By Hildegard Willer
María Tintaya and René Santos want to get married soon. The rings are the least of their worries. The young nurse and the electrician work in a shop that buys gold in the Amazon department of Madre de Dios near the border with Brazil.
It’s Sunday morning and Tintaya is attending to three young miners. Two of them are listening to music on an MP3 player, in sneakers with the laces for fashion. The eldest, 25 years old, takes out a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket. Inside is a silver-colored ball.
Tintaya takes it and puts it in a clay bowl and burns it with a lighter. Little by little, the highly toxic mercury starts to burn off, and the harvest is revealed: a 15-gram piece of gold.
Tintaya pays them US$600 in cash without asking for any certificate of where the gold came from. For one week’s work, each miner receives $200, the minimum monthly wage in Peru.
Like so many others, the three young miners dropped out of school. They left their native Cusco in Peru’s southern Andes to mine for gold that is buried under the rich Amazon soil of Madre de Dios. They form part of a mineral supply chain that includes both formal and informal, artisanal and industrial miners.
Humberto Cordero, an Environment Ministry representative for the region, estimates that just 5 percent of the miners there have permits and approved environmental impact studies.
Around 60 percent are illegal miners, he says, and another 30 percent are awaiting approval.
Miners large and small
The miners of Madre de Dios include wealthy Peruvian, Brazilian and even Russian and Chinese investors, whose workers sift through the murky waters and muddy banks with large, modern dredgers, excavators, dump trucks. Others work independently, with hand tools and diesel-powered drains to suck up the gold-rich sediment of the rivers and streams.
Large and small, the estimated 40,000 people living off of mining in Madre de Dios have one thing in common: their activity is harming the jungle. Trees are chopped down indiscriminately, soil is injected with toxic wastewater tainted with mercury and motor oil. Some tributaries no longer exist; miners have turned them into muddy desert.
Neither the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Lima nor regional authorities in charge of regulating and supervising this industry here have been able to bring order to its growth in the department, let alone mitigate its environmental impact.
As gold trades at record prices, more miners stream in, crippling government efforts to rein in on the trend.
A Feb. 18, 2010 ban on new permits and the proposed division of the department into mining and non-mining zones has had little effect.
“We now have a problem that informal miners are invading the new buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve,” said Cordero.
Environment Minister Antonio Brack called up a last resort: the Navy. Last Feb. 19, he called up the units tasked with watching over the Amazon tributaries to destroy as many as 14 dredges that it found in the rivers.
Since then the miners have stepped up a counter-attack and two protesters were killed as miners blocked highways in protest.
But the problem will not be resolved in Madre de Dios. The gold mined illegally enters the market through intermediaries. This gold, according to export statistics, is sold in Switzerland, Canada and the United States, for industrial uses or in banking.
“When will the press make a campaign like they did for [Africa´s] blood diamonds so people stop buying gold that destroys the jungle?,” said Brack in a press conference on March 10.
Perhaps the ministry ignores that there have been multiple attempts to produce gold on a small-scale and ecologically-sustainable. Five days before the Peruvian government staged the military intervention in Madre de Dios, the first so-called fair trade seal for gold was launched in London.
To obtain the seal, artisanal miners have to comply with environmental, social and labor standards. The first shipments of “ethical” gold came from mines in Bolivia and Colombia.
“There are mining associations in Peru that are in process of getting ethical certification,” said Olinda Orozco, of the nongovernmental organization Red Social, or “Social Network,” that is dedicated to artisanal mining issues.
Most of this gold comes from mines in the deserts of the Arequipa and Ayacucho departments in southern Peru, where the environmental costs of gold mining are lower.
While news reports in London speculate whether the wedding on April 29 of Prince William will include a set of wedding rings made with ethical gold, many couples, including Santos and Tintaya, continue to marry with rings made from the destruction of the Amazon.