Mining Corporation wanted to
open a new silver mine.
Many Peruvians in these areas are hoping that the newly elected leftwing president Humala – who already announced
an increase in taxes on foreign
mining firms – will crack down on illegal
mines, which was an election promise of his.
On Saturday, Humala cancelled Bear Creek’s silver mining license and announced a 36-month moratorium on all planned mining projects after five more people
were killed in the course
of violent protests on Friday, when
protestors attempted to storm a local airport.