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Peru: Illegal mining devastates forests in Amazonas Region

  • In the past five years, a group of miners from the Amazonas Region and Madre de Dios have destroyed about 20 hectares of forest, not including the constant contamination from the Pastacillo stream, in the Río Santiago district.
  • Although two bans have been put in place, the Wampis community claims that the illegal activity continues to grow.

“If anything happens to any of us, La Poza will burn.” Clobiz Pérez, indigenous leader of the town of Wampis, heard this in June 2016. A few weeks earlier, he led the ousting of a group of illegal miners who operated with more than ten dredges in the Pastacillo stream, a tributary of the Santiago River and the Marañón River, in the Amazonas region.

Pérez says that there have been miners stationed on the banks of the ravine for five years. He says that the last time a police contingent came to destroy the illegal machinery was in September 2016.

Three weeks ago, Mongabay Latam visited the Pastacillo stream, nine months after the last time the police entered. It was discovered that illegal mining continues to happen with absolute impunity, destroying the area’s forests. Officials from the Río Santiago municipality and a Wampis indigenous representative accompanied us to the area.

We were able to identify ten dredges operating near a stream, 24 hours a day, with two 12-hour work shifts. There, the empty barrels of mercury are the mark of a flattened forest that extends along 20 hectares. It’s a scene that represents one of the largest contaminations ever in this part of the Amazonas region.

More than 20 hectares have been deforested by illegal mining near the Pastacillo stream. Photo by Vanessa Romo

Part of the gold extracted from these areas is later taken to Chiclayo to be sold to intermediaries. The route is well known. If you travel on a motorboat at medium speed from the Pastacillo stream towards the La Poza and Galilea areas, you arrive in five minutes. Using the same boat, one could travel from La Poza to Santa María in four hours.

From this point to Bagua, it’s another six hours by car, and then seven hours on a bus to Chiclayo: seventeen hours total. This is the route that the gold takes once it’s extracted from eight identified points on the Santiago River where traditional mining is well-developed, yet illegal, as it is near the Pastacillo stream.

The transport of mercury and gold is not supervised along this route, and there also isn’t any control in Santa María de Nieva, where there’s a small police station. The two army bases on the route to Bagua don’t have an active role in the inspection work, either. 

The gold boom

Although the problem grew five years ago as a consequence of the “boom” of gold prices, the extraction of this metal isn’t new in the area. The last High Commissioner of Mining Formalization, Interdiction of Illegal Mining and Environmental Remediation, retired colonel César Sierra indicated that the mining in the Santiago River dates back to the 1960s and 1970s.

“For years you heard that people were buying gold there and taking it to Chiclayo,” Sierra said. “It was more difficult; there weren’t as many accessible routes as there are now, but Santa María de Nieva was always the gathering point.” According to Sierra, in 2009 and 2010 the peaks in gold prices “provoked a greater demand.” That demand reached places like Madre de Dios, Cusco, Puno, Arequipa, and Amazonas.

“People migrated from primary activities like agriculture and fishing to mining,” Sierra added.

Before that, mining was done in a traditional way, with tubes and trays to catch the collected materials before removing the gold. However, with pressure to obtain more metal, the work started being done with machines that could suction larger quantities of material and mercury, which speeds up the collection of gold.

The environmental and health consequences of sustained exposure to mercury are known, especially since the case of Madre de Dios. In 2013, ecologist Luis Fernández conducted a study with the Carnegie Institution for Science about the levels of mercury in the region. He discovered that upon eating contaminated fish, people absorb 98 percent of the mercury they contain, and that 60 percent of fish sold in Puerto Maldonado markets contained high levels of mercury.

Illegal miners working in the Pastacillo stream in Amazonas. Photo by Vanessa Romo

WHO has listed mercury as one of the ten chemicals that produce the most problems for public health. Its effects are especially harmful for children and pregnant women, in addition to causing the deterioration of the nervous, immune, digestive, and respiratory systems. These damaging consequences can occur without working with and inhaling mercury. Simply by eating fish from a contaminated river or drinking the water, one is already exposed. In a group of communities where potable water is still just a promise and where the river is the main source of water every day, the problem intensifies.

