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The Madre de Dios region has seen a relentless stream of illegal gold mining. This is taking its toll ...
2019-05-06 10:00:00

Ten Feet Under
The Gold Rush in Peru’s Amazon Basin

Photo by Paulina Wilk
Ten Feet Under
Ten Feet Under

In the southernmost part of Peru, pristine Amazon forests are turning into a toxic desert. Thousands of prospectors go there to collect gold with their bare hands.

Read in 37 minutes

The fog is slowly gathering at the lakeshore, near the thick wall of centuries-old trees. There’s still a good hour until dusk, but something suddenly changes. There’s a commotion on the water. A family of coypu is hunting piranhas. They’re in a hurry, swimming together, snorting, holding pale yellow fish in their clenched teeth. They jump out on fallen tree trunks and eat there, crunching and smacking. Then, they play in shallow waters – squealing, biting each other gently and cuddling in an early-evening display of tenderness.

On the other side of the lake, bright green tree crowns sway with an invisible force. Two friendly groups – a troop of larger, brown capuchins and their smaller, yellowish cousins – head to their sleeping quarters while finishing dinner. There’s about 200 monkeys in total. The faster ones grab palm fruit and figs, the delicacies oozing white juice. The last to go are mothers with their babies. The young cling to their mamas, fast asleep, while the females tread cautiously, choosing the best branches and calculating each jump with care.

The selva forest is steaming a little. White wisps thicken above the treetops, rising and becoming one with the clouds. The skies take a dramatic turn, filled with movement from tumbling gas shapes, and burning with an orange glow that fades into inky blue at the edges.

Now, the moon takes the scene, and the roles switch. No more colours. All that is left below are black tree crowns, the granite water surface, and moonlight above, silvery and luminous. The night is falling bright and quiet on the lake. Caimans are already lying low in the shallow waters. They wait, motionless, for their prey.

After dusk, the tropical forest changes its soundtrack. It becomes quieter and louder at the same time. Millions of insects play the theme tune while large nocturnal animals add their thuds, rustles and hoots. The plants don’t remain silent either. Seven-centuries-old trees shed heavy leaves; fruit hits the ground. Branches creak, sometimes a crack or a howl cuts through the air. Just before dawn, another change of mood: seconds of silence, followed by troops of rusty-furred howler monkeys beginning their chorus of howls; marking their territory with sound. The descendants of ancient birds screech over the crystal-clear water surface. When you take a handful of water, it brightens the skin.

Here, in the Tambopata National Reserve in south-east Peru, life pulsates around Lake Sandoval in myriad forms and shapes. Butterflies alone appear in a thousand varieties. There are over 100 species of mammals and 600 species of birds, not to mention hundreds of thousands of various plants and trees whose root systems are larger than a cargo truck. It’s the essence of the Amazonian magic and the abundance of nature. One of the richest places on the planet (and one of the most expensive, too). It is, after all, growing on pure gold.

Tambopata National Reserve in south-east Peru. Photo by Paulina Wilk
Tambopata National Reserve in south-east Peru. Photo by Paulina Wilk

The boy parks on the roadside and kills the engine. He pushes closer on his motorbike, propping his rubber-boot-clad feet on the dusty yellow ground. The boy is wearing his grey hoodie in a strange fashion, back to front; he has pulled the sleeves onto his arms, protecting them from the burning sun.

The boy’s gaze is vigilant, primal. He barely lifts his eyelids, keeping his chin low. He’s afraid of something. In all this racket, the heat and the cacophony of horn toots, he asks, almost soundlessly, where we want to go. Jacek, my guide and interpreter – and right now, my suspected culprit – approaches the boy. A conversation slowly begins. We want to go to Santa Rosita, a mining zone that two years ago was closed down by the army and the police, who blew up all the installations that operated in the strict nature reserve area. We know that the goldmine was restored, and that some of its former employees work there again.

I look around with false nonchalance, as if this wasn’t strange at all – the sight of us, two white foreigners roaming around the darkest corner of Peru. The roadside is scattered with simple wooden buildings. Puffs of dust, clouds of car fumes. Trucks and pickups stop on the shoulder. Loading, unloading. Nearby, in a vast pit, remains of this hot, rushed life are rotting: food, garbage, faeces, cardboard boxes, mud. It reeks. Welcome to the Wild West of the 21st century in La Pampa, this lawless town where everyone is gnawed at by the same malady: gold fever.

We talk in whispers, while Herman – the indigenous Peruvian who brought us here – negotiates with a group of other drivers. The motor taxi shelter attracts more and more men. They surround Herman in a tight circle. He makes animated hand gestures, as if telling them a fairytale. They stand aloof, stout, with a stubborn look on their faces. They don’t believe him. They shoot us furtive, wary looks. Everything seems wrong.

