By Hildegard Willer
Cecilio Baca built his empire atop a mound of sand and rocks. The view from the top is of a moonscape: yellow-tinged mud that was once a forest-flanked river bed. Now, the jungle is populated by giant and costly backhoes and other excavation equipment.
Baca is one of the gold barons in Peru’s Amazon region of Madre de Dios, near the border with Bolivia and Brazil. The area was once known for its biodiversity, but gold fever now rules, and the tropical forest is one of the most obvious victims. Baca became a millionaire by extracting gold in this corner of the country that has long been ignored by the state.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 people mine illegally in the region. In the entire country, there are 100,000 to as many as 200,000, according to estimates. Most here migrate from the Andean regions, searching for work. But the activity is dangerous. Health, safety and environmental precautions are few and far between. Now, the government is trying to stamp out illegal mining.
“I think it’s very good that the government is trying to end illegal mining,” said César Ascorra, the director of charity organization Caritas Madre de Dios and a defender of sustainable small-scale miners. Two years ago, during the 2006-2011 government of former President Alan García, Peru’s navy destroyed some dredges — floating platforms used to extract gold — in Madre de Dios.
Current President Ollanta Humala wants an even stronger response. On Feb. 18, he issued a decree banning any mining activity that lacks state permits, which will be obtained after the government approves an environmental impact study, and the applicant can prove safety standards and pays taxes. Violators of the norm could be shut down by state security forces. The decree also prohibits commercialization of the product, or sale of supplies used in this type of mining, such as mercury and cyanide, which are used to extract the gold from sediment and rock.
The norm will have an effect on artisanal miners, who so far applied a distinction between those of them who mine informally or illegally. With just an application for a concession from the Energy and Mines Ministry’s regional office, the miner receives a certificate with which he or she can already operate while the application is in the process of formalization, a process that can last years. With the application submitted, the miner now is not considered “illegal” anymore, but “informal”, even though he or she does not comply with any environmental, labor or tax regulation. The decree changes that.
“There are probably only 10 mining operations in Madre de Dios which have all their papers in order and comply with all their tax payments”, Ascorra estimated.
But the decree has also caused a strong reaction among miners.
In mid-March, artisanal and small-scale miners — including those who have been using heavy equipment and since long are not artisanal miners any more — blocked roads around Peru, and clashed with police. Three people in Madre de Dios died in the protests. The government launched negotiations between the parties that yielded a one-year truce for the miners to obtain their documents to become legal. But there are challenges: the central and local governments have yet to put the adequate personnel and resources in place to tackle the issue. Corruption is also a problem, and tracking and controlling the flow of mining supplies — and heavy machinery legally sold by foreign companies — is difficult.
Ascorra said this truce will only give the miners more time to operate illegally.
“We’ve seen this many times. The agreements are used to intensify mineral extraction in the given deadline,” he said.
In Madre de Dios, the situation is grave. It is estimated that 15,000 miners continue to work in the Tambopata National Reserve’s buffer zone, which is strictly prohibited by law. Faced with the threat of being kicked off the land and having their expensive equipment destroyed, many illegal miners are moving to other lands and fighting over space with others who are in the process of formalization.
Baca and the other gold barons, like the thousands of campesinos who left their lands in search of gold, say they are operating under the law, but their vision is quite different from the government’s and is poised to spark even more conflicts.