Witnesses to a disaster

From the start of the Pastacillo stream, which pours its water into the Santiago River, one can travel by boat two kilometers to reach the environmental disaster. The boat should very slowly enter the stream, which has a maximum width of 20 meters. It is June 8, and a boat full of local authorities is going to verify what is happening in Pastacillo. The authorities consist of the governor of Río Santiago, César Mashingash, the La Poza community patrol leader, Segundo Pezo, the Wampis leader, Clobiz Pérez, and the manager of the environment of Río Santiago, Dennis Cenepo.

In reality, the main reason for the trip is to show Cenepo what illegal mining is doing to the stream. Cenepo, a young indigenous Aguaruna individual who graduated as an environmental engineer in Iquitos, has been the manager of the environment since the last week of May, 12 days prior to this visit.

“This environmental engineer appeared and I hired him immediately,” said the mayor of Río Santiago, Mateo Impi, over the phone. Impi has been absent from the municipality for a few weeks.

More than 10 dredges were found operating in the Pastacillo stream. Photo by Vanessa Romo

The urgent task of finding a specialist in the area took two years to be resolved. Impi, mayor since January 2015, had put various underqualified people in charge of the environmental affairs. The most controversial of these was Cenepo’s predecessor, Julio López, who had no profession or credential that made him suitable for the position. When an environmental engineer showed up in Río Santiago, Impi had no other option but to hire him.

“When I took this position, I didn’t find any monitoring plan, no action plan to attack the illegal mining issue, nothing,” said Cenepo on the way to the illegally-mined area. “I’m starting from zero, and I need to go see the magnitude of this disaster.”

After a meandering route, the stream abruptly opens and mixes with other small tributaries coming from completely deforested land. The stream widens from 20 meters to a kilometer. In front of the collection of chopped-down trees, removed dirt, and ponds of water contaminated with mercury, Cenepo stands frozen with his mouth open. He gets off the boat and starts to explore the area, which is so dissimilar from the nature that surrounds it.

“This worries me a lot,” he said. “The authorities should put a stop to this; there has to be more supervision. Serious action needs to be taken. This mining harms the environment and someone has to take responsibility for this damage.”

The dredges were destroyed during past interdictions, but they have since returned. Photo by Vanessa Romo

As soon as they saw the municipal boat, the illegal miners operating in the seven dredges ran to hide.

“Here there are people who have come from Puerto Maldonado to work in the gold [industry],” Pezo said. “Many miners who worked in Madre de Dios later went up to Saramiriza, in Loreto, where illegal mining has already destroyed everything. That’s where the machine operators get workers to bring, because they already have experience.”

For Cenepo, the worst consequence is the consumption of contaminated water and fish by the population. “This isn’t going to be felt today, but instead in 20 years.” He then starts to list the organizations that should visit the area: the Environmental Assessment Directorate (OEFA, in Spanish), the National Water Authority (ANA, in Spanish), and the Ministry of Health of Peru.

“This doesn’t just need one person in charge; there has to be a team to counteract this situation,” he said.

Two towns divided by mining

The illegal mining in Pastacillo isn’t new for the central government, either. On two occasions, in 2013 and 2015, the Peruvian Navy and the Prime Minister’s High Commissioner on the subject of illegal mining entered the area and destroyed some mining machines. However, as Pezo pointed out, the majority of the machines disappeared before authorities arrived. “In these operations, there are always ‘tattletales,’ so the miners hide their machines or sink them, and after three days they get back to work,” he continued.

The community has also taken actions against the illegal mining on various occasions, and the last was in July 2016. This is why the police had to enter the area two months later, in October, to confiscate machinery and advocate for the security of those who were threatened after charges were filed against the illegal miners. Despite these actions, the situation continues.

Machinery was destroyed in a political intervention carried out in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Wampis Autonomous Territorial Government

The problem of illegal mining in the Santiago River as also has cultural and territorial concerns. In November 2015, the Wampis Autonomous Territorial Government (GTANW in Spanish) was officially created. It was developed by the Wampis community in order to face external threats — as well as internal ones, such as illegal mining — by reclaiming their ancestral territory without ignoring their Peruvian nationality. The Pastacillo stream is inside the 1.3 million hectares that make up the Wampis territory, although a part of the stream belongs to the Yutupis, one of the few Aguaruna communities in the area.