Finally, Herman gives up and comes back to us – this poor wretch, in his shabby uniform made out of a yellow T-shirt, safety vest, khaki trousers, fisherman hat, and sunglasses. He sways from side to side, unhurriedly carrying his enormous belly in front of him and a worn-out bag on his shoulder. Herman was a mistake, I know now. He hasn’t been to La Pampa for a year and a half. Enough time for all his knowledge of this place to expire. The people he knew no longer matter. It’s the time of new lords. And ladies.

Jacek and I, we feel like someone sprayed us with fluorescent paint. They can see us. The corn vendors, fan sellers, muscular men on cross motorbikes, wearing T-shirts, mud-coloured trousers and rubber boots stained with pale yellow mud. Those boys guarding the gym, empty before noon. The loo aunties, stretched lazily on their plastic chairs – proud owners of their toilet enterprises, charging for baths and toilets available in hastily built stands. There is no running water, so you need to draw it from barrels with small buckets. To use the restroom is 1 sol, to bathe is 2 sol. For the miners and their families living in the barracks, it’s the only chance to maintain some basic hygiene.

The owner of the lavatory business doesn’t mind a chat. She warns us that a trip to Santa Rosita today is a bad idea. In the morning, a group of policemen went there for an intervention. Who knows what’s going on there.

We pay no heed to her talk. Maybe she’s just trying to put us off? One way or another, we need to hurry.

It doesn’t take us long to make arrangements with the motorbike boy. He’ll call two mates here, and together they will take us to the mining areas – five kilometres into the selva, on the 108th kilometre of the transcontinental highway, counting from Puerto Maldonado towards Cusco. Or maybe I should say: five kilometres deep into the area where the lush tropical forest should be growing, as it usually does in strict nature reserves.

We agree to meet near California, formerly the most famed brothel in La Pampa. Now, it’s a wooden-walled nightclub, but there are still girls strolling around in the nearby alley. Their work is worth 50 sol (£12). You could get three beers for that. Most things in La Pampa cost a lot, and you have to pay in gold. It’s the primary currency here, owned by every miner – their salary comes in a portion of their daily product. They exchange nuggets for money in special shops controlled by the miner shadow banks. Right now, one gram of gold in Pampa is worth 115 sol (£27). Everything happens illegally, or, to use the local vocabulary, it’s ‘informal’. According to the law, gold mining is not allowed, neither is transporting or selling it. Neither La Pampa nor any of the surrounding excavation areas can be found on any map. Officially, we’re not here either.

Beer is the most profitable business, apart from gold mining itself. Human trafficking is still widespread, too. People are bought and sold to work in the mines, in the sex industry, and to help with other businesses in the mining village. Lately, many of the prostitutes populating the local brothels are young Venezuelan girls. The political crisis and hyperinflation chased thousands of immigrants out of Caracas straight to Peru, and a lot of girls ended up here, in these grim huts deep in the Amazon. I confirm all of these facts in numerous conversations with the miners, entrepreneurs, farmers, vendors, doctors. They all corroborate this version of the story, but still there is no proof– nobody makes any written statistics.

Two problems are particularly pervasive and common here: excess drinking and STDs. The only way to seek health advice is through the self-appointed pharmacists. Nobody can access state healthcare here. It’s not possible to set up a clinic within a nature reserve, because nobody can technically live here. Yet everyone knows about La Pampa. They call it the heart of darkness, the lawless land, the essence of evil, the mafia.

Alex, our guide to the selva, has been living in the area for the last decade. “In La Pampa, three in every four people are running from something. Usually, it’s jail; they have been sentenced, they are wanted. If the police catch them, they will go behind bars for their old sins, and for gold on top of that. La Pampa is the gateway for smuggling cocaine to Bolivia and Brazil. Every week, the police seize transport. Criminals from all over the country come here. It’s a place with no rules.”

The motorbike boy was true to his word. He comes with two others. None of them are more than 20 years old; they all have wispy moustaches, like moss. They live near Cusco and work here, renting motorbikes to drive people to the mines. 60 sol (£14) one way, per person. We agree that they will drive together, without splitting.

