Mining-camp raids showing some impact in Peru


Inside a mining camp during one of the February raids. (Peruvian National Police)

Carpeting and radiators normally do not evoke images of the Amazon rainforest, but they’re often among the items that Peru’s National Police seize during raids on illegal gold-mining sites in the southeastern department of Madre de Dios.

Used along with an array of other makeshift tools to sift gold-bearing sediments, they were part of the US$575,000 in equipment and machinery seized this month in police crackdowns on artisanal and small-scale mining camps in the region. Such mining has become widespread in Madre de Dios in the past two decades, wreaking havoc on the landscape and threatening human health.

Land-clearing for mining in Madre de Dios denuded 9,280 hectares (22,932 acres) in 2018—the worst year on record—according to the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which measures deforestation. Meanwhile, mercury, used in placer mining to amalgamate gold in sediment, is being ingested by residents in the region through fish consumption and other pathways. A Duke University study found that up to 60% of 3,147 people tested in Madre de Dios had mercury levels in their hair above 1.2 micrograms per gram. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends keeping mercury levels in hair below one microgram per gram.

Peru’s government stepped up its efforts to curb unregistered mining in February 2019 with the launch of “Operation Mercury,” a crackdown that over two years has involved 800 mining-camp raids and the destruction of approximately US$300 million in equipment. The operation also prompted the declaration of a state of emergency that has spanned six districts in two provinces of Madre de Dios and has been renewed every 60 days since it was first announced, most recently on Feb. 5. “Illegal mining and the informality surrounding it is one of the major problems facing the state because it contaminates the environment and limits the possibilities for real development,” says Gen. José Ludeña, head of the National Police’s environmental crimes division.

Scientists say deforestation is now under control in some of the most critical areas. “They have clamped down and, unlike big police operations in the past, this time they have stayed and put bases inside the [mining] zone to control entry points,” says Luis Fernández, a mercury expert and executive director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (Cincia).

Monitoring confirms progress
MAAP numbers support Fernández’s assessment, with deforestation levels dropping 78% at six sites in the emergency zone since the launch of Operation Mercury in 2019. In La Pampa, an area situated along 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of the highway linking Peru and Brazil, deforestation was down 90%. Operation Mercury has focused particular attention on the area of La Pampa that overlaps the buffer zone for the Tambopata National Reserve.

“The threats from mining and illegal logging have diminished considerably with Operation Mercury and the state of emergency,” says Vladimir Ramírez, who is in charge of the reserve for Peru’s park service, known by its acronym, Sernanp. Ramírez says that with the threat subsiding, his crew in late 2019 began restoring areas in the park that had been invaded and this year hoped to have close to 400 hectares (1,000 acres) reforested.

William Pan, a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment, says declining deforestation means a reduction in mining and—thus—less mercury pollution. That, he adds, is no small feat. “The state of emergency has increased the prevalence of people accepting that mercury is a harmful substance,” says Pan, who conducts research in Madre de Dios. “It is not just causing individual harm, but population-level harm.”

Still, experts say it will be a big challenge to move from interdiction to landscape restoration and the creation of economic opportunities that can rival small-scale mining. Madre de Dios produced approximately 8 tons of gold in 2019, according to Peru’s Energy and Mines Ministry. Based on the price at press time, that amount of gold would fetch US$514 million.

Víctor Hugo Pachas, Peru country director for the nonprofit Alliance for Responsible Mining, says understanding the geographic scope of mining is key. He notes various governments since 2008 have tried to curb mining in the swath of territory that parallels the highway linking Peru and Brazil. But the mining belt is far more extensive, stretching from the rainforest up the Andean slopes. “Any actions targeting mining need to have a more comprehensive view...There are many areas where mining continues, despite Operation Mercury.”

Broader view needed
And the government takes an excessively narrow view of those involved in mining, only considering actual miners rather than the entire supply chain. Pachas said it would be impossible to create a formal regimen to control where and how artisanal and small-scale mining is done if related activities are not included.

General Ludeña agrees, but says pressures created by the pandemic have cut the number of police officers in the area to a quarter of their level a year ago. That has left the remaining officers stretched thin as miners move to avoid raids. “Miners are moving to more remote areas and relying on heavy machinery, which complicates the problem because they can clear more forest at a quicker pace,” he says.

The government talks about reforestation and landscape restoration, but Fernández points out that Cincia studies show landscapes may have been permanently altered by water. Much gold mining in the region is done by clearing trees, digging pits, and washing the sediments. Pits, now ponds, are left behind when miners move to the next site. Fernández says new research, made possible by a greater security presence through Operation Mercury, shows ponds now cover 30% of La Pampa.

“What you have are thousands and thousands of mining ponds, so deforested areas are not only deforested, they have essentially been converted to water,” Fernández says. “This not only limits the amount of possible regeneration, but means it is now one of the largest wetlands in the southern Peruvian Amazon.”

The alteration could influence the menu of post-mining scenarios—for instance boosting possibilities such as fish farming or rice cultivation. A hurdle on that score, though, would be the high methylmercury levels in the ponds.

- Lucien Chauvin

Luis Fernández
Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation (Cincia)
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: (734) 678-4329
José Ludeña
National Police of Peru
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 577-7447 
Víctor Hugo Pachas
Alliance for Responsible Mining
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(51 987) 271-267
William Pan
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
Tel: (443) 739-9144
Vladimir Ramírez
Puerto Maldonado, Peru
Tel: +(51 82) 571-247
Documents & Resources
  1. Map of mining deforestation: link

  2. Recent studies on mercury contamination from Peruvian gold mining: link

  3. Recent studies on mercury contamination from Peruvian gold mining: link

  4. Recent studies on mercury contamination from Peruvian gold mining: link