New film documents a shadow world: the illegal gold mines of the Peruvian Amazon.
When Sarah duPont first visited the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the summer of 1999, it was a different place than it is today. Oceans of green, tranquil forest, met the eye at every turn. At dawn, her brain struggled to comprehend the onslaught of morning calls and duets of the nearly 600 species of birds resounding under the canopy.
Today, the producer of the new award-winning film, Amazon Gold, reports that “roads have been built and people have arrived. It has become a new wild west, a place without law. People driven by poverty and the desire for a better life have come, exploiting the sacred ground.”
She is referring to the nearly 70,000 miners that have flocked to the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru to extract gold from the sediments of the now-chocolate ‘River of the Mother of God.’ Peru has the largest population of artisanal gold miners in the world, with nearly a hundred new families arriving in the region every day. They come from impoverished areas in the Andes, unfamiliar with the rainforest and without any tangible attachment to it. Somehow, in this strange and novel world, they eke out a living that is fraught with uncertainty and danger. They do it because the price of gold has quadrupled in the last fifty years. Like so many, they do it for the money.
The dangers of gold mining are far-reaching and chilling (see here for a detailed report). Mining -related deforestation in the Madre de Dios Department has risen by 400% in the last ten years. A second threat comes from the mining process used by artisanal miners in Peru to extract gold from river sediment. Despite its obvious toxicity, miners mix cheap liquid mercury into river sediment where it binds to gold particles. They then burn it off to access the gold, simultaneously leaching the mercury into the water, soil and air, and endangering not only their lives but also the incredibly diverse ecosystem around them.
Gold miners work in an illegal mine in Lamal. The devastation here comes from a mere month’s work. Photo courtesy of RonHaviv/VII.
Sarah duPont is the president and founder of the Amazon Aid Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes greater awareness and the increase of scientific knowledge about the Amazon region to the public. After her visit to the region in 1999, she watched as gold mining began to consume the Peruvian rainforest at a terrifying and exponential rate.
“As a witness to the devastation, destruction, and poisoning of these forests, and out of deep concern and respect, I produced a film with a team of extraordinarily talented and courageous individuals,” duPont told mongabay.com
Amazon Gold is an Amazon Aid Foundation production, created in conjunction with the Americas Business Council Foundation.
In the year 2010, I was living in a small field station situated on the Madre de Dios River. I had been there nearly ten months, working on a research project for my graduate degree. The trajectory of my research was fraught from the start with the obstacles typical of most field work—an unexpected and unannounced alteration in permit rules, the mysterious loss of all my paperwork (with original signatures in triplicate), and the receipt of the highest rainfall recorded in ten years in the space of two days. These road bumps were challenging, but I found myself overcoming them in time.
Then, in March of 2010, I was confronted with an obstacle so large that it continues to affect my research in the region, nearly four years later: a region-wide mining strike. All foreign researchers were evacuated from our field site, the Los Amigos Biological Field Station, to the nearest town, Puerto Maldonado. There, we spent an excruciatingly lengthy and boring nine days locked up in our hotel rooms, waiting for the strike to escalate. It did not.
The Los Amigos Biological Field Station on the Madre de Dios River in Peru. Photo credit Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa.
My happy return to the field station was thwarted once more in May, when a second, and worse, strike was ordered. This time, we evacuated our team of research assistants to town but my husband and I stayed back to continue our work, together with a skeletal staff at the field station.
Every morning, just to be safe, we packed all our belongings and left for an unknown area of the forest. Every afternoon, the station director would walk the trails, calling for us in code, indicating that the station remained safe to return to. With us was the station’s current population of rescued animals, too young to be removed from camp: a juvenile saddleback tamarin and a night monkey that had survived a predator attack. Together with this motley crew of vulnerable beings, we too survived a week.
I cannot say I enjoyed our isolated stay in the rainforest, but mercifully, it rained nearly non-stop and not a single boat containing the rambunctious and, we suspected, drunk miners, stopped at the research station. They had other fish to fry.