We shoot out into the highway, the motorbike leans to the side, we weave fast between cars in thick traffic. La Pampa is an uncouth, half-savage bonanza. On both sides of the road, business is tirelessly churning. Electronics are sold in huts and shacks, the prices soaring higher than in the fancy Miraflores district in Lima. Among the buildings made haphazardly with planks and boards, the first brick giants are appearing: two stories high, not yet plastered, plastic sheets flapping on the wind. Fortunes are growing and they’re not going anywhere. With gold mines usually come temporary settlements; the miners live like nomads. Not here. Here, the ores seem bottomless. In those huts, among the puddles, plastic furniture and roaring power generators, lies colossal money. Illegal gold mining in Peru is estimated to be worth roughly $3 billion per year. It brings more profit than the cocaine trade.

We take a turn into an alley between the houses – one of many bumpy roads, full of puddles ridden with dengue virus. The town already boasts the second and third tier of land development: the barracks, at this time of day occupied only by women and children. The driver speeds ahead. Into a narrow path, stones spraying from beneath the tires, through the yellow mud, darting across the wooden-plank bridges over the brooks and streams. Sand and dust get into my eyes, I can see the forest thinning to my left and right, I try to lean to the sides along with the driver, the bike takes sharp turns. My hands are cramping from squeezing the seat. I don’t ask the boy to slow down. He’s rushing for a reason.

20 minutes later, we shoot out of the trees, into the nothingness. La Pampa in Spanish means an open space in the forest; a clearing. But this is not a clearing, it’s something much worse. A petrified, desert landscape. Suddenly, the sun. Heat. And one colour, just yellow, stretching all the way to the horizon, where the hills loom, along with a brownish-green line of trees. Here, there is nothing but mountains of dry sand, protected from sliding down by nets stretched between wooden poles. It’s a foreign planet, a landscape that never knew life. Among the heaps of sand, there are small lakes of beige water. No plants. The soil is polluted, soaked with mercury, the area turned into toxic dunes. Deathly silence all around.

There is some rudimentary mining equipment left abandoned on the hills and in the lakes. Just a handful of people roam the area. It’s hard to believe that these pitiful rusty machines, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the shoddy pumps, buckets, wheelbarrows and sheets were enough to cause such widespread damage. And Santa Rosita is but a speck on a vast pattern. A few days later, I will see it again from the window of my plane to Lima. It’s just one out of several dozen pale scars; horrid naked wounds torn in the mellow green skin of the Amazon. They mark the wilderness by the shores of the spectacular winding stream of the river Madre de Dios – the Mother of God. Its waters change their name to Madeira in Brazil, where they join the Amazon river. Madre de Dios is one of the main tributaries of the most magnificent river in the world. Its waters bring a toxic message.

If we felt too visible in La Pampa, now – on the naked planes of Santa Rosita – it’s open season. We agree with our drivers that they will wait for us while we walk around the mine. They agree reluctantly, but only for double pay, and drive to a tent on a nearby hill. There, a satellite television awaits, along with cold Inca Kola and a bit of shade.

Before we manage to walk 50 metres, two men on motorbikes appear from nowhere. They ask questions. Jacek gives a previously-agreed upon explanation. We represent a Polish company with a division in Lima. We sell car engines. He gives them a business card – our personal data is real. It turns out that one of the men is a car mechanic, and wants to talk in more detail. “We use suction motors, six cylinders. Got any of those?” he asks, pawing at the card with his calloused fingers. He doesn’t get off the vehicle. The other one watches us wordlessly. More bikes appear between the hills that surround us. The bare landscape is actually full of life. The air is getting heavy.

We walk unhurriedly towards the closest lake with platforms on, discussing the mining technique. It has not changed much over the past 150 years. Once the pump sucks up the material from the bottom, it needs to be washed, sifted and manually handled. Down there, we can see three rafts of the production platform on the stagnant water. They are no larger than nine square metres each, just large enough to fit an engine and the conveyor structure that carries the water with the yield down to the drainpipes and onto the sheets. The ones we see here stand motionless. Gold found in the whole Madre de Dios area lies in shallow ground, as little as three metres deep. Most of it can be found in the former riverbeds. The rivers here sometimes change and ‘forget’ their previous routes, and in their old beds, they leave riches brought all the way from the Andes. Which is why neither heavy equipment nor many hands are necessary to do this work.

Suddenly, a woman comes out from behind a dune and starts walking towards us. She’s stout, with tight red lips and a cold voice. She’s wearing tight trousers, light-turquoise running shoes and a blouse that stretches on her broad hips. It’s Roxana, the owner of the engines in the two lakes. The men we just met work for her. Seeing her, the guy who claimed to be a mechanic – even though he seemed more of a security guard to us – takes up and leaves. Roxana watches us suspiciously, but after listening to Jacek’s story, she relaxes. She seems convinced by his friendliness and his flawless Spanish. She’s happy to show us the engines she’s using, although she doesn’t expect us to have anything better to offer. We want to know how long they last. “A year, sometimes two. Depends on the residue on the bottom,” she says, and calls one of the men sitting under the canvas. They come from all over Santa Rosita in just a few minutes. The worker is told to turn on the engine for us and show how the water is pumped out from the bottom and onto the conveyor belt. We stand on an unsteady hill, looking at the still machinery and foaming waters. “You worked here for long?” we ask. “Do you have a family?”

