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Mother of God, Child of Zeus


[clock] 41-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2010

Deep in the Amazon, mercury from small gold mines threatens to poison the rivers—and their people.

A typical open-pit artisanal gold mine in southeastern Peru.
A typical open-pit artisanal gold mine in southeastern Peru.

I want to lie like the street dogs do, bare stomach skyward, inviting the lightest touch of breeze. The men here rest that way too, in plastic chairs shaded by blue-tarp awnings, T-shirts hiked up over their bellies. Small, naked children sprawl, listless, on the cool tile floors of Laberinto’s gold-buying shops along the southern bank of Peru’s broad Rio Madre de Dios. Most of the town-dwellers have withdrawn into their own dark corners where they can pull the clothes away from their suffocating skin. Only the metalworkers continue their labors. Inside unlit wood-plank shelters, the flames of blowtorches illuminate their work.

On my way out of town, I bounce through the rutted dirt streets on the back of a motorbike. The traditional women, and the modest ones, ride the motos sidesaddle, ankles crossed against crude suggestion. But I lack their grace and practice and so straddle the bike behind a stranger named Hermes, my feet pigeon-toed to perch on metal nubbins where foot pegs were once attached.

Makeshift tent settlements for miners spread through-out the jungle, connected by narrow motor paths.
Makeshift tent settlements for miners spread through-out the jungle, connected by narrow motor paths.

We lean past the last wooden shack onto a mud track leading into the jungle. This region of southeastern Peru, called Mother of God after the river that shapes it, is still mostly lush with the pristine rainforest of environmentalist fantasies. But as we drive, a sour, black pinch at the back of the throat foretells cauterized patches of vegetation turned to cow pasture. Hermes grinds through stretches of loose rock and swerves around bovine obstructions, straining to see into the dim forest to our right until finally he swings the bike into a tiny opening in the trees. We climb off, wiping the mud of dust and sweat from our faces, and he takes a few steps deeper into the shade. A low rumble grows as I move behind him until the nauseating gnashing of rock against rock vibrates inside my ribcage. Ahead, a new boundary appears in the trees, not at the edge of a river or a road, but of a ragged ulcer in the floor of the forest. A hundred feet across and fifteen feet deep, the mine pit drops away at my feet to the milky red blood of the jungle swirling below. The roar of a diesel engine is deafening as it spins, launching excavated soil up out of the crater to be processed for any hint of gold.

 

Gold is a child of Zeus, neither moth nor rust devoureth it, but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.

—Pindar, fifth century BCE

In ancient times, men in Asia Minor stretched sheepskins in gold-rich waters to filter gold particles from the current. Sediment paused in curling eddies just long enough for the heavy gold flakes to drop into the roots of the fibers. These early prospectors hung the fleeces out to dry and were rewarded by fine gold dust drifting down from the beaten skins. Whether or not their labors inspired the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, their legacy persists.

Three thousand years later and eight thousand miles distant, those prospectors would recognize the techniques of these modern day miners. Woolly carpeting lines thousands of sloping sluices in and along the Rio Madre de Dios and the rivers that feed it. The brown rush of water drops from the jagged Andes ten thousand feet above into the Amazon basin here, near Peru’s borders with Brazil and Bolivia, flushing traces of the gold downstream. The river weaves shifting arcs through the jungle, leaving a layer of gold-rich sediment. As the price of an ounce of gold has risen steeply over the past decade, from $280 to $1,200, so has the population of Andean migrants following the trail of the ore to the river basin.

In the earliest days of history, the eternal shine of gold marked it as a link to the gods, and its possession by a human seemed proof of that human’s blessedness. But since the time of the first coins 2,500 years ago, the security it offered evolved from the spiritual to the earthly, from assuring a wealthy hereafter to assuring a wealthy here and now. Economic instability isn’t the only thing driving up the price of gold in the twenty-first century. Its unparalleled resistance to corrosion and tarnish makes it a useful conductor of low-voltage electricity and a component of nearly every consumer and industrial electrical device. Each cell phone, computer, DVD player, game console, MP3 player, and tablet contains only small amounts of the metal, but when such devices are discarded, the gold is rarely recovered; in the US alone, billions of gadgets have been thrown away over the past decade and less than 15 percent have been recycled. With nearly a billion new cell phones being manufactured each year worldwide, demand for gold is rising.

