Traveling to Massiapo, the capital of the Alto Inambari district, can be simple if one takes the road from the San Jose Bridge towards Pampa Yanamayo, following a path parallel to the river. This journey takes about 30 minutes. However, taking the route from the city of Juliaca, in the Puno region, is far more dangerous and takes several hours. This was confirmed by Óscar Jiménez, the district attorney specializing in environmental matters in Puno. When Jiménez last visited the area in November 2017 with some park rangers and police officers, their vehicle was followed by two trucks: one in front of and one behind them. When the trucks were inspected, the people inside them identified themselves as inhabitants of the area.

The San Jose Bridge leads to two different roads. The first road goes to Putina Punco, from where Mongabay Latam reported on the drug trafficking issue and its invasion into the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. The second road, which we will take for this report, leads to Alto Inambari.

On the way to Massiapo, one can see small settlements and mining “micro-camps” on the shores of the Inambari River. Not all of them have people working in them, because the miners’ method involves digging out the river, diverting the natural flow of the river, and then working on the newly uncovered land. This is where the miners pour mercury into the water.

Entering and photographing these areas is not simple. The community members can immediately detect those who don’t belong in the area. However, we were able to enter and see how the machines have been devouring part of the mountain.

District attorney Óscar Jiménez explains that in this area, the illegal miners begin by removing the sand before they extract the gold. They then abandon the area and repeat the process in another spot. Despite the fact that numerous sanctions have been carried out between 2015 and 2016, which called for the destruction of 50 machines, Jiménez says that it has not yet been possible to issue a formal complaint against private individuals. “With two district attorneys to attend to all the environmental crimes in Puno, it is difficult to do large follow-ups,” Jiménez says.

“Before, there was a peak here,” says Carlos, a community member who approached us while we were stopped to observe the destruction in Pampa Yanamayo. The buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park is located at the front of the village. What once was the peak is now a sandy plateau without any vegetation, and backhoes have begun to occupy the place that once belonged to the wildlife in the area.

This is the third installment in Mongabay’s “Bahuaja-Sonene at risk” special series. In the previous installments, Mongabay Latam discussed how the shadow of drug trafficking has expanded within the park’s buffer zone and has even crept into 400 hectares (almost 990 acres) of the park itself. In this installment, we will discuss how illegal mining is threatening the northeastern part of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park.

The fuel industry

From the higher parts of Massiapo, it is clear that the area is burdened by heavy machinery and gas stations that have been constructed either legally or illegally. The town’s economy has changed drastically since mining arrived in the area.

Mongabay Latam gained access to a report from the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno that confirms that illegal fuel is being brought in from Juliaca. The document says that the fuel’s route begins in “the city of Juliaca” and passes through the districts of “Ananea, Oriental, Sandia, Massiapo, and the end of the Pampa Yanamayo highway.” According to residents of Massiapo and district attorney Jiménez, dozens of illegal gas stations appeared in the town in 2012.

The illegal sale of fuel has added to this growing issue. Last year, five well-known gas station chains, including Pecsa and Primax, began operating in Massiapo, a town of fewer than 2,000 people. The Regional Environmental Commission of Puno is investigating whether illegal mining is the principal reason behind this unexpected increase.

One detail pointed out in the commission’s report is that there are federal control points located on the route on which the illegal fuel is transported, so the problem could be curbed by the inspectors. Pedro Gamboa, director of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP), told Mongabay Latam that there should have been a control point similar to that in Puerto Maldonado, in the Madre de Dios region. “The authorities know about this entry [of illegal fuel], but they have not worked on getting a control point,” said Gamboa.

Gamboa was referencing the control point that has been in Madre de Dios since 2012 to ensure that supplies for illegal mining, including fuel, do not enter the area. This is one of the reasons that the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining of Peru (OSINERGMIN) suspended the entry of new gas stations, and the increase in gas stations’ fuel capacity, for three years. The suspensions took place in the entire Madre de Dios department, as well as in the districts of Camanti (in the Cusco region) and San Gabán (in the Puno region) because these places are adjacent to the illegal mining.