Turns out Roxana likes to chat. She’s 39 and has four kids. The first was born 14 years ago, the youngest is a year and a half. She’s raising them on her own. Roxana came to La Pampa a year ago. She borrowed a lot of money and invested it in the engines. One production platform with equipment costs 42,000 sol (ca. £9800). “I have to support my kids,” she says, sensing a good moment to complain about her lot. She gets on with her story.

After a moment she stops to scold a worker. “I’m waiting for you! Switch the engine on!” she shouts sharply. The man doesn’t approach the engine. Instead, the crowd by the shelter keeps growing. Now, there’s over a dozen motors. Roxana is unsettled. “Wait here,” she instructs and goes up to the men. We wait anxiously. Only Herman doesn’t seem worried. He chats to one of the workers, they laugh. Roxana comes back, sand spraying up in her stride. First, she talks to Herman: “It wasn’t wise of you to bring them here.” Then, she turns to us: “Show me your backpacks. I don’t know, you might be from the police. They send their people here undercover and leave explosives. They destroy our machines. We don’t like strangers. We won’t let anyone chase us away.”

When we show her that we have nothing but water, she just nods. It’s too late though – there’s already a commotion near the motor shelter. First, machines start coming towards us. “You need to go,” says Roxana. “Right now. It’s easy to shoot you in the forest.” She turns to Herman again. “What were you thinking?!” she shouts disapprovingly.

We turn and go to the hut where our drivers are waiting, but two men come from behind a sand hill and block our path. One is bulky, with a shovel tied to the seat of his bike. Roxana tells them something. They leave, slowly, but never take their eyes off us. “Here’s my number, just in case,” says Roxana. “Go, go!”

She’s already turning her back to us and walking towards the men. The three drivers, surprised with our return, jump on their motorbikes. We leave, we run. There’s no time to look back. The ride is even faster than on our way here. I can feel the pebbles cut my calves as the bike flies in short bursts between the hills. The tires splash the yellow water.

The boy only slows down after we’re surrounded by buildings again. He unclips his helmet, panting heavily.

Tambopata National Reserve in south-east Peru. Photo by Paulina Wilk
Tambopata National Reserve in south-east Peru. Photo by Paulina Wilk

There is something off-putting about Herman. He pours a can of condensed milk into a pot, adds several spoonfuls of sugar, and stirs it with a broken spoon. He asks if we want some, then proceeds to drink the sticky sweetness straight from the pot. Streaks of milk run down his thin, half-long beard, almost like those sometimes worn by the Japanese. He wipes his chin with the back of his hand, flashing claw-like nails. Then he reaches for the slices of sweet potato he’s cutting with a penknife on an aluminium tray balanced on his lap. He’s sitting on a stool, just like us, telling stories and burping. In his house – this plank shed, cluttered up to the roof, filled with other people’s trash that he’s made his treasure – he keeps dozens of plastic yoghurt bottles. “I like milk and all other kinds of dairy. I learned to like it in La Pampa, when I worked with mercury. You need dairy to prevent metal damage,” he explains. Herman’s method worked. He caught a skin infection just once, after he spent several months working waist-deep in toxic mining water. But that was a long time ago.

Five years ago, the police blew up all of his equipment, all of his property. He left the Tres Islas mine where he had a small plot of land with two working engines. He went away just for a weekend in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the region Madre de Dios, where we are now, talking. He suspects one of the neighbours called the police while he was gone. “The people are jealous. If you’re doing well, they can’t stand it.” When Herman came back, all of his machines and installations were ruined. “I was left with nothing,” he says. As if to present further proof, he shows us his gums – he has no upper teeth.

Ever since Alejandro Toledo became president – that is, in the early 2000s – the police and the army keep organizing such ‘raids’ on the mines. Officially, it’s a strategy to curb illegal mining, especially the industrial-scale procedures. But in reality, these are just-for-show actions where old or damaged equipment is destroyed; some small machines sometimes get blown up. It takes the mines just a few hours to resume business as usual. During such actions, special forces put explosives under the engines, bulldozers, conveyor belts and drainpipes.