People of the Andes have a long tradition of mining for gold, culminating in the gold-plated Inca kingdoms of the sixteenth century that entranced lusting Spaniards. Today, despite rich deposits of gold in the rural Andes, as much as 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, without running water or electricity. Mineral rights in Peru are owned by the government, rather than by the people under whose land those minerals lie. The government grants concessions to the subterranean wealth as it deems fit, and the most valuable gold rights have been sold to large, often foreign, companies that separate the gold from the mountain by crushing millions of tonnes of ore into mounds that are then saturated with cyanide to dissolve out the gold. Called heap leaching, it is a relatively efficient method of extracting gold—at thirty tonnes of processed ore per ounce of gold—and requires little in the way of human labor. But such efficiency doesn’t account for the devastating environmental effects or the negligible benefits to the Peruvian people. Industrial mining accounts for 55 percent of Peru’s exports, but provides only 0.7 percent of the country’s jobs.

Hermes Mamani, a former gold miner, advises the municipal government of Laberinto on mining issues.
Hermes Mamani, a former gold miner, advises the municipal government of Laberinto on mining issues.

Hermes Mamani started working in the gold mines of this forest when he was sixteen, transplanted from Juliaca, in the far-eastern highlands near Lake Titicaca. He works now as an adviser to the municipal government of Laberinto and maintains his ties to the miners nearby. Ahead of me, he descends into the pit balancing on the trunk of a downed jungle skyscraper, crashed at a forty-five-degree angle into the cloudy filth flooding the crater. Neck deep in the swirling russet liquid, head emerging from the tree’s still-leaved branches, a young man in a sodden yellow T-shirt is holding the open mouth of the chupadera, a six-inch vacuum that sucks rocks and soil from the walls and floor of this hole.

Thirty feet away, floating in the middle of the pit on wooden boards and tree branches lashed atop oil-barrel pontoons, another boy operates the spinning motor that powers the chupadera. The boy in the water motions to him, and he slows the roaring engine. I cannot hear what Hermes says as he points up at me, standing in the shadow of the trees. Journalists and gringos are generally unwelcome, associated in the miners’ minds with disapproving environmentalists. For all I know, he may be telling them I’m the daughter of an investor. The young man looks up at me, mildly puzzled, but shrugs. The boss isn’t around and he doesn’t care. The motor accelerates again, and he turns his attention back to the water.

We pick a path around the perimeter of the pit, away from its unstable edge, through the ragged tree stumps jutting up through the forest floor like rusty nails from the beams of a demolished house. At the far side of the crater, we slide down a scree pile into the water. The high-pressure pump on the raft propels the contents of the vacuum up through a six-inch plastic pipe where the water and earth blast against a three-quarter inch screen. The larger rocks are deflected by the screen, dropping down onto the waste pile, and the smaller sediments are flushed over the carpet-covered sluice.

The mining workforce in Madre de Dios includes many young men in their teens who are hoping to make their fortunes and fund a better future for themselves and their families with the gold washed down from their ancestral lands above. They are nearly all Andean, and many are Quechua speakers, descendants of the Incas conquered by Pizarro. Recruiters bring promises of extraordinary wages to the impoverished villages of the highlands and then lead groups of boys back down to the river, where often no record will be made of their identity or location.

The boy on the raft declines to give his name, but tells me he is eighteen years old, and that he came to work in the mines four years ago from Tayabamba, in the northwestern mountains. He plans to return to his home in a year or so. He tells us there are three workers at this site, plus a girl who cooks, living under the blue tarps strung in the nearby trees. He says he works eight hours a day, that they extract maybe ten grams of gold and make a wage of something like 100–150 soles ($35–$55) per day. Hermes tells me later that the boy undoubtedly works more hours (the pit was hung with a few naked bulbs from wires leading back to the generator), and that the amount of gold retrieved and pay collected each day is likely twice what he was willing to admit. An educated worker for the municipal government makes between $13 and $20 per day in a country where the daily minimum wage amounts to about $9.25. Whether or when the boy receives his wages is unclear. Stories abound of workers who disappeared after insisting upon payment from their bosses. Where there are no records, no roots, no government, and no escape, there is little to protect an illiterate and impoverished migrant.