It’s here where the situation becomes even more complicated. Illegal mining has created territorial problems between the Wampis people and the Aguaruna people.

Clobiz Pérez, a representative of the Wampis Nation, has witnessed the intrusion of miners in the Pastacillo area since it began in 2012, when a group of Yutupis community members began the removal.

“Then a man came, Alberto Mendoza, who said that he owned this land,” Pérez said. “When we saw that he was doing illegal mining, we organized and got him out of the area.” Six months later, new machines appeared in the stream, but they belonged to other people. Meanwhile, the interdictions were only a pause in the miners’ daily work.

But the most violent confrontation between the Wampis and the Aguaruna people was in 2015.

“The Yutupis population didn’t want us to remove the miners because they brought money into the community,” Clobiz said. “When we went to confront them, women with machetes were waiting for us. We tried to take away the machetes without injuring them, and that’s when the men entered. We had our spears and we started to fight them; people were injured.”

That day, nothing was achieved.

On July 15, 2016, a group of Wampis people, supported by the police, removed a group of illegal miners who were working in the Pastacillo stream. Photo courtesy of the Wampis Autonomous Territorial Government

Economic interest is partially to blame for this conflict. Many Yutupis community members work in Pastacillo, and now there are more in La Poza and Galilea, areas with many indigenous people as well as colonists. Depending on how much the workers get, they can receive between about $46 to $92, according to La Poza community patrol leader, Segundo Pezo.

That kind of income is unthinkable in these communities, where the prices of goods have increased, as well as rates of delinquency and the consumption of drugs like marijuana and cocaine.

“We have cases of minors with grave drug problems and adolescents who leave pregnant. The problem is escalating to a social level,” Pezo said. He indicates that now, the threats come along with arrogance. “You go and burn my machine and I’ll buy three,” he was recently told. Helplessness is also increasing.

A known problem

The Public Ministry of Peru knows of the problems in Pastacillo. On April 7, 2016, a group of authorities from the Río Santiago district sent a letter to Jorge Luis Trigoso Rodríguez, the head of the Office of the Environment of Bagua. In this letter, they reported the illegal activity in the Pastacillo stream, its location, and the number of dredges in the area. Additionally, they asked for a prompt intervention in the area.


The letter sent by the Office of the Environment of Bagua to Jorge Luis Trigoso Rodríguez on April 7, 2016. Photo by Vanessa Romo

When we asked Segundo Pezo about any response to the letter, he answered: “We haven’t received any response to our complaint since we sent it more than a year ago.” The President of the Wampis Autonomous Territorial Government, Wrays Pérez, added that soon they will send a new complaint to the Office of the Environment of Bagua so that there is a record of these alerts.

The Public Prosecutor in Lima confirmed to Mongabay that there are three cases being investigated in the Pastacillo stream and that they have been united in a single document. “On Monday, July 26, there will be three hearings that will take place in the Criminal Investigation Court of Río Santiago,” said the official.

Currently, the Ministry of Energy and Mines is in charge of controlling illegal mining in coordination with 13 other institutions.

When Mongabay Latam asked Mario Ramos, regional director of Energy and Mines in Amazonas, about the actions taken by his office to control the illegal mining in Amazonas, he responded that his entity is focused on taking action against mining.

“If we see an illegal action, we file charges against it,” he commented. In a document sent to us, he indicated that there are currently 13 formalization processes in the Río Santiago district. When he was asked about the charges filed by the communities against the illegal miners in Pastacillo, he said that it hasn’t been possible to identify people or companies carrying out illegal mining activities. “Our management has had knowledge of these activities since last year, and this year we did inspections,” he said in the document.

Illegal miners use machinery and mercury to extract gold. Photo by Vanessa Romo

That is to say, more than a year has passed since the Amazonas Regional Directorate of Energy and Mines has decided to do an inspection in the Pastacillo stream. Those working to defend the environment in the region aren’t giving up, though.

More than 20 hectares of forests have been devastated by mining. Photo by Vanessa Romo

“We want to make environmental vigilance committees in Pastacillo and prevent the miners from returning,” Wampis leader Wrays Pérez said. For Pérez, this is only part of the solution, because the stream will stay contaminated. “We need the regional and central entities to be here to recuperate the ecosystem, but for now we should act immediately and stop this activity.”


This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on June 25, 2017.


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