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Qualified success: What’s next for Peru’s Operation Mercury?

  • The Peruvian government’s launch of Operation Mercury to crack down on illegal mining had a burst of initial success, cutting deforestation by 92% since its kickoff in February 2019.
  • Concerns have surfaced that the operation would simply displace miners, forcing them to deforest new areas.
  • However, satellite imagery analysis published in January 2020 revealed that, while deforestation due to mining continues to be a problem in southeastern Peru, Operation Mercury has not led to a surge in forest loss adjacent to the targeted area.
  • The government is also investing in programs aimed at providing employment alternatives so that people don’t return to mining.

More than a decade of illegal gold mining around the upstart town of La Pampa in the Peruvian Amazon has tainted local water supplies, razed forests adjacent to a world-class wildlife preserve and fostered illegal child labor and human trafficking. The region has become “what is essentially the poster child for environmental destruction,” said Luis Fernandez, a researcher with decades of experience researching the impacts of gold mining in the tropics.

But when Peru launched Operation Mercury in February 2019, the tangible effects were immediate and considerable. According to the NGO Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), the military- and police-led Operation Mercury drove down deforestation by 92% in the area bounded by the Malinowski River, the edge of Tambopata National Reserve and the Interoceanic Highway.

However, concern arose that the operation would just force miners to set up shop elsewhere, said Fernandez, also executive director of the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation at Wake Forest University. What’s more, it’s unclear whether miners will resume their activities if the police and the military back off their campaign.

The goal of Operation Mercury 2019, which began on Feb. 19, 2019, is to eradicate all illegal activity in La Pampa, located in the buffer zone of Tambopata. Nevertheless, it has also put defenders at further risk, since the miners hold them responsible for the arrival of the authorities. Image by Vanessa Romo/Mongabay Latam.

“Going in with an iron fist in La Pampa, that stops the problem for the time that you’ve got the fist closed,” Fernandez said. “But if you open that up, things might change very fast. It might go back to the way it was.”

Ecologist Matt Finer and the MAAP team published satellite maps on Jan. 17 showing that there was little evidence that the operation forced miners to clear nearby forests.

“Yes, there was gold mining deforestation [in 2019],” Finer told Mongabay. But, he said, “It’s not like there’s been like this massive relocation of gold mining deforestation that was feared.”

MAAP’s satellite imagery analysis showed that miners are continuing to clear forest in southern Peru’s department of Madre de Dios outside the corridor where Operation Mercury focused its efforts. But only about 22% of the deforestation over the past three years took place in 2019, “indicating that displaced miners from Operation Mercury have NOT caused a surge in these three areas,” the MAAP team wrote.

A butterfly in Tambopata National Reserve. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Still, Mongabay Latam recently uncovered evidence that even the brief absence of police officers at a checkpoint on the Malinowski River was enough to allow new mining activity inside Tambopata. Such revelations, along with rumors that miners have seeped into new and perhaps previously deforested areas in response to the pressure from Operation Mercury, lay bare the challenge of permanently eliminating illegal mining.

Now, 13 months on from the start of Operation Mercury, the Peruvian government is looking for ways to build on the early success and to broaden its reach to other mining hotspots. The initial push, involving a broad coalition of federal and local government agencies, had the narrow focus and precision of the “military exercise” that it was, Fernandez said.

For more than a decade, the lure of easy riches and the completion of the Interoceanic Highway through the region of La Pampa came together to allow illicit mining to tear holes in the rich tapestry of biodiversity-supporting forests in and around Tambopata. Fueling that mining boom has been a combination of the lack of economic opportunities and the rising price of gold — peaking at $1,921 per ounce ($67.76 per gram) in 2011.

A land-use map showing the mining areas in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. Image courtesy of MAAP.

“That’s a pretty big incentive if you’re growing papayas,” Fernandez said.

A 2018 study in the journal Remote Sensing tied around 530 square kilometers (205 square miles) of forest loss in southern Peru to the small-scale artisanal mining that’s prevalent around La Pampa. It led to what Fernandez called “a big tumor in the middle of what’s supposed to be a protected area.”

The launch of Operation Mercury began to reverse that slide.

“The question is, is this going to be a whole solution or is it just going to be focused on La Pampa?” Fernandez said.

Leonardo Caparros, an adviser to Peru’s environment minister, acknowledged that miners, in response to the operation’s pressure, may have moved into places that were deforested before. That could lead to mining activity that might not show up on MAAP’s maps, he said.

The continuing deforestation in the region is also evidence that the battle against illegal mining has many fronts, said Caparros, who recently returned from a trip to the Nanay River in the northern Peruvian Amazon to try and tackle incipient illegal mining near there. (“We don’t want a second Pampa,” he told Mongabay.)

A capybara in Tambopata National Reserve. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Still, Caparros added, “I am sure we have reduced the problem in an important way” in southeastern Peru. He noted that Operation Mercury squelched mining across 200 km2 (77 mi2) of territory, including all of Tambopata and much of the region of La Pampa beyond the reserve’s borders.

The government is also working to address similar problems in the departments of Loreto, Amazonas, La Libertad and Ica, Caparros said.

In La Pampa, the effort involved stopping the activities of thousands of miners and thousands more who were indirectly involved, and he said carrying those gains forward wouldn’t be easy. Now that the area is secured, the focus must broaden to the economy and providing alternatives for miners.

“Development is the only way to defeat illegal economies permanently,” Caparros said.

A roughly $11 million program called “Trabaja Peru” comprises some 45 projects led by Peru’s labor ministry that is aimed at providing temporary jobs for around 5,000 people. And government agencies are working to develop more permanent alternatives in sectors such as tourism and agriculture.

Sunset on the Tambopata River. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“There are many things to be proud of,” Caparros said, “but we prefer not to talk of success, because the work is not done yet.”

Operation Mercury’s architects planned for an initial two years, with the possibility of extending it for another 10. But presidential and congressional elections have been set for April 2021, and whether the next government will prioritize the project remains a question mark.

Caparros said he hopes the new government will capitalize on that momentum toward ending deforestation at the hands of illegal miners, given what the operation has accomplished so far.

“I think that we have [achieved] something important,” Caparros said, “and any government will see that it is easier to push in the same direction, than going back.”

Banner image of the Amazon forest canopy in Tambopata National Reserve by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay. 

John Cannon is Mongabay’s staff features writer. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citations:

Caballero Espejo, J., Messinger, M., Román-Dañobeytia, F., Ascorra, C., Fernandez, L., & Silman, M. (2018). Deforestation and Forest Degradation Due to Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: A 34-Year Perspective. Remote Sensing, 10(12), 1903. doi:10.3390/rs10121903

Finer, M., & Mamani, N. (2020). Illegal Gold Mining Frontiers, part 1: Peru. MAAP: 115.

Villa, L., & Finer, M. (2019). Major Reduction in Illegal Gold Mining from Peru’s Operation Mercury. MAAP: 104.

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