The Human Costs of Illegal Gold Mining

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Photo: T. Hilde

Today, we had the opportunity to speak with Oscar Guadalupe and Ana Hurtado from Asociación Huarayo, a non-profit in Peru dedicated to ending human rights violations in Peruvian illegal gold mining. Our speakers focused on the many issues associated with gold mining operations, including environmental and social costs for miners and inhabitants of Madre de Dios and surrounding areas. Mercury poisoning leads to trees standing in desolate landscapes as vultures perch on top, with murky, muddy water sitting stagnant below—we saw this impact first-hand. Residents of towns far away from the mines consume fish with toxic levels of mercury in their flesh from the waters flowing in from the mine sites. And young children and adolescents are forced into mining or are trafficked for sex work in locations that Huarayo terms “prosti-bars,” which line the streets of shanty-like mining towns. Even with my love of the environment, this last issue struck me the hardest. The thought of adolescents being forced into work or drugged so that they can be sold for sex sickens me, especially since in our modern world, we try to pretend these things are not still happening.

As Oscar dove deeper into his explanation of these issues, my mind became flooded with visions of these drugged adolescents and children working in dirty floodwaters. Huarayo actively works to battle these issues through providing an education to those seeking refuge, creating partnerships with communities near mining areas, and maintaining an ecological garden to teach the children and local communities the value of sustainable agriculture. People who are looking to escape the mining lifestyle come to Huarayo for assistance in many cases, but Oscar talked about others who are still suffering from the oppression in mining towns. For these people, Huarayo has created a network of people who are sympathetic to their cause and also want to help people seeking refuge from the mining lifestyle. This network is what I found the most interesting.

Oscar’s pride in this network was evident in the air with which he spoke of it. For me, it resonated with similar grassroots movements to combat major human rights violations in history. Nazi resistors during the Holocaust hid members of groups targeted by Nazis; the Underground Railroad was created to assist African Americans escape their enslavement. Much like both of these past situations, there is danger in being part of such a movement since those violating human rights are profiting and will not want to reduce their income. It is hard to believe that these violations still exist and that rather than formal structures helping to reduce their impacts, these informal networks are still being used. Still I am hopeful, since the informal networks that have been used to combat historical human rights violations were successful in assisting so many people who otherwise would have been left to fight alone. But my hopefulness only goes so far. As we drove by the mining villages, I saw the blue tarps tied to tall wooden beams that created the mining town houses. I also saw pictures of half-nude women, dirty children, and eerily abandoned structures which indicated the prostibar locations. It only solidified my understanding of just how open to government these mining town operations are. Government knows these operations exist, yet they continue to expand and linger.

Much like past major human right violations, formal structures like the central and local governments will need to get involved in order to truly eliminate the issue. As government seeks to formalize the mining operations, these issues may diminish due to more regulations of the mining sites and nearby communities. However, based on many of the discussions we have had here, the likelihood is not high. In fact, tomorrow, miners are expected to protest in Lima against the deadline the government imposed on miners to formalize their operations. When asking what the likely outcome will be, we were told that the deadline will probably be pushed back. To me, this signals a lack of pressure on miners and the continued allowance of illegal operations, complete with the environmental and human rights violations they carry.

– Allison Dodson

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