Hidalgo, a medical doctor, has thrown his full support behind Operation Mercury, the national government’s largest and most sustained effort to crack down on illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios. On Feb. 19, hundreds of army commandos and 1,200 police officers raided La Pampa, expelled most of the miners, arrested suspected criminals, and established three military bases to ensure, for now, that the miners don’t return. That said, illegal gold mining elsewhere in Madre de Dios continues as usual.

Pain before progress

Hidalgo told Mongabay that the raids and state of emergency have come at a cost. The region, he said, was plunged into a recession that was felt especially in Puerto Maldonado, where more than half the region’s 150,000 people live. Crime has risen, taking a particular toll on ecotourism, which the governor said has dropped 40 percent this year largely due to attacks on two high-end eco-lodge operations.

But this pain, he said, was necessary if he is to achieve his goal to alter his region’s bleak reputation into something closer to that of nearby Acre, Brazil. Hidalgo lived there for 25 years before returning home to Puerto Maldonado with his wife a year ago to run for governor. Deep in the western Brazilian Amazon, Acre has gained attention for leveraging millions in international funds, especially from Norway, to fight deforestation.

Many businesses in Puerto Maldonado support gold mining like this shop selling chain saws, gas-powered generators and suction pumps. Gov. Hidalgo said the region plunged into a recession after the raid on La Pampa largely because of displaced miners with less money to spend and a drop in eco-tourism because of rising crime rates. Photo by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

“I have seen Acre rebuild its economy to make it less about extraction and more about sustainable development,” Hidalgo said. “I want Madre de Dios to follow this path, to export more cacao [for chocolate], copoazu [a tropical fruit], Brazil nuts, and sustainable timber.”

Yet he also wants and expects gold mining to remain a significant part of the regional economy — only formalized and legalized in ways it has never been in Madre de Dios. Illegal mining makes up 60 percent of the region’s economy now; he wants gold mining to be 40 percent of the legal economy by the end of his term in 2023. The difference? Tens of millions of dollars in taxes now going unpaid.

“We are in the process of formalizing miners,” Hidalgo said. “In the previous 16 years, only two miners have been formalized. We now have 37 and will have 150 by the end of August. My goal is 1,200 formalized miners by the end of the year. The gold that left this region” — an estimated $3 billion worth over the decades — “has never helped us at all. That needs to change.”

Support for ‘Noah’s Ark’

While he could not describe how formalization would be enforced — always a challenge when it comes to Peruvian environmental laws — Hidalgo said “mining will be legal in certain areas, but we cannot accept that miners will extend inside our protected areas,” such as Tambopata National Reserve and its buffer zone, among other biodiverse conservation reserves. He said he also wants existing mining sites to be mined deeper for missed gold to reduce further tree loss. Because protected areas in Peru are administered by the Peruvian Park Service in Lima, Hidalgo does not have the authority to prohibit mining beyond areas already designated as off-limits to mining.

In late July, the national government transferred 588,000 soles ($173,000) to help underwrite the formalization process. Formalized miners must agree to not only pay taxes, but pay to restore deforested or degraded rainforests and eliminate the use of mercury in mining by the end of 2020. Mercury poisoning of soil, water, fish and air — more than 180 tons of the heavy metal is dumped annually— has been extremely problematic for public health in the region, especially among indigenous peoples.

Elsewhere in Madre de Dios, especially along rivers such as the Rio Inambari and Rio Malinowski, small-scale alluvial gold mining continues unchallenged, complete with deforestation and mercury dumping. Photo by Jason Houston.

In all, Lima has pledged 500 million soles ($147 million) to assist with environmental restoration, economic development and job training in the region. Very little has been disbursed yet, but much is at stake. At more than 85,000 square kilometers (33,000 square miles), Madres de Dios is slightly larger than the U.S. state of South Carolina. Its dense jungles and rich biodiversity, like much of undeveloped Amazonia, are critical to global carbon dioxide sequestration and weather production at a time of record worldwide temperature and climate instability.

At an international meeting in Colombia in March, Hidalgo’s pledge to clean up Madre de Dios led to donations of $350,000 ($200,000 from Norway) to develop climate mitigation plans that could attract millions more. And during a visit to China, he pleaded for Chinese tourists to visit the Amazon.

“I fully support what he is trying to do,” said Enrique Ortiz, a leading Peruvian environmentalist and program director of the Washington, D.C.-based Andes Amazon Fund. “The combination of climate change and biodiversity make Madre de Dios unique. It’s like Noah’s Ark. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Operation Mercury also appears to be having the desired impact on La Pampa. According to satellite data released Aug. 5 by the Monitoring of the Andes Project (MAAP), deforestation in La Pampa has decreased 92 percent this year compared to 2018, a peak year.

“The data sets show that you don’t have the big, massive mining front that was devouring forests like an alligator in La Pampa,” said Matt Finer, the Washington, D.C.-based director of MAAP. “There are isolated examples of mining continuing, so that’s a warning sign that if the government operations stop, things would likely return to the way they were.”

Kicking an ants’ nest?

Hidalgo agreed with that assessment during his Mongabay interview. He said that while he believes the majority of La Pampa miners have left the region, some, he suspects, have drifted into narco-trafficking or illegal logging, while others have moved their mining operations outside La Pampa.

There are clear signs of that. Walter Quertehuari Dariquebe, a leader with the indigenous Huachipaire tribe, calls the 4,000–square-kilometer (1,540-square-mile) Amarakaeri Communal Reserve west of La Pampa home. He told Mongabay that new gold mining and deforestation “have now shown up on our doorstep. The government has simply kicked an ants’ nest. Now ants are running all over, making trouble elsewhere — especially for us.”

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show deforestation surging recently just west of La Pampa near Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. A large proportion of these tree cover loss alerts were detected in just the first two days of August. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs show plots of cleared land carved from the rainforest have proliferated over the past few months.
Satellite images show the recent expansion of what appears to be a mining site within three kilometers of Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

Quertehuari and another indigenous leader, Luis Tayori Kendero of the Harakbut tribe, said they have little trust in the regional or national governments protecting them, their land rights or their forests as officials try to crack down on illegal mining.

“The state doesn’t see all of its citizens as equal,” Tayori told Mongabay. “As long as gold prices are high, there is no solution to this problem.”

Josefina Brana Varela, a senior director of forest and climate for the World Wildlife Fund, has been tracking developments in Madre de Dios for years. She says she understands the indigenous leaders’ skepticism. She remembers the pro-mining stance of Hidalgo’s predecessor, and recognizes that politics in Peru are fluid, and that priorities regarding the Amazon can change from year to year.

But right now, she says she sees reasons for hope in Madre de Dios.

“We are at an important juncture,” Brana Varela said. “Hidalgo is reaching out to the international community and to civil society in ways that haven’t been done before. In Lima, priorities are aligned between ministers of agriculture and the environment for Madre de Dios. We need to accelerate efforts to provide support because it’s the perfect time to make an impact. What we don’t know is if we will have enough time for lasting impact before governments and politicians inevitably change.”

Justin Catanoso is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a regular contributor to Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso. Marianne van Vlaardingen of Cuzco assisted with translations in Puerto Maldonado.


Correction (Aug. 22, 2019): A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the Interoceanic Highway as the “Oceanic Highway.” We apologize for the oversight. 

Banner image: This drone photo taken in June shows the military installation inside La Pampa that was established after the government raid of the area in February. The occupation, unprecedented for the national government, has ensured that most miners have not returned to an area that was once lush, dense rain forest. Photo by Jorge Caballero Espejo/CINCIA.

Editor’s Note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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