After crossing the gate into Kotsimba, the signs that come into view are almost like cries for help: “Take care of the river water” and “If you pollute, you will be fined.” These messages make more sense after arriving on the shores of the Malinowski River, in the center of Kotsimba, where a large area has been destroyed by mining.

The center of Kotsimba is not very big. One of its most prominent features is a row of restaurants open day and night. Alongside the restaurants is a group of mechanics who specialize in repairing backhoes and front loaders. This heavy machinery can cost between $100,000 and $200,000, and it’s important to the miners that their machines stay in operation. Across the river is a small neighborhood with a few dozen houses, and an outdoor faucet that has stopped working.

Between Kotsimba and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park lies total destruction. The Malinowski River has lost much of its natural course because of the machinery that has been used to remove its riverbanks. Land that should be covered in trees has turned into a small desert, interspersed with puddles of orange mercury-filled water.

Plinio Pillco, the president of Kotsimba, acknowledges that mining has expanded within the community, although he claims that the mining is planned and zoned in the community’s master plan. He says that the miners operate in an area of only 15 hectares (about 37 acres), and claims that if there are about 40 deforested hectares (about 99 acres), it is because the national government has granted mining concessions within the community. However, calculations by those who manage Bahuaja-Sonene from the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP) say that the illegal mining impacts approximately 500 hectares (about 1,235 acres). This area includes the mouth of the Malinowski River and the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve.

This is the second installment in Mongabay’s special series, “Bahuaja-Sonene at risk.” In the previous installment, Mongabay Latam discussed how the shadow of drug trafficking has expanded in the park’s buffer zone and has even crept into 400 hectares (almost 990 acres) of the park. In this installment, we discuss how illegal mining is threatening the northeastern part of this protected area, which lies between the Puno and Madre de Dios regions.

The beginning

After spending a few hours in Kotsimba, it’s clear that another group of people besides rangers and community members can enter the community without a problem. Foreign miners, especially those from China, have been able to enter Kotsimba to extract gold since 2008. Initially, they asked permission from the leaders of the Kotsimba community. However, it was not long before they settled on a monthly payment to facilitate their operations in the area.

Pillco says that traditional mining has been present in the community since the 1970s, when the first indigenous people of the Harakbut ethnic group arrived in the area. However, he clarifies that in those days, mining was a less-invasive practice that did not have as large of an environmental impact as it does today. Back then, hunting, fishing, and removing trees were common practices. Today, with the arrival of heavy machinery in Kotsimba, mining has radically changed the environment.

Julio Guzmán, a lawyer with Peru’s Ministry of Environment, says that one of the first complaints he remembers receiving was about Chinese citizen Yi Yanguang and a group of Kotsimba leaders. They were accused of a crime against natural resources in 2010.

“The residents allowed the foreigners to enter and rented land to them to do this activity,” explains Guzmán. He also remembers that the late Antonio Brack, former Minister of Environment, was worried that this could be considered abuse against the leaders of the native community. They assured him that they had the last word about the activities that were carried out on their lands.

Pillco defended himself by saying that the Kotsimba community members are not the ones who granted these concessions to the miners. “The state had granted mining rights to other people. The fair thing is that they left some benefit to the community through the use of the lands,” he said.

Mongabay Latam confirmed that there are three active mining concessions in the Kotsimba community: Tres Bocas (“Three Mouths”) Malinowski, Tres Bocas Malinowski-1, and César-1. However, according to maps from Peru’s Institute of Geology, Mining, and Metallurgy (INGEMMET), the rest of the land in Kotsimba is considered a non-mining zone. That land is part by a legislative decree that determines the limits of the mining area in the Madre de Dios region. However, in Kotsimba, mining activity takes place beyond the three areas in which it is legal, as we confirmed in a tour of the area.

The illegal mining expands past the shore on both sides of the Malinowski River. When one excavation is completed, another begins. The proof of this lies in the mounds of sand that have been removed, which, after 10 years of illegal mining, have begun to be covered naturally by vegetation. Nature always takes its course.