Even a small gold mine can create enormous piles of sifted rubble that are uninviting to new life and endanger river travel. Settlements are created through slash-and-burn deforestation. Photo credit Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa.
The Peruvian government had just decided to bar mining operations from operating illegally, an oxymoron in itself, particularly on the northern side of the Madre de Dios River. The sluggish and bureaucratic processing of paperwork that Peru, amongst other nations, is notorious for, was blamed for the illegality of the mining operations. Puerto Maldonado took on thousands of displaced miners and it strained to support them given the blocked highways and reduced intake of supplies. Everyone was angry.
It is at this time, in June 2010, that the Amazon Gold film crew arrived in the Madre de Dios region.
“I wanted to create a film that is both beautiful and informative,” writes Sarah in her production notes, “one that I [hoped would] affect the audience so that they too [could] step forward to protect the Amazon and ensure that the future climate of the world is as we know it today.”
Sarah wondered for long how she could get people to pay attention in this chaotic time, where climate change and human rights crises jostle for daily news space. And then it occurred to her.
“For me,” Sarah admits, “I knew that it felt like war. A war against the environment. Ecocide.”
So a plan was formed. Two journalists who cover war and human rights issues were recruited to join the team. Donovan Webster is an accomplished and renowned reporter, and has written for the likes of National Geographic and the Smithsonian. Ron Haviv, a photojournalist, has covered conflict and humanitarian crises through his production company VII. Peruvian Enrique Ortiz, a biologist and activist, as well as producer and director Reuben Aaronson, made up the rest of the team.
It was a crazy time to embark on such a project, given the general feeling of unrest in the region. The team worked three different mining arenas – the mining barges on the Madre de Dios River, small mining camps, and large mining communities, such as Huepetue and Lamal.
Sarah told mongabay.com that the atmosphere in the smaller mining camps was relaxed and open, and the miners in general were friendly. Of the larger mining camp, Sarah says: “Huepetue felt much more guarded, the air was tense, our guides were very nervous when we were shooting. It felt very hurried, that we needed to get in and out before we were either told to leave or possibly be met with violence.”
Even though the team was likely the first to document mining activities inside both Lamal and Huepetue, people always allowed them to shoot, despite some tense and uncomfortable moments.
A gold miner uses his bare feet to knead mercury into excavation matter in a barrel in Lamal. Photo courtesy of Ron Haviv/VII.
Although they did not come into direct contact with prostitution or child slavery, other serious and unfortunate by-products of illegal gold mining, they were acutely aware of human trafficking on a daily basis.
“We were told that children were brought in from outside as slaves, to either work in the mines, or as prostitutes,” says Sarah. In fact, while the team was filming, many children were intercepted and taken to safe houses where they could eventually be sent back to their families.
“We came home with 26 hours of horrible, poignant, yet beautiful imagery for the world to see,” writes Sarah in her notes. “We can now all witness young men standing in barrels laden with mercury, child prostitution and slavery, and the majestic trees once filled with the joyous songs of birds now turning into desolate and toxic soil—all gone in the quest for gold.”
Amazon Gold was completed in May 2011, and has since been touring the international film festival circuit. It has garnered a Merit Award for Critical Message, and a Merit Award for Animation at the International Wildlife Film Festival held in Montana in 2012. In the film, an animated agouti (Dasyprocta sp.) comes to life to explain the impact of gold mining on his ecosystem, given that only his species is capable of prying open the gargantuan seeds of the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsia), a prominent resource exploited in the area. On February 4th, Amazon Gold was presented with a Green Film Network award at the FIFE International Environmental Film Festival in France.
Narrated by Academy award winners Herbie Hancock and Sissy Spacek, Amazon Gold will soon be available as a theatrical release, and subsequently on television networks and the digital market.
The Amazon Aid Foundation has used the film to work with all the major players involved, to mitigate the effects of mining in the region. They are hoping to unite leaders in the environmental community, experts in mercury poisoning, scientists, forest ecologists, governments, donors, indigenous peoples, and educational institutions to develop holistic solutions to gold mining in the Amazon.