At the end of a shift, the silt caught in the carpets is washed into a fifty-five-gallon drum. The workers pour mercury into the barrel and climb inside, barefoot. Hermes explains: “After they tread on it for an hour, it is like a plate. They grab it and see if there is still loose gold in the sand or if it has already pulverized the mercury.” They put the plate of muck, gold, and mercury into a smaller bucket and knead it until they’ve separated out the sponge gold, the amalgam of gold and mercury. The rest—mud, water, and surplus mercury—gets washed back into the pit. I ask Hermes if he knew that the Greek god Hermes is the same as the Roman god Mercury. He didn’t, and he laughs.

 

Mercury, truly a child of Zeus, was born to the nymph Maia. He was the messenger god, swift and clever, bridger of boundaries, moving freely among the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. He was the god of commerce, of mortal merchants, and conductor of the souls of the dead to the doors of the afterlife. He was a trickster and a thief; on the very day of his birth, he stole the cattle of Apollo, assuaging the anger of the deceived god with the sweetness of his song and the gift of his lyre. “Hail Hermes,” goes the Homeric hymn, “guide and giver of things graceful and good.”

From humans, mercury slowly steals the health of their nerves, but it leaves them with gold as recompense, a tradeoff willingly made by many. Unlike cyanide, so dangerous that many small-scale miners refuse to use it, mercury’s effects accumulate over time. Though most in the developed world have been warned of the dangers of any contact with its liquid form, quicksilver, it is not readily absorbed through the skin. More dangerous is its vapor, which is released slowly under normal conditions, and rapidly with the application of heat. Worse even than breathing the vaporized mercury is consumption of the compound methylmercury.

Birds circle a rapidly growing swath of deforested wasteland left behind as miners advance deeper into the jungle.
Birds circle a rapidly growing swath of deforested wasteland left behind as miners advance deeper into the jungle.

When pure mercury vapor cools, it drops from the air and washes into soil and rivers. In the anaerobic sludge at the bottom, the inorganic quicksilver attaches to a molecule of carbon ringed by hydrogen. This grouping mimics a protein found in all of carbon-based life and enables the methylmercury to bind with proteins in plants and animals and integrate into the organisms. From the bacteria and plankton in aquatic sediments, it is taken into plants, then herbivorous fish, and it biomagnifies through the food chain, building up in the system of each organism that consumes a contaminated diet. Birds and mammals that consume the fish take the poison in through the digestive tract where, bound up with other proteins, it is absorbed into the blood. In the human body, it can pass freely from the blood into the brain, and through the placenta into a developing fetus.

The body of knowledge relating to the effects of mercury in the human body is based on the aftermath of tragedies. Mass methylmercury poisonings from industrial wastewater in Minimata, Japan, in the 1950s and from treated grain in Basra, Iraq, in the early 1970s killed at least two thousand people and produced severe neurological damage in many thousands more. Some children born to poisoned mothers exhibited abnormally high frequencies of mental retardation, severe motor disabilities, and a disorder similar to cerebral palsy. Despite such risks, informal mining communities rarely welcome health studies. What they do is generally illegal, and they are reticent to bring scrutiny. Nevertheless, researchers were recently able to conduct mercury-level and cognition tests in an Ecuadorean mining town in the Andes; they found that a majority of the children with high mercury levels were significantly impaired in the area of visual-spatial reasoning.

A mineworker climbs barefoot into a barrel filled with sediment and mercury.
A mineworker climbs barefoot into a barrel filled with sediment and mercury.

In the more than seventy countries where poor workers engage in what is referred to as “artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” mercury is a necessary tool of the trade. Such mining accounts for roughly 20 percent of worldwide gold production, the output of an estimated thirteen to twenty million miners, who produce 30 tonnes of gold per year. The secondary economy extending from the miners supports something like one hundred million people worldwide.

Informal mining also releases an estimated four hundred tonnes of mercury into the atmosphere each year, and another six hundred tonnes into soil and water. It accounts for a third of the mercury released by humans, and is second only to coal burning as an anthropogenic source. Small-scale mining requires less energy per unit of gold, releases less greenhouse gas, and produces less waste rock and tailings than large-scale gold mining. However, it releases forty times more mercury per unit, and small-scale gold miners do not treat the waste from their process. Just in this small region of Peru, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 miners ply the earth, producing an estimated sixteen tonnes of gold per year and releasing thirty-two tonnes of mercury. Though the miners themselves may survive the dangers of their labors, their children will bear the brunt of irreparable health effects, impaired before they are born.

