Illegal Gold Mining and the Government Response

After a sad goodbye to the Amazon jungle, the group made its way back to Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios department (the Peruvian equivalent to an American state).  We settled in with some cute and cuddly monkeys and had a pad thai lunch at Anaconda Lodge.  As a side note, a Swiss and Thai couple runs the lodge, so the food was quite good.

After stuffing ourselves with heaping plates of authentic Thai food, Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos and Ana Hurtado Abad from Asociación Huarayo joined us. Hula rayon is a local NGO focusing on the environmental and human impacts associated with illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios.  The organization has been running for the past 17 years, well before the price of gold skyrocketed and the trade became as lucrative as it is in today’s market.

After Oscar gave an overview of illegal gold mining, he began to explain how the practice is not only a problem on its own, but that it also generates collateral activity.  There is a huge amount of money that moves around the region, but it is concentrated in a few hands, causing corruption.

Two implications of illegal gold mining struck me most: the perpetuation of prostitution in the mining towns and the lack of government support regarding preventative measures.  The former, as unfortunate as it is, makes sense from an economic perspective.  Oscar explained how little girls often sell hard boiled eggs, for example, at the prosti-bars (essentially a combination bar and brothel), making around 20 Peruvian soles, or less than 10 dollars a day.  Prostitutes, on the other hand, can make around 400 soles a day.  Does a little girl growing up in that environment want to make 20 soles or 20 times that?  The answer to that question means that young girls may see little in regard to their future beyond prostitution.

Not only are there many health implications involved, but the process gets passed down when these women have children.  What does this say to the young girls involved and how they view themselves?  Insecurity among the female population seems to be a huge problem—How would you feel if it was almost predetermined that your lot in life would be to prostitute yourself as the best means of making money?  These little girls have no other point of reference beyond what they see their mothers doing.

The second point, in which the central government is only responding to illegal gold mining in a reactionary way, is irresponsible and does little to get to the root of the problem.  Madre de Dios, an area in which only a single miner out of 40 to 60 thousand has all the technical credentials to mine legally, is a region many people may come to for work but it remains largely forgotten by the Peruvian government.  There are many communities in which a police presence, for example, is nonexistent.

Just this year, the Peruvian national police recognized corruption within their ranks, and their increased presence can be seen on the Interoceanic Highway and Puerto Maldonado. In fact, we heard helicopters flying above us during the presentation, which Ana pointed out as a new phenomenon.  She believed police were using the helicopters to monitor possible strike activity on the streets of Puerto Maldonado.

While there may be a heightened police presence, it’s still at the reactionary level.  Oscar told us how the state didn’t care when there were 1, 10, 100, or 1000 miners; it wasn’t until there was upwards of 60,000 miners in Madre de Dios that the government took the problem seriously.  The real problem here is offering the illegal miners other economic opportunities, and the state has done nothing by way of alternatives.

The characteristics of illegal gold mining are eerily similar to the drug trade, and the government taking a reactionary approach will not get far by way of reducing the problem.  If anything, the response only exacerbates the issue by angering the miners.  The recent strikes are supposed to continue in Lima and there will likely be prolonged protests until there is some sort of agreement surrounding the April 19th deadline for illegal miners to complete the government’s formalization process.

While it seems as though some progress has been made because the government is actually focusing on the illegal gold trade as a real problem, there is still a great deal of work to be done in order to get to the root of the issue and mitigate its effects.  Knowing there is a problem and understanding its underlying causes is half the battle, and with NGOs like Asociación Huarayo shedding light on the social and environmental issues and doing their part in dealing with the implications, there is hope for a better future for those living and working in Madre de Dios.

– Emilie Reinhard

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