Mongabay Series: Global Forest Reporting Network

Illegal gold mining spreads to protected Peruvian reserve

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Recently released satellite images show that illegal gold mining activities have now encroached upon Tambopata National Reserve, an important protected area in the southern Peruvian Amazon.

Illegal gold mining spreads to protected Peruvian reserve
  • Images taken in September 2015 and November 2015 of an area along the northern border of the reserve show initial illicit mining activity taking place in the reserve between September and November 2015.
  • Small-scale and artisinal gold mining is rife in Madre de Dios Department, which has been linked to significant deforestation, mercury contamination, and violence in surrounding communities.
  • However, the government is trying to crack down on illegal mining activity. In 2015, more than 100 anti-mining operations were carried out in Peru.

 

Recently released satellite images show that illegal gold mining activities have now encroached upon an important protected area in the southern Peruvian Amazon: Tambopata National Reserve. A report released by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) shows that the area between the Tambopata National Reserve and its buffer zone, the La Pampa area, has already lost over 2,500 hectares of forest between 2013 and 2015 largely due to illegal gold mining. The report follows a June 2015 statement by Amazon Conservation Association’s Mining News Watch on how illegal mining has led to significant deforestation in the buffer region.

To assess the extent of deforestation, MAAP analyzes satellite images with a specialized software program called CLASLite which was developed by the Carnegie Institute for Science. By taking satellite images of the same location at different times, researchers can compare visible changes and accurately calculate deforestation levels remotely.

Mining operations have now entered the reserve itself. Images taken in September 2015 and November 2015 of an area along the northern border of the reserve show initial illicit mining activity taking place in the reserve between September and November 2015.

Satellite imagery showing the recent incursion of gold mining activity into Tambopata National Reserve. Image courtesy of MAAP.
Satellite imagery showing the recent incursion of gold mining activity into Tambopata National Reserve. Image courtesy of MAAP.

According to the report, deforestation has also recently been recorded along the Malinowski River, which forms part of the reserve’s northern boundary. La Pampa, which is part of the reserve’s buffer zone, is an area north of the region where the Malinowski River forms Tambopata’s boundary and is known to be the site of increasing illegal mining activity. Consequently, the report asserts, the majority of deforestation caused by these illegal activities has also occurred in the protected La Pampa buffer zone.

Despite a drop in gold prices over the past few years, in southern Peru, like in other South American countries, gold mining has been increasing to keep up with a yet-lofty global demand. The cost of extracting this Aurelian element, however, is borne largely by the forests that contain gold reserves, the wildlife inhabiting these ecosystems and the communities that live or work nearby.

Both Tambopata and La Pampa are located in Peru’s Madre de Dios department, which alone is said to harbor more than 30,000 active artisanal or small-scale miners. According to a MAAP report released in March 2015, 1,700 hectares of gold mining-related deforestation occurred in the La Pampa region between 2013 and 2015. Then, in May, they found more evidence showing that a further 850 hectares of forest had been wiped out because of gold mining in the Upper Malinowski River region, a little west of La Pampa.

So far, Tambopata has escaped much of the region's gold rush - unlike the buffer zone above it, which Global Forest Watch (GFW) shows lost more than 24,000 -- 5.5 percent -- of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014. This is primarily due to gold mining, which has been ramping up in recent years; the average annual deforestation rate in the buffer zone has more than doubled since 2011. The yellow box indicates where the MAAP team discovered recent mining activity across the border into Tambopata National Reserve.
So far, Tambopata National Reserve has escaped much of the region’s gold rush, and much of it still qualifies as non-degraded primary forest – unlike the buffer zone above it, which Global Forest Watch (GFW) shows lost more than 24,000 — 5.5 percent — of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014. This is primarily due to gold mining, which has been ramping up in recent years; the average annual deforestation rate in the buffer zone has more than doubled since 2011. The yellow box indicates where the MAAP team discovered recent mining activity just across the border in Tambopata National Reserve.

Satellite images of Madre de Dios show mounds of gravel that indicate areas where soil has been washed clean for gold. In total, from 2000 to 2012, mining in the region increased by 400 percent.

The area comprising the Tambopata National Reserve is home to several endangered species including the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), the jaguar (Panthera onca), the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), and the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris). The Madre de Dios department is part of southeast Peru’s crucial Endemic Bird Area while Tambopata itself is an Important Bird Area as categorized by Birdlife International. Several species found in this region are endemic and many rely on riverine forest or floodplains. Birds like the white-lined antbird (Percnostola lophotes) and the rufous-fronted antthrush (Formicarius rufifrons) are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN.

As illegal mining moves from fringe areas into protected habitats like Tambopata, such threatened species are at further risk of losing their homes. The white-lined antbird is particularly threatened by habitat loss, with experts predicting deforestation will drive a 25 to 30 pecent decline in the species over the next three generations.

