Armed police and helicopters descended on an illegal Peruvian gold mine and the settlement that had grown up around it in a massive crackdown on unlawful mining. Hundreds of workers and their families were made homeless, when police torched the illegal community in the Madre de Dios region in the southeast of the country. Food shops, brothels and nightclubs, set up to service the workers, were destroyed in the unprecedented raid against so-called ‘wild cat’ miners. The raid on the La Pampa mining camp came as the government launches a crackdown on the illegal trade, which has destroyed vast swathes of the rainforest.
Seen from above, the Amazon resembles a field of intense green pockmarked by brown stains. These are the sites of illegal mines, and they reveal the scope of a gold rush that threatens the lungs of the planet. “The loss of our natural resources is incalculable,” says Antonio Fernandez Jeri, Peru’s high commissioner on illegal mining. “Each lost hectare represents unique flora and fauna species,” he told. Those sites are in the Madre de Dios region, where approximately 150,000 acres of forest have already been lost due to illegal mining. Peru leads South America in gold production and ranks fifth globally, but authorities there say 20 percent of its exported gold comes from these clandestine mines. But this mining, which first began in the 1980s, extends beyond Peru. In every Amazon country, the largest forest in the world is being slowly eaten away by an explosion of tiny, unreported mines. According to a study published in January in the British journal Environmental Research Letters, approximately 415,000 acres of tropical forest were cleared for potential gold mining sites in South America between 2001 and 2013. “Although gold mining deforestation is usually less extensive than deforestation for agriculture, it happens in some of the most biodiverse tropical regions,” said lead author Nora Alvarez-Berrios of the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras. She says that there are up to 300 different species of trees which can be found in a single hectare of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Her study refers to the region as “one of the most biologically rich areas on Earth.” “Like drug trafficking, illegal mining activity is widespread,” Fernandez Jeri said. “That’s why we need to find strategic allies and do something. But there is other, less immediately obvious damage as well. To extract a gram of gold, miners have to use 2 to 3 grams of another metal, mercury, which then pollutes surrounding soils and streams and threatens those living nearby with “proven cases of infertility and skin and stomach damage,” according to Fernandez Jeri. This deforestation and pollution have destroyed some indigenous lands in Peru, forcing inhabitants to leave their seclusion and search out new food sources, resulting in conflicts with other tribes. Mining is nevertheless a critical part of the South American economy, as the region remains one of the world’s main sources for raw materials. “Small-scale mining activity, as the World Bank calls it, or artisanal mining, has to continue to exist. It can’t stop,” Pardo conceded. “But it has to be an economic activity that is developed sustainably, without affecting the environment.” In Peru, permit applications for 60,000 mining sites are already filed, but, according to official estimates, there are still 100,000 unreported sites in the country, destroying a little bit more of the forest ecosystem each day.
Ernesto Benavides del Solar Although I work as a stringer photographer at Agence France-Presse, I simultaneously carry out various personal photographic projects. As a freelance photographer I have published in local and international newspapers and magazines as El País (Spain), Le Monde Magazine (France), Gatopardo, Somos (Peru), 6Mois, Le Chasse Mare, and Brandeins (Germany). I am also member of Supayfotos and have participated in the expositions of this Peruvian photodocumentalist collective in 2011 and 2012. 2013 I was a finalist at the POYI awards with the “Wanu” project in the Best Photo Book Category and presented the book at MATE (Mario Testino´s gallery). In 2012, I received the second Place at the POYI Awards in the category News Picture Story, and in 2011 I was one of the winners of National Geographic Magazine’s All Roads Photography Award. In 2010, I received an award from the Inter American Press Association in the photographic essay category. I teach photography courses at two Lima universities since 2010.