The remnants of illegal mining reach Bahuaja-Sonene National Park itself. At one of the points bordering the park, almost at the head of the Malinowski River, the miners have diverted the natural course of the river. The forest in the national park has also been pushed back by backhoes, funnels that filter out gold, and mercury-polluted wells.

Although what is happening in the area is known, the only action taken so far is a sanction to destroy machines and supplies. This step was led by prosecutor Esther Daza in 2015. In the operation, camps were burned and four pieces of machinery, including backhoes and front loaders, were removed. However, now Daza faces a complaint for entering the community without a permit.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

In the Harakbut language, “Kotzimba” means “aguaje,” otherwise known as the moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa). The name is warranted; until eight years ago, the moriche palm surrounded the houses in the community and grew very close to the shores of the Malinowski River.

Tomás Tomiquete, a former resident of Kotsimba and one of the first members of the Harakbut ethnic group to arrive in the community, remembers the huge fish that used to be in the river. He also remembers the glowing eyes of the lizards when someone would point a light toward the lagoon while hunting in the middle of the night. On the natural beaches on the riverside, yellow-spotted river turtles used to lay their eggs and unsuccessfully try to hide them in the clear waters of the river.

Tomiquete was one of the first people to complain about the illegal mining and deforestation in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. He now lives in Mazuco, alongside the Interoceanic Highway. At 73 years old, he no longer wants to spend energy on a cause that he considers, at least for now, lost.

David Araníbar, director of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, says that although some illegal logging could be stopped in Kotsimba in 2016, not all of the work to contain the deforestation has been successful. The same is true for illegal mining. The mining operations at the head of the Malinowski River greatly impact the migration patterns of the giant river otters in the area. This species is in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. “The otters have become isolated in the Heath River, the only part of the park that does not have the threat of mining” said Araníbar.

The same problem is true for fish, which are now less common in the river. The fish that do arrive to Kotsimba can not be consumed by residents because they contain too much mercury, according to Araníbar. He added that the yellow-spotted river turtles are also threatened by the illegal mining. Because the natural beaches contain plenty of gold, the sandy riverbanks where the turtles live have been destroyed to extract it. Today, one must walk more than an hour into the park in order to find any turtles.

Illegal mining threatens Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in various ways. The park’s leaders are concerned with trying to slow the progression of the mining before it advances into more areas in the park. Many other members of the Kotsimba community are worried about stopping the environmental destruction today.

Part of the problem is that the relationship between SERNANP and Kotsimba is tense. Residents of Kotsimba assert that, in addition to their 28,000 hectares (about 69,190 acres) of recognized territory, there are another 10,000 hectares (about 24,700 acres) within the park that belonged to them historically. SERNANP has stated that, by law, the land in natural protected areas cannot be reduced. However, the organization says that if an administrative process is followed in which ancestral territory limits are recognized, sustainable management projects such as ecotourism can be planned.

Pillco, the president of Kotsimba, says that this is his intention. “We do know that mining in the river is illegal,” he says. He says that they are also conscious that this activity will end eventually, and that they will stay in the same place. Pillco is clear he does not want Kotsimba to end up like La Pampa, which is in the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve. “According to our master plan, the next step to take is to generate a new economy based on experience-based tourism,” Pillco says.

At 35 years old, Pillco is part of an educated generation that actually developed, in part, thanks to money from illegal mining. “That was the idea of our parents — to dedicate themselves to this so that we could grow better,” says Pillco. According to him, since 2010 there has been talk about a more responsible zoning plan for Kotsimba. The plan includes one region dedicated to mining and another region of 12,000 hectares (about 29,650 acres) dedicated to conservation.

According to the master plan of Kotsimba, an area has been zoned for mining and another area will be dedicated to conservation projects. However, the mining area shares a border with Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. Photo courtesy of the native community of Kotsimba.
According to the master plan of Kotsimba, an area has been zoned for mining and another area will be dedicated to conservation projects. However, the mining area shares a border with Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. Photo courtesy of the native community of Kotsimba.

