Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gold Beneath the Surface

You might never guess it after seeing the pop-up towns, quickly made from tarps and scraps, or from noticing the kilometers of dead trees and upturned soil.
Nor would you be able to conceive of how large it was, nor how much land is being cleared, nor how fast.
But it is there: 
Gold is beneath large parts of the Amazon rainforest. 

I didn't really understand the scale until I looked more into it. 
Last week, Juan and I drove the Inter-Oceanic Highway which leads from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic. It crosses the desert, the Andes and the jungle. Our portion of the route was from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. Our goal was to get a better sense of illegal gold-mining in southern Peru. 

After we passed 4700m above-sea-level high in the Andes, we began our decent down through the cloud forest leading to the Amazon rainforest. We stopped in the gold-mining town of Quincemil, where we walked into the forest to meet miners and see their projects. There, however, we only met the big machines, fancy cars, and the knee-deep mud of the roads which lead out to the open-pit mines. In Quincemil we realized that some of the mine projects scattered along the 800km stretch between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado are sometimes only reached with up-to-a-day's travel, or more, away from any highway. They are edging-out in every direction.

When we entered the car again after Quincemil to finish the miles towards Puerto Maldonado, Juan passed me his Nikon camera and I sat in the front seat snapping pictures as best I could from the moving car. These are some of the photos I collected.

Meeting knee deep mud, we couldn't continue like the specially built mining trucks could. Not without boots! Here the road towards the gold-miner's settlement begins. The local land owner said it is about a day's trek to arrive. 

At first the skeleton trees seem normal, until you realize that the clearing of land is for illegal gold mining. The resulting loss of ground water and mercury pollution is killing them. This patch is a very small one. Deeper in, away from the highway there are thousands of hectares like this.
On the rivers lead from the high glaciers of the Andes, gold miners start to rip-up the banks of the Marcapata River, which eventually runs into the larger Inambari & Madre de Dios rivers.
The broken river banks add to the silt in the rivers which clogs river life, not to mention mercury pollution. There are places where the river is so silted that it is possible to drive cars on the river.
Settlement: "KM107".
Settlements made of tarps, scrap wood and metal have been popping up along the highway. Four years ago this place didn't exist. Thanks to the construction of the Inter-Oceanic Highway, it now exists completely for gold mining as more migrant works come to strike part of the fortune and disaster in the jungle gold mines. With the people come more pressure on wildlife for bushmeat, as well as intense social problems. The settlement, not found on any map, is simply called "KM107". It is one of several settlements which exist between the kilometer markers 117 and 92. The area of strip gold mining goes out for many kilometers in all directions, especially towards the Tambopata Reserve. 

But what we could not fully see so obviously from the highway is what you can fully see from the air.
For the first time the extent of illegal gold-mining in Madre de Dios, Peru has been mapped using aerial techniques.

An area of gold-mining destruction thousands of hectares in size (Photo credit: Carnegie Institution for Science).

The impacts of these mines are felt, seen and heard everywhere around Puerto Maldonado - for example, socially the last few years have felt the rumbling effectsWealth distribution and political direction has been affected. We have seen monthly strikes from gold-miners in response to low gold prices. The strikes can close the food-market in fear of riots. More tragically the deaths and injuries which have resulted from miners in clashes with police in 2012 (of course there have been other clashes both before, and after as well). The illegal mining has also brought a lot of other social crimes, including sexual exploitation and slave-labour.

From a health perspective, it is estimated that there are more than 650 tonnes of mercury released yearly in to the air and water-courses within the Madre de Dios region. Mercury is highly toxic in any form, and affects the kidneys, gastrointestinal tract and nervous system systemically. Recent studies on mercury from the gold mining here in southern Peru found that the amount of mercury outside of local gold-trader shops, vaporized as gold chunks are melted to be sold, is 22X than the World Health Organization's recommended exposure level. But from a public perspective, the effects to the non-mining community are less widely known by the locals. For example, many believe that the mercury which enters rivers and waterways merely sinks to the bottom, where it will stay. The fact is: it is poisoned ground.

The ecological impact is much more tangible. Immense swaths of disturbed land can be seen from the air. You can see the work of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, who flew over the open-mine of Guacamayo, Madre de Dios. This video includes commentary in Spanish.

For us at Canto Luz, we have been seeing this as is a very serious issue. Canto Luz is situated on the Rio Piedras, which is as of yet, a river with no gold-mines upstream from us. We take pride in our clean drinking water, our excellent neighboors, and that we can swim safely in the river. Our forest is intact, and something we are not taking for granted. We also know this affects the whole world from an ecological and health perspective, and we are working in land-protection issues as one of our key efforts.
It is all very close to home.

This aerial map from the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-Lite has mapped small mining operations in Madre de Dios between 1999 and 2012. Each of these colored spots can represent a mine up to 10 meters deep.
Many meters deep, a boy stands in front of a clandestine gold mine pit. These small pits have mud and debris which are transfered into an oil drum with added mercury. "Someone stands in the drum and starts jumping up and down" to coagulate small pieces of gold. It is hard to imagine. Photo credit: New Yorker.

If we work with our neighbours, and particularly the ones who are not currently involved in gold-mining and rather work instead with brazil-nut harvesting and wood-sales, we can make a plan to sustain people and protect nearly 10000 hectares of forest. Canto Luz alone has access to 600, and along with others in the Baja Piedras land-owners association and our neighboors with over 4000 hectares, we care about finding alternatives to illegal gold mining.

Last year the Peruvian Environmental Protection Agency elaborated a plan to pay land holders to protect their land - but sadly, the office in our area has closed for money issues, and the plan has not followed through. We need alternatives to goldmining in this region - because once the land is taking and mined, it is useless for everything. As scientific agencies report, the reality is setting in, "50,000 hectares of forested lands and alluvial areas have been affected by unregulated mining, transforming huge swaths of the Peruvian Amazon into barren wastelands". There is no future where lands have been mined.

Our initiative, which is only just beginning, involves more stable income generation through tourism, agroforestry and more-sustainable logging. With the locals expertise and dreams, we can use our organizational powers to build capacity towards these kinds of activities which already have a footing here. We will partner with other organizations, neighboors and native communities towards this end. Some of our neighbours, including Bocaparia Manu, are working towards it already. We already have good relationships with Puerto Arturo and Bocaparia Manu, and are working on creating a working relationship with Santa Teresita, who we donated 200 hectares of our land to. With the Baja Piedras Association, a group of 60 small and large-sized land holders we will be looking at what we can do to work towards a more sustainable future.

It's a lot of work, and I don't know where it will take us.

But there is gold beneath the surface,
and we want to keep it there.