The river Madre de Dios is one of the main tributaries of the most magnificent river in the world. Photo by Paulina Wilk
The river Madre de Dios is one of the main tributaries of the most magnificent river in the world. Photo by Paulina Wilk

The toothless Herman was never a lucky man. He invested all the money he borrowed from the bank – 18,000 sol (ca. £4200) – in mining. It was supposed to pay for his travel to visit his daughter in Bolivia, but Señor de Quyllurit'i showed Herman a different path. In the church in Lima, he met people going to La Pampa, to work in the mines. He envied them.

“In La Pampa, everything is expensive,” he says. Since his arrival, just under a decade ago, the town has grown five times over. At first, Herman rented just a spot in a tent – that’s what the hotels looked like back then. It set him back 300 sol (£70) a month. He often had to sleep with his equipment to make sure it didn’t get stolen. He rented out his 1100-sol engines to workers who paid him in gold. Herman made some extra money on the side by selling mercury. He brought it in tiny bottles from other cities. One cap lasted for the whole 12-hour shift pump yield.

“Gold found in water is not nuggets, just tiny specks. When you add mercury, they stick to it,” explains Herman. “The gold water, after sifting, is poured into the pipes, and then into buckets. Then you add mercury and you gotta mix this slime with your hands or feet, whatever you prefer. It’s a bit like chewing gum. You knead it until you make a lump. Then you burn it with a burner, and the fire removes the mercury. That’s when you gotta be careful, ‘cause the fumes are toxic. After burning, you’re left with pure gold. Here, in Madre de Dios, it’s the best. Whatever you find, it’s gonna be 24 carats. I’ve seen kids knead lumps bigger than my fist.”

***

Since the financial crisis of 2008, gold prices have grown globally. That’s what fuels the hopes and greed in Madre de Dios. The mines have already consumed 60,000 hectares of the virgin forests, attracting over 60,000 illegal workers to the area.

“Careful, you’re walking on pure gold. It’s everywhere,” says Elvis, winking while making a sweeping gesture. He picks up an orange from the ground, peels it and hands me the fruit. I bite into the flesh, and hot juice runs down my neck, under my shirt. Elvis was born here in 1957, and was named after the King himself. “He was popular, everyone was crazy about him.”

It doesn’t suit him. He’s a minimalist, wearing light Bermudas, a polo shirt and leather loafers day in, day out. He has delicate features. Elvis has Spanish and Japanese blood in his veins. The latter arrived in the Madre de Dios region – today on the border of Peru and Bolivia – in the early 20th century, when Puerto Maldonado was just being established. The riches attracted cosmopolitan crowds; foreigners as well as the indigenous peoples from the Andes and the north of Peru. After the natural rubber boom of the late 1800s, it was time for tree-cutting and growing Brazilian chestnuts. Gas and oil deposits were found, but nobody tried to extract them, because they were located in nature reserves. It was only during the oil search in 1970 that large deposits of gold were found, although it had been mined here as long as the locals could remember. The first mines, however, were small and relatively harmless to the environment.

“People sought gold along the river. Later, they realized that old, dried-up riverbeds are easier to access. And so the mines drove deep into the Amazon forest,” says Elvis, showing us his plantation of cocoa, banana, mangoes, palm trees and cupuaçu fruit. He named his hotel after the fruit, CoPaSu – also an amalgam of his daughters’ names, Coco, Pati and Sujey. After decades of working in banks, he decided to switch to a family business.

Not far from here, near the shores of Madre de Dios, he has another plot of land. He wants to build a house there. But lately, all he gets is trouble. One of his neighbours cut off a strip of his land, fenced it and claimed it as theirs. Meanwhile, others started digging on the edges of his building plot in search of gold. Recently, Elvis has hired a guard to look after his land. The man has a machete and a rifle.

“Our law is contradictory. Many people can make claims to one plot. Whoever is first to report that they’ve found mineral deposits in the soil can successfully ‘declare’ it. Which doesn’t make it legal for them to extract it, but that’s how those ‘informal’ mines appear, as opposed to the ‘illegal’ ones, established in the reserve. In the informal mines, one can – in theory – apply for a mining license. But I am a farmer and as such, I have the right to cultivate my crops on the same lands. This conflict is usually won by the miners. They pay the indigenous people for permission to mine on their property. Some of the natives even work for them as gold miners. Then they cry over the destruction of the environment.”

“What can you do, money has great power…” he adds, shrugging.

Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Paulina Wilk
Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Paulina Wilk

Serious problems in the region began in the 1980s, when gold mining grew to an industrial scale. It was not legitimized by any legislation. Independent miners could extract up to a kilogram of pure gold a day. Draining gold deposits gradually pushed them further into the selva, where there were fewer water sources – it had to be transported there instead. They invested in engines, cars and lifting gear. “That’s when the total destruction of the Amazon forest began,” says Elvis, making a cutting gesture with the flat of his hand. First, they cleared the forests and sold haphazardly-cut mature timber. Then, pumps came in, and the process of drawing soil from the bottom and washing gold with mercury sealed the damage.

In place of the natural islands on the river (which gradually disappeared, along with aggressive mining practices and the landslides that followed) formed heaps of toxic sand and vast areas of land devoid of water. In the Tambopata reserve, I meet a woman whose son, a qualified guide to tropical ecosystems, had joined a group of government-appointed biologists several years ago. The group was hired to restore the forest near Santa Rosita. “They kept planting trees, but nothing grew taller than one metre. The soil is ruined beyond repair,” she says when we sit down among giant, several-dozen-metre tall trees. Nuts and mangoes fall beneath our feet.

I see toxic sand mounds again just near the river, in a settlement called Laberinto (Labirynth). It’s only 50 kilometres from Santa Rosita, just the other way down the highway, so outside the strict nature reserve area. A boy dazed by coca leaves, with hair like a brush, heaves up from the table and shuffles towards us just to say that no more boats are going today. Minutes later, he switches on the engine and tells us to get on the water. We get a narrow motorboat – just for ourselves, and cheap, too. We cut the waters of Madre de Dios bathed in golden rays of the sun, watching the shores carefully. They are pockmarked with mutilated trees. It’s so strange to see the most important element of the landscape gone. We are in the midst of the Amazon jungle, but it is devoid of greenery. After about an hour, we see grey mounds of stones, thick gravel and sludge, heaped up on the shores, as if built by a diligent animal. Between them, in tiny bays, there are small production platforms – again, looking like old, rickety props. It’s hard to believe something so shoddy can poison, smother and ruin all the beauty around it. There’s a lot of them, they work side by side, one next to another.

Laberinto – a mining settlement, established before La Pampa, and semi-legal through usucaption. Photo by Paulina Wilk
Laberinto – a mining settlement, established before La Pampa, and semi-legal through usucaption. Photo by Paulina Wilk

We stop the boat and jump down onto the wet sand. Two people are working in a pool of foaming grey water. He’s standing almost shoulders-deep in the sludge and sways slightly, moving the pipe that sucks up the mud at the bottom. She’s wearing the traditional native hat and sits crouched near the pump. Probably just to stop it in case it chokes. The conveyor belt rattles with gravel and stones, and the precious gold specks seep down, into the drainpipes. And that’s it, the whole technology of greed and havoc. The couple shoots us disinterested glances. It’s not like in Santa Rosita. Here, they are working on ‘informal’ soil, the police don’t bother them, nothing gets blown up. The police have other things to gain from the gold mining business here.

When we return to Laberinto – a mining settlement, established before La Pampa, and semi-legal through usucaption – we meet two policemen. They chat with us, right under a huge banner that says ‘AMAZON GOLD’. Every other shop in these streets sells gold. They also have wheelbarrows, shovels, buckets and sieves to offer. And a vegetable market, where several women roam unhurriedly. Here, the whole procedure is like an old record: battered, known by heart, untouchable. The toxins flow down the vast river and then towards Bolivia; to the Amazon River.

Who runs the whole thing? The answer reflects the political impasse that holds over the whole of Peru. During our visit, the ruling party is crumbling into dust while we walk around the mines. Keiko Fujimori, who took over after her infamous father, is arrested on the charge of accepting bribery from a building concern, and attempts to influence her own trial. Her secretary negotiates the sentence with the High Court judge. The tapes leak to the media. The judge runs away, the parliament speaker submits his resignation, the party is abandoned by all the main MPs, and a group of young prosecutors – determined to put Keiko Fujimori behind bars – prepare the bill of indictment. People crowd around televisions in cafés and bars to follow broadcasts from the court. Fujimori holds the Peruvian political scene in her hand, even though she has no formal position. She has failed in her run for office three times, earning herself the moniker La Eterna Perdedora – ‘the Eternal Loser’.

“Do you watch the news? Well, then you know what kind of country this is,” says Salomon Berroncal Delgado, the head of the Christian Society of Farmers in Madre de Dios. “All of Peru works like one big mafia. We have two problems to solve and eighteen people running for office. One plot of land and a dozen mutually exclusive laws to govern it. Corruption everywhere.”