Mercury: downstream and up the food chain

It’s not just birds that are threatened by the mining influx. Gold mining contributes to habitat loss and damages biodiversity on a much more intense level. Water quality studies indicate these mining operations are also causing extremely dangerous mercury pollution. For instance, mercury is often used in these small-scale gold mining operations because it forms an amalgam with the gold ore and makes it easier to extract from the surrounding sediment. But after it’s served its purpose, mercury frequently escapes into the air and water. Despite its usefulness in extracting gold, mercury is a heavy metal and a deadly neurotoxin, and is extremely dangerous to both people and the environment. Even in low concentrations, mercury has been known to cause birth defects, and heavier doses have been linked to neurological disorders like Minamata disease and even death.

Through a process called biomagnification, mercury that is released into water can be passed in higher concentrations to each successive organism up the aquatic food chain. According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Protection, several species of fish surveyed in the Tambopata region had higher methylmercury levels than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prescribes as levels safe enough for human consumption; some samples showed readings that were twice the prescribed limit.

Extensive gold mining stretches across the Amazon landscape in Madre de Dios Department, Peru. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
The region’s gold mining has caused significant deforestation. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

In total, calculations published in 2015 show that 40.5 metric tons of mercury enters the Madre de Dios River every year, meaning small-scale artisanal mining in just that one body of water is responsible for 5.6 percent of the world’s mercury pollution.

The United Nation’s Environment Program’s Global Mercury Assessment of 2013 points to artisanal and small-scale gold mining as the world’s second largest contributor to mercury pollution. Peru’s government has struggled to control such operations, which are often family-run small businesses without government permits, but a formalization process was recently created to allow people to apply for legal mining permits.

Mining and murder

Peru has been experiencing frequent incidents of violence, particularly against environmentalists and activists. A 2014 report by Global Witness identifies Peru as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists with 57 environmental and land activists, including indigenous leaders, having been murdered in Peru in just 12 years. This lack of safety and security in Madre de Dios has now also affected tourism in the region.

In November 2015, $48 million worth of illegal timber was seized in a shipment bound for the United States from Peru in what was the largest shipment of illegal timber to ever be seized in Peru. Days after the seizure, the government’s state forest agency office was attacked with a Molotov bomb. Timber, often sourced illegally from protected areas and/or indigenous reserves, is sometimes transported on boats over the Tambopata River.

Also in November, the 59-year-old president of a local reforestation association in La Pampa, Alfredo Vracko, was murdered in his home by masked gunmen. Vracko’s son believes that the murder, which coincides with the expansion of illegal gold mining into the Tambopata National Reserve, was carried out by illegal miners who had invaded his father’s reforestation concession earlier. Had Alfredo Vracko not filed an official report with the supervising government agency about the illegal miners on his land, they would have cancelled his concession on the grounds that these miners were operating within its limits. However, by reporting the mining, he inadvertently launched an official investigation into it that may have put his own life in danger.

A miner searchers sediment for gold in Madre de Dios by using a piece of equipment called a “water box.” Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

 

Vracko’s murder came almost exactly a year after another member of the reforestation association, Sixto Fernandez, was killed under similar circumstances. Vracko’s assassination follows a warning from the Forest Peoples Programme that another environmentalist, Washington Bolivar, has received death threats for his activism and stand against a plan to convert 5,000 hectares of rainforest to an industrial oil palm plantation. Furthermore, on December 28, 34-year-old Rojas Gonzales – the mayor of the town of Yagen – was shot five times and killed as he was walking home. Gonzales had been receiving death threats for years because of his vocal opposition of a hydroelectric dam project in Peru’s Cajamarca region.

Days after Alfredo Vracko was murdered in La Pampa, a network of miners in the Madre de Dios region launched a strike against the Peruvian government’s plan to crack down on illegal mining and logging operations by controlling and supervising the sale of chemicals that can be used in such operations and by implementing quotas for gasoline. Although they called off the strike early in December, the protests against setting limits on gasoline supplies – which would be a setback for many mining operations that use gasoline to run their machinery – received widespread support. The protests were led by the department’s governor Luis Otsuka who is a former head of the illegal miners’ union and led protests against the Peruvian government in 2012.

A hopeful future?

Despite the violence and the increasing threat to pristine forests from mining, there may be a glimmer of hope in the Peruvian government’s determined stand against illegal miners and loggers. The authors of the MAAP report note that in the period their findings were being reviewed, “a major operation against illegal mining activities was carried out by the Peruvian government” in the area they studied.

In fact, in 2015 itself, more than 100 operations were carried out against illegal mining all across Peru by specialized environmental prosecutors. In December alone, Peruvian National Police and Air Force units destroyed 86 illegal mining camps in the La Pampa region by removing machinery and equipment (such as hoses, engines, bins, and pipes) used for mining activities near the Tambopata reserve.

It remains to be seen how Peru’s efforts to quash illegal gold mining in protected areas like Tambopata will play out in 2016. But the MAAP team will continue to be an eye in the sky, tracking human activity in the area and its impacts on the land.

 

Citation

  • Finer M, Novoa S, Snelgrove C, Peña N (2015) Confirming an Illegal Gold Mining Invasion of the Tambopata National Reserve (Madre de Dios, Peru) [High-Resolution View]. MAAP #21.

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