- The Madre de Dios region of Peru was abandoned by rubber barons, returned to rainforest, then transformed by poor Andean migrants seeking their fortunes.
- The rush for gold and other resources has lifted many out of poverty into the middle class, but at a high cost of contaminated rivers and clear cut rainforests.
- Two years ago, the federal government passed new laws and sent in the army to ban illegal mining, creating great resentment among the people.
The miner stood on the Cusco street corner with his friends, a little past midnight, passing around a bottle of rum and a bottle of Coke. He was tall for a Peruvian, a young and swaggering Cusco kid with a kind of alpha-male noblesse oblige. He had returned from eight years mining for gold in the Peruvian Amazon, near the border with Bolivia and Brazil.
His name was Tomas. “Hard work, mister,” he said.
In the sort of mining he practiced, miners cut down the forest and dig holes deep into the earth. They stand in their holes for hours, up to ankles, waist, or neck in brown water, sucking up the mud beneath their feet with hoses so it can be sifted for gold.
“We did cocaine just to keep going. But …” and he gave a low whistle, “I was making 1200 soles [about $400] a day, some days. I bought my little house here.”
So why had he left? He grinned. “We had some problems with informality.” Like many miners in the Madre de Dios region, they’d been operating outside the permissible mining zone. So in 2012, the army came in and booted him and his friends out. But Tomas was pleased with life. He’d come back to live in his little house and study to be a chef. He could live well in Cusco, he said. He was tired of mining.
Over the last 40 years, a series of mining and logging booms in Madre de Dios has wrought terrible environmental damage: leaving fetid moonscapes in what used to be virgin forests, along with polluted rivers loaded with tons of mercury. On the plus side, mining gives people a chance to measurably better their lives, allowing them to get their hands on some capital or sow the seeds of a professional career for themselves or their children.
That’s the surprising truth of the ecological tragedy in Madre de Dios. A lot of poor people have managed to achieve middle-class lives for themselves and their families thanks to decades of environmentally destructive employment.
Madre de Dios migrants
Tomas’ experience is a common one for young men of the highlands. For at least a hundred years, poor Quechua-speaking migrants have trekked down from the high mountains of Cusco and Puno, in Southern Peru, to the jungles of Madre de Dios to log, mine or farm – leaving behind a world of freezing winds and small garden plots for a jungle full of natural wealth, with land free for the taking.
“They wanted something better for us than was possible in the mountains,” said Victor Sambrano, 70, speaking about his parents, who migrated to a farm outside Puerto Maldonado in the 1920s. “They were entirely self-sufficient. They came down with nothing but the plans in their head and they built a life.” They cleared the jungle; built the house where Victor was born; planted yucca and rice; raised cattle. And with the money from their trees and crops they sent Victor and his siblings to school.
Sambrano’s parents came to a Madre de Dios that had been all but depopulated by the brutal conquests of the rubber barons – which is to say, that, since the people were all missing, there were land and resources up for grabs. A migrant could literally – provided he had luck, desire, and know-how – walk into the jungle and turn it into capital: logs, gold, rubber trees, farmland. In a society that is still quite stratified and racist; where power and wealth are largely concentrated in a small number of families, this was too good an opportunity for poor people to pass up.
No one knows how many have come: official numbers show a population increase in the province from 110,000 to 134,000 over the last ten years. But with so many migrants off the books, there could be a good deal more than that. Estimates go upwards of 150,000 – meaning that for every two people making a living off the jungle ten years ago there are now three. An estimated 30,000 of them are miners.
The world the Andean migrants entered is marked by exploitative labor practices, violence, drug and alcohol abuse – but also opportunity.
Up until the 1990s, it was common for bosses to hold their workers in debt-slavery, making them work without pay until they paid off their passage down from the highlands, plus their living expenses. Teens were bought in the highlands and brought to the lowlands, only to find they had been tricked into lives as virtual slaves or prostitutes. (Today Madre de Dios accounts for as many human trafficking cases as all of the rest of Peru put together.)
Many independent miners, unused to so much cash, fall into addiction. “I was working just to drink,” said Humberto Umasi, who grew up in the mining camps of Madre de Dios, and who spent his teens and early twenties as a miner. He estimates that in seven years’ work, he saw twenty of his friends die in the mines.
But Umasi got out of mining, and into selling to miners – as a taxi driver then as a shopkeeper – and he began to build a middle class life. Today he owns a shop in a mining settlement on the Malinowski River; he owns his own house in town.
Like 19th century Irish immigrants to New York or Chinese immigrants to California, lured by the American Dream, he sees the store as his chance to give his young daughters the life he never had: a stable, middle-class upbringing followed by a university education – far from poisoned jungle rivers.
He isn’t alone: the mining settlement where he lives is full of people with similar determination and dreams: it’s common to meet miners who are grammar-school dropouts, but have children in school studying environmental engineering, nursing, or law.
The price of progress
The environmental cost of this human progress has been enormous.