In his modest office in the back of the Dominican Order on the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado, shelves are heavy with the files of farmers fighting for their right to land ownership. Even though the farming industry is perceived as destructive for the tropical nature, only 1.3% of all the land in this part of the country is cultivated, and there are only 30,000 farmers here. Many of them are starving. “The law doesn’t allow increasing the cultivation areas, and on top of that, farmers are constantly clashing with the interests of illegal miners and forest clearings. We now have the second regional governor in a row who is an illegal miner himself!” Delgado just shrugs helplessly, even though he does have good ideas and hopes for the future. His organization has prepared a project for sustainable farms and selected 65 farmers to test it. All of their crops must be in harmony with the local habitat. The project includes the use of tropical forest resources and planting more species. “We could cut the weeds and bushes, leaving the primary and secondary forests. We want to show our government that ecological farming can be profitable and good for the Amazon jungle,” he says. The only problem is that there are no sponsors or supporters of this noble idea – the farmers are on their own. “We’re hoping for some foreign support. Father Pablo is reaching out to a lot of people, and I am an optimist,” smiles Delgado.

***

“Animo! Animo!” calls Father Pablo, welcoming us. “Spirits strong! All forward!” he repeats time after time, to himself and to others. He’s in his eighties, but he has enough energy and spirit for 10 younger men. He struggles a bit with numb feet. We talk while his reflexologist massages them. Despite the physical discomfort, the priest drives his off-road Toyota with vigour and walks quickly, shuffling his leather sandals in long strides. He looks like the archetype of a missionary, in his white habit, with a long silver beard and smartphone dangling from his neck. Always busy, always smiling, always in the midst of doing something.

Father Pablo has been working in the selva for over 40 years. He’s a legend in his region – he’s stood up to politicians and bishops, defended the dignity of illegal miners, protested against the destruction of their machinery, and fought to end discrimination against women. Father Pablo set up numerous churches near the mines, he managed community centres, canteens, hotels. The people in his care have always used his help without paying, but they work it back. “One must never give a man anything for free. When one does, one takes their dignity away,” says Father Pablo. His longest post was in Colorado, an older equivalent of La Pampa. During the peak gold rush, there were over 300 production platforms working there. In the early 2000s, the people took their equipment and moved to La Pampa. Today, gold mining in Colorado has fallen down to 10% of its former production results.

When bishops criticized the liberal social help Father Pablo gave to the criminals and followers of various sectarian movements, they tried to take him down. The decision caused mass strikes. The locals carried the priest back to the parish with their own hands. There were shouts and chanting: “Everyone – no, Pablo – yes!” Le Monde and El País wrote articles about him; television stations called from the US. The master of the Dominican Order sent an inspector from France who, upon his return, wrote: “I would wish that all the missionaries of our order served the communities in such a way.”

The priest talks with a spark in his eye. He’s still a rebel. Last week, he visited a tiny church in La Pampa; he’s organizing transports of food, and support for the workers. Still, he might not stay here for long. His parishioners in Cusco want him there. When asked which one of his parishes he misses the most, Father Pablo tells me of a distant corner of the Amazon jungle; a tiny spot deep in the strict reserve, where the only way in is on a narrow boat. He worked there with the nativos.

Father Pablo walks us to the local disease control, gives us a warm hug and with another “Animo!” walks diagonally across the busy crossing, shuffling his sandals. Untouchable.

“Animo! Animo!” calls Father Pablo, welcoming us. Photo by Paulina Wilk
“Animo! Animo!” calls Father Pablo, welcoming us. Photo by Paulina Wilk

The chubby director gives us a warm welcome – we don’t have to wait at all. Esteban Rivera Carrera has been working in the station for the past 17 years. The disease control station watches over the quality of the water, air and health of the locals living in Madre de Dios. He can quote all the data and numbers from memory. We came to ask him about the damaging effects of heavy metal poisoning of groundwaters, especially with mercury. Local biologist Cesar Ascarra is doing independent research here. He claims that the indicator levels of mercury poisoning of the water and fish – which are the main food in the area – are alarming. Up until now, the only preventive measure has been a ban on sales and on eating catfish, as this species feeds near the bottom of the river.

Carrera shakes his head. The measurements reported continuously in 307 stations tell them that mercury is not poisoning Madre de Dios at all. On the contrary, the volume of physical, chemical and mineral components in the water is even lower than required by the norms. Pollution only destroys the nature and soil in the closest neighbourhood to the mines.