There are five illegal gas stations in the city of Massiapo. It is dangerous to approach the area to take photos, but the circle indicates the location of one of them. Photo by Vanessa Romo.
There are five illegal gas stations in the city of Massiapo. It is dangerous to approach the area to take photos, but the circle indicates the location of one of them. Photo by Vanessa Romo.

Fuel, whether legal or illegal, is used by the miners who have begun to mine illegally along a stretch of 40 kilometers (about 25 miles), from the San Jose Bridge to the town of Santa Rosa Mayuhuanto, where the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park buffer zone begins. Throughout this journey, it is clear how illegal mining has taken over both sides of the Inambari River, because mercury freely pours into the water.

The increase in mining

Mining has always been present in the Amazon in the Puno region. According to SERNANP, traditional mining has been mostly contained to the provinces of Carabaya and Sandia, which now form part of the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park and some of the park itself. However, the 2005 expansion of the highways towards the rainforest and the 2010 construction of the southern Interoceanic Highway changed the panorama completely. With these roads came illegality. They facilitated the entrance of heavy machinery. Dredges increased the damage from the illegal mining, and people began to notice changes in the rivers, fauna, and flora.

However, the roads were far from the only problem. Authorities say that one of the main causes of the illegal mining in Alto Inambari was the phenomenon known as the “balloon effect.” If you press on one side, the problem moves to the other side.

The sanctions against illegal mining in Madre de Dios —police operations carried out between 2009 and 2012 to destroy supplies used for illegal mining— provoked the displacement of the miners toward other areas, according to colonel César Sierra, the last High Commissioner of Mining Formalization, Interdiction of Illegal Mining, and Environmental Remediation. The miners moved toward areas like Quincemil (in the Cusco region) and San Gabán and Alto Inambari (in the Puno region).

In November 2017, Óscar Jiménez, rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, and police officers were able to find illegal mining activity. Photo courtesy of the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno.
In November 2017, Óscar Jiménez, rangers from Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, and police officers were able to find illegal mining activity. Photo courtesy of the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno.

Jiménez, the district attorney, added that there are miners in Alto Inambari who came from the Ananea district in the highlands of Puno. Sanctions were carried out in Ananea, but the illegal mining continues there.

The mining done in Alto Inambari is known as “alluvial mining,” which means the riverbed is removed to find the gold. David Araníbar, director of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, says that this type of mining produces landslides and can even divert the natural course of the river. He adds that the problem repeats itself all along the Inambari River, which is the natural border along the national park’s buffer zone.

According to SERNANP, this interference with the river has been detected along the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park buffer zone since 2015. The illegal activity also exploded at the same time as sanctions were placed in Tambopata National Reserve, which is another protected area adjacent to Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in the Madre de Dios region.

An area free from mining

Illegal activity isn’t the only threat to the park. According to the Institute of Geology, Mining, and Metallurgy (INGEMMET), there are 171 additional mining requests in the area. If approved, they could gravely impact the park’s buffer zone, according to SERNANP.

For this reason, the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno plans to declare an area free from mining in the buffer zone, taking into account its goal to conserve two vulnerable ecosystems: the temperate rainforests of the southwestern Amazon and the Bolivian Yungas forests. The commission, which was led by the Regional Management of the Environment and Natural Resources of Puno, also included representatives from the Regional Directorate of Energy and Mines, attorneys specializing in environmental matters, INGEMMET, the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR), the National Water Authority (ANA), SERNANP, and other organizations.

Illegal mining covers the banks of the Inambari River, where the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park begins. However, the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno has proposed the creation of a mining-free area, which includes the entire buffer zone. Image courtesy of the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno.
Illegal mining covers the banks of the Inambari River, where the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park begins. However, the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno has proposed the creation of a mining-free area, which includes the entire buffer zone. Image courtesy of the Regional Environmental Commission of Puno.

Jiménez confirmed that this plan will be finalized with an ordinance from the regional government of Puno. Currently, only the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve has been under this order since 2010.

On one of the streets of Massiapo, several children have invaded a pile of sand that is blocking the road. They all hold a miniature front-loader or backhoe, fill it with sand, toss it, and repeat. Between laughs and playful smiles, a new generation begins to repeat the activity that surrounds them.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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