“Our goal,” Sarah said, “is to not only develop an awareness campaign about the problems associated with unregulated gold [mining], but also provide awareness for best practices to regulate gold from the miner to the consumer while working to protect the most critical land ecosystem—the Amazon.”
Sarah duPont and the Amazon Gold crew are certain about one thing: “Without the Amazon, the world as we know it will change.”
The direction and extent of that change are currently in our hands, even in the complex milieu of the Department of the Mother of God. Groups such as the Amazon Conservation Association and the AmazonAid Foundation can now use an additional tool, the film Amazon Gold, to begin to construct a solution to the war on the Amazon that is so vehemently fueled by our love of gold.
(11/22/2013) A gold mining project proposed near the Belo Monte dam site in the Amazon rainforest has been suspended by a Brazilian court, reports Reuters.
(11/20/2013) In 1956, in the quiet seaside town of Minamata on the southwestern coast of Japan’s Kyushu Island, cats began to behave very strangely. They convulsed, displayed excessive salivation, and gradually lost the ability to walk. Then, dead birds began to fall out of the sky. Shellfish opened and decomposed. Fish also displayed abnormal behaviors, eventually floating up to the surface of the Shiranui Sea. Many of the ailing cats wandered into the sea and drowned. Soon, there were no more cats alive in the area.
(10/28/2013) The extent of gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon has surged 400 percent since 1999 due to rocketing gold prices, wreaking havoc on forests and devastating local rivers, finds a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The assessment, led by Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science, is based on a combination of satellite imagery, on-the-ground field surveys, and an advanced airplane-based sensor that can accurately measure the rainforest canopy and sub-canopy vegetation at a resolution of 1.1 meters (42 inches).
(09/26/2013) Video of illegal gold mining operations that have turned a portion of the Amazon rainforest into a moonscape went viral on Youtube after a popular radio and TV journalist in Peru highlighted the story. Last week Peruvian journalist and politician Guido Lombardi directed his followers to video shot from a wingcam aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), an airplane used by researchers to conduct advanced monitoring and analysis of Peru’s forests. The video quickly received more than 60,000 views on Youtube.
(06/27/2013) Colombian authorities have ruled that local environmental officials acted correctly in ordering South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti to halt their work, following demands from the multinational corporation for their disciplining. Cortolima, the environmental authority of the department of Tolima in central Colombia, stopped AngloGold from conducting unsanctioned exploration activities in the Tolima municipality of Piedras in March.
(06/03/2013) In a patch of rainforest in northern Sumatra, a 28-year-old in jeans and tall rubber boots snubs out his cigarette and pulls a headlamp over his short black hair. Standing under a tarp, he flicks the light on and leans over the entrance of a narrow shaft lined with wooden planks that he and other miners cut from trees that once stood here. He gives a sharp tug on a rope that dangles 100 meters, plateauing in sections, and slides down. For hours, the man, Sarial, will use a pick to scrape away and bag rocks that are hauled to the surface by another miner, using a wooden wheel.
(05/28/2013) The Madre de Dios region in Peru is recognized for its lush Amazon rainforests, meandering rivers and rich wildlife. But the region is also known for its artisanal gold mining, which employs the use of a harmful neurotoxin. Mercury is burned to extract the pure gold from metal and ore producing dangerous air-borne vapors that ultimately settle in nearby rivers. ‘Mercury in all forms is a potent neurotoxin affecting the brain, central nervous system and major organs,’Luis Fernandez, an ecologist and research associate at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, told mongabay.com. ‘At extremely high exposure levels, mercury has been documented to cause paralysis, insanity, coma and death.’
(05/28/2013) Sierra la Laguna is a unique ecosystem reserve spanning more than 100,000 hectares in the southern tip of the California peninsula. It is one of the best-preserved natural areas in Mexico and home to about 100 traditional farmer families as well as multiple endemic animal and plant species. But there is one more thing that makes the region unique: approximately 2 million ounces of gold reserves underground worth $2.8 billion at current gold prices.