What is the main problem bothering the miners and locals who live nearby? “Mental health issues,” says Carrera. It’s not an answer I was expecting. “Obviously, there are lots of problems caused by the horrendous living conditions in La Pampa: dysentery, dengue fever, AIDS, diarrhoea, hepatitis, many other infectious diseases… But I believe our region is endangered especially because of the number of mental health sufferers. The people here live in conditions of enormous risk and stress. Thousands have taken loans from shadow banks, they have to wake up and go to sleep in fear every day, living in a completely deregulated system. La Pampa is a ruthless place. Many suffer from depression, domestic violence is rather common. Sadly, we don’t have enough doctors, and we have other pressing problems to tend to. In Alto Libertad, another mining area, medical staff had to be tripled in numbers. Ten years ago, they had two hundred patients a month and could be helped by only one nurse. Today, they have six thousand people a month, seen by three GPs. But every procedure requires going to the hospital – here, to Puerto Maldonado.”

The doctor, working in the local hospital for the past 20 years, confirms Carrera’s observations. Not once in his career has he encountered a case of mercury poisoning.

What is the most common death cause in the area? “Road traffic accidents,” smiles director Carrera. The same afternoon, I watch a loud parade of paramedics and traffic policemen calling for safer driving.

***

Tia Goya is the icon of gold empires growing out of tiny patches of land. Also known as the Baroness of Evil, her real name is Gregoria Casas. Ms Casas is illiterate and lives in Cusco. Her annual income – made in the mines she runs on an industrial scale – is estimated to reach over $100 million. Tia Goya rarely gives public appearances, and when asked about gold, she denies everything. Even when she stood with a Peruvian TV crew in the middle of a devastated excavation area, she insisted: “The claims that gold mining destroys the environment are absolutely false!”

The fortune Gregoria makes with her family remains invisible. She wears cheap, provincial clothes: cotton skirts and frilly blouses. She wears her hair braided in traditional Andean plaits, and wears a soft-brimmed hat on her head. It’s a poor woman’s outfit. And yet, she recently bought a jet and had a private runway built for it.

“Everyone knows about her. And everyone knows she’s untouchable,” says Christian, a 37-year-old miner who rides colectivo with us. There are five passengers, each paying a 15 sol (£3.50) fee. The driver is taking us from La Pampa to Puerto Maldonado. An hour and a half of speeding through the ruler-straight highway. Large forest areas had to be cleared in the reserve to make space for it.

Christian doesn’t even take his rubber boots off. He’s just finished a 15-hour shift. He’s hot, burned by the sun. Together with his partner, they extracted 25 grams of gold and five grams of ‘baby girls’ – remaining specks of gold caught on the sifting mats. The girls belong to the miners in full. Their main salary is 25% of the daily yield, shared between the two of them. “I’ve been doing it for the past ten years. My wife doesn’t want me to keep working like this. She’s worried I’ll get arrested. But what other job is going to pay me that much?”

Today, Christian is bringing home 600 (ca. £140) sol. He’s back to Santa Rosita after a two-year break. He used to work here before the police raid. There were more excavation areas back then, and a lot of miners from other parts of South America. In the peak time, shadow banks would pay him 150 sol (£35) for a gram of gold. Recently, gold mining in Peru is running low again (because of state intervention), which means the prices are about to soar again. With the money he made, he built a house and bought a motorbike. He lives in this very house with his wife and two boys. The third son died after a heart attack.

Does he suffer any work-related diseases? Christian shakes his head – his health is fine. And he’s experienced enough to save himself from accidents. “Young people often go to work in the old sites, even though they know nothing about it. They have no idea that the previous mining job has left the soil with air bubbles under the sand. If you pierce it with a pump, the ground will collapse and suck you in, alongside the whole platform,” says Christian, sucking on his dirty thumb.

According to our sources, most of the illegally mined gold from Madre de Dios is equipped with appropriate certificates confirming its quality and legal sourcing. Then, it travels through Lima and Cusco to Switzerland – the largest gold importer and exporter in the world.

***

The sky over Puerto Maldonado is torn by white flashes. Before dawn, distant murmurs turn into thunderous roars. The first rain season storm has come over the Amazon jungle. Heavy drops hit the surface of Lake Sandoval, drumming on the leaves and landing on the ground, covered with green shrubbery. The animals go quiet. Tropical Amazon forests grow on a shallow surface. The secret to their durability is the record rainfall and the fertility of the selva ground, ensured by the constant process of dying, rotting, and the natural feeding of the greenery.

This fragile balance between the jungle’s ability to produce clouds and to drink up their abundant rainfall has been disrupted. The destruction of vast areas of land – due to both gold mining and tree-cutting – has for the past year caused the green lungs of the world to produce more carbon dioxide than they can absorb. The straw has already broken the camel’s back. According to Science Magazine, in the future, most of the local selva will turn into a savannah.

 

Translated by Aga Zano

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