This plan fits together with those created by the partnership between the Ministry of Environment and the Development Bank of Latin America (the MINAM+CAF program). The MINAM+CAF program hopes to create public investment projects to help repair the impact of the Interoceanic Highway. Edilberto Castro, a specialist from the program, says that in the Madre de Dios region, the initiatives that the program promotes are private. Castro says that in 2017, an initiative was begun with Kotsimba to create a private conservation area on those 29,650 acres. The initiative is still in progress.

Pillco says that this is how Kotsimba applied for, and won, funding to construct a lodge for tourism. The MINAM+CAF program gave them $60,000 for its construction, although Pillco says that the community has also invested another $260,000 to make sure the lodge was of the best quality possible. Although the initiative is a positive gesture, an uncomfortable silence arises when either the MINAM+CAF program or the Kotsimba community is asked where the money came from.

Pillco insists that the future of Kotsimba should be related to tourism. However, there are still some setbacks. In December 2017, a resident of Kotsimba was found illegally mining in a 98-square-foot area in Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, at the head of the Malinowski River. “We want to make our old borders thrive,” said the community member to the park rangers who surprised him at the time.

“Kotsimba has been satanized, people don’t understand that we saw how other people took advantage of our resources. How come we couldn’t do that?” says Pillco. He says that in a year, the community will let go of mining and completely dedicate itself to ecotourism. “We know that we can live off of tourism —off of carbon credits— but for now, what do we do? There is a necessity to work and to improve our quality of life,” he says.

In the local markets, a gram of gold costs an average of $24. This means that in just 24 hours of work, miners can earn more than $4,600.

Yet, this is the type of scenario that Kotsimba residents want to leave in the past.

A proposal put on hold

Like other buffer zones of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, penalties and open proceedings against environmental crimes have not been successful. Although SERNANP and the MINAM+CAF program have agreed to support the new interest in the conservation of Kotsimba, they cannot ignore the environmental disaster directly caused by almost 10 years of illegal mining exploitation.

Pedro Gamboa, director of SERNANP, says that his organization’s position is to encourage activities that promote conservation, but to also allow the corresponding sanction actions to be carried out. “There are authorities very close, who guard the Interoceanic [Highway]. They should enter the area,” says Gamboa.

“The district attorney or the police would have to enter the area, but they haven’t done that in all these years,” says Víctor Zambrano, president of the management committee for Tambopata National Reserve. In 2017, the committee proposed declaring a state of emergency for the reserve’s entire buffer zone to the president of the Council of Ministers of Peru, Mercedes Aráoz. The committee thought that this would help stop the devastation caused by mining in La Pampa and in Kotsimba.

Sources from the General Directorate of Environmental Mining Issues, in the Ministry of Energy and Mines, told Mongabay Latam that a state of emergency was close to being declared, but that the March resignation of former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stopped those plans in their tracks. Now, the proposal is again waiting to be discussed by the government.

At the judicial level, the complaints made in Kotsimba have not been successful. Ministry of Environment lawyer Julio Guzmán said that in 2014, a new investigation was opened regarding the contamination of the Malinowski River caused by illegal mining. However, in August 2017, Américo Bautista, a lawyer specializing in environmental matters in the Madre de Dios region, declared the case dismissed. He closed it because of a lack of evidence. Guzmán says that the reasons for the case being dismissed will be investigated.

Pillco acknowledges that after Esther Daza, no other prosecutor has returned to Kotsimba or requested to inspect the mining activity in the community. Mongabay Latam attempted to contact Bautista to learn why the state of emergency case was dismissed, but calls have not been returned.

Meanwhile, all day and all night, motorcycles and pickup trucks enter and leave using the small road, located next to the Dos de Mayo bridge. The bridge leads to Kotsimba via the Interoceanic Highway. These vehicles take this route without a problem. Occasionally, a group of police officers inspect the vehicles headed towards Puerto Maldonado and Mazuco, as just a few miles away, the Malinowski River continues to be filled with mercury.

Every day passes this way: without scheduled sanctions, new reports being opened, or the state of emergency being declared that the residents have been requesting.

CORRECTION (7/12/2018): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the MINAM+CAF had given $60 million for the construction of the lodge and the community had invested another $260 million. We regret the error.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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