“When I grew up here, it was a paradise,” Victor Sambrano said, gesturing around the small lodge where he lives outside Puerto. “You could just walk into the forest and pull food off a tree.” But he came back to Madre de Dios in the early 1980s after two decades in the Marines to find a different world. His family had sold their land to cattle farmers, who had clear-cut it, then planted it in forage crops that depleted the soil. In a yellowing photograph from those days, Sambrano stands on his family’s land, sleeves rolled up, a determined look on his face. The grass he’s standing on is sickly; the land just one step from ecological death.
Then there is gold. In the region known as La Pampa, off the new highway west of Puerto Maldonado, miners like Tomas, the kid from Cusco, clear-cut the forests, turn the rivers to mud, and pump the earth through machines to filter it for gold dust – leaving, when they’re done, nothing but a toxic wasteland of craters filled with polluted groundwater. Miners have leaked an estimated 40 tons of mercury – that is, about 6 million lethal doses – into the region’s rivers.
On rivers like the Malinowski, according to Peru’s Ministry of the Environment, the circulation of decomposing organic matter dredged up from the river bottom by miners’ pumps has turned a once-clear, pristine stream chocolate brown and anoxic.
“They kill the rivers,” said Humberto Cordero, the head of the ministry’s team in Madre de Dios. And there are other costs. There’s an island on the Tambopata River near Puerto Maldonado called Isla de los Monos – Monkey Island. It has few monkeys now: most were killed and eaten by hungry miners – bushmeat was, and still is, popular in the region.
So the national government, in the last four years, has cracked down: passing new forestry laws criminalizing mining on the rivers, along with more invasive mining technologies. It raids the camps of those who continue mining as they always have, and blows up their equipment.
“An act of war”
In Puerto, these interventions are considered close to being an “act of war,” in the words of economist Hernando de Soto.
“It’s a sign that the government is in thrall to environmental fundamentalism,” said miner Jose Carlos Bustamente. “It’s just like what you see with religious fundamentalism; people who let their beliefs blind them to what’s actually going on.”
Bustamante is the head of DREM, the governmental body that oversees energy and mining in the region of Madre de Dios. He’s part of a political party that swept to power in 2014 on a tide of anger by miners over new environmental regulations that they saw as criminalizing their livelihood. Bustamante is a stocky, emphatic man, who once started on the subject of environmental regulation is hard to derail. “I love nature too,” Bustamante said. “I love to look at the jungle. But people are starving. What are they supposed to eat?”
“If North America doesn’t want us to cut down our trees because it wants to sequester the carbon, fine,” he continued. “But it needs to pay us, and that money needs to go into the pockets of the people who would otherwise be making money on mining or logging. Otherwise, we need those resources.”
The government, by criminalizing a trade that has lifted many out of poverty, has created a groundswell of contempt for environmentalism, said Ludwing Bernal, an activist from the indigenous rights organization Bartolome las Casas which works in the mining camps. “People feel like the NGOs came in – World Wildlife Foundation, people like that – and they won’t let [poor people] work, won’t let them provide for their families. The [locals] feel like people are making rules for them who don’t understand their lives.”
It was difficult to verify this contention, because it has become very dangerous for outsiders to enter the region in the last two years, since the national government began attacking mining camps on the Pampa in its highly publicized effort to stop illegal gold mining.
In 2013, when Bernal tried to take a Dutch photographer to Huepetuhe, the community where he worked, the two were surrounded by screaming miners threatening to lynch them. “It turned out the government had blown up some [mining] machines recently, and they thought we were spies,” Bernal said. The national police, ultimately, had to rescue them.
Huepetuhe, a half-century-old Amazon boomtown, has gone bust due to the government’s recent crackdown on illegal gold mining, with an estimated 22,000 residents abandoning the town in 2014, leaving just 3,000 behind.
But the migrants keep coming; still piling into the Pampa; still moving en masse into unpatrolled forest along the highway; and invading the lands of farmers’ who came into the region in previous waves of migration.
Victor Sambrano, the ex-Marine who grew up in the jungle, now heads the steering committee of the Tambopata National Reserve – the national park created in 1990 to protect vulnerable jungle from miners and loggers. This remote preserve protects some of the least impacted habitat in the world – 274,690 hectares (1,060 square miles) of diverse forest and home to 10,000 plant species, 1,000 butterfly species, 600 bird species, and 200 mammal species.
Sambrano is deeply committed to preserving the wild. But he is a realist too. There are only 500 national police in all of Madre de Dios. “There is a total absence of the state here,” he said. “If there were even a tiny presence, things would be different.”
In his view, when the government built the highway into the region, they built a big straw that will suck people down into the jungle. Pleas from labor unions in Puerto Maldonado for public works money and projects that would offer sustainable work to all those new migrants were ignored. As Sambrano is fond of saying, the highway construction company got over $1 billion to build the highway and about $17 million to mitigate impacts of the highway. So what did they think was going to happen?
“People come here to make a life for themselves,” he said. “If we can’t help them meet that in other ways, they’re going to keep going into the forest. The state isn’t strong enough to stop them. All that criminalizing the mining has done is expand the illegal economy in Madre de Dios – if people want to work, they have to break the law.”