Makeshift mining camps dot the Interoceanic Highway.
Makeshift mining camps dot the Interoceanic Highway.

Representatives for the miners estimate that there are 300,000 small-scale miners nationwide, and 1.5 million people in the extended gold-mining economy. The government asserts that foreign industrial investment benefits all Peruvians through increased tax revenue for government spending programs. Those claims ring hollow in the ears of 11 million Peruvians living in poverty. Even the World Bank found that the correlation between growth of the economy in Peru and reduction in poverty was weaker than it should be, because growth has not translated into greater employment. But Madre de Dios, where small-scale miners defy the disapproval of the government, has the lowest poverty rate of any department of Peru.

A floating sluice sucks up gold-rich sediment and sifts out the ore.
A floating sluice sucks up gold-rich sediment and sifts out the ore.

Laberinto, the department’s second-largest official town, spills down a hill to the river, corrugated metal roofs flashing toward the empty sky. Its population has boomed from five hundred to seven thousand in the past five years. But Laberinto reaps little benefit from the national government. Whatever wealth might accrue in Lima has no impact here. Its offerings are only slightly better than those of the dozens of makeshift settlements that have cropped up throughout the jungle, entirely separated from government oversight or assistance. Those ramshackle villages are informal and ungoverned; some have populations as large as ten thousand people and they exist solely because of a rush of miners who have heard the area has gold. One of the oldest and most notorious is a place called Huepetuhe.

I start out for Huepetuhe in the company of two scientists: Luis Fernandez, formerly of the EPA, now an investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford; and Victor Hugo Gonzalez of the Universidad Técnica de Machala. We will travel with several regional mining officials—including David Cuadros, who lived in Huepetuhe many years ago—to see the results of Luis’s project to reduce mercury emissions in the small-scale mining communities.

Mining families bathe in mercury-poisoned streams and pools near their encampments.
Mining families bathe in mercury-poisoned streams and pools near their encampments.

The morning of our journey, we drive through the flooded mud streets of Puerto Maldonado in the predawn haze, collecting a few more companions from the regional mining ministry. Music blares from a brightly lit butcher shop preparing for the morning’s customers. We’re setting out early to avoid an overnight in Huepetuhe. A recent emergency decree by the environment minister, whose installation was required by the US Free Trade Agreement, has halted all in-process legalization paperwork and threatens to remove the dredges from Rio Madre de Dios, setting the miners on edge.

A mineworker pours mercury and gold dust into a vial in his hand.
A mineworker pours mercury and gold dust into a vial in his hand.

Luis isn’t focused on trying to halt gold mining, but on mitigating its devastating effects. “Some people say it’s illegal and you shouldn’t do anything that promotes it,” he tells me, but Luis was born and raised in Queens, New York, to an Ecuadorean mother and spent most of his childhood summers with his mother’s family in small towns in the countryside of Ecuador; from an early age, he recognized what a driving force poverty can be. “When the price of gold goes up, the miners will come from the agricultural areas, from the mountains. Basically everyone goes to the gold fields because you can earn hundreds of times what you can earn growing corn, potatoes. It’s going to happen, whether or not it’s quote unquote illegal. The idea is to reduce the impact on the people and on the environment.”

Most mercury-control measures, however, operate on a macro level, involving international treaties controlling sales, regulation of its use, and bans on mercury-dependent activities—such as small-scale gold mining. None of these strategies has had any noticeable effect on its availability or use in South American mining. So Luis, in collaboration with engineers from Argonne National Laboratory, set about searching for a more ground-level answer. “What I was looking for was a MacGyver solution, and not a super-fancy, industrial solution,” he says. “I had basically gone to all the hardware stores and metal shops taking pictures, figuring out what they had. They improvise. With rebar and a blow torch, you can do a lot.”

Luis Fernandez, of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford, is working to reduce mercury contamination in informal mining communities.
Luis Fernandez, of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford, is working to reduce mercury contamination in informal mining communities.

“What I was looking for was a MacGyver solution, and not a super-fancy, industrial solution.”

He went through several design iterations and field tests, constructing devices in the field with Loren Habegger of Argonne and a metalworker in Itaituba, Brazil, named Edison, before successfully creating a device that costs a few hundred dollars to make in a welding shop and recaptures 80 percent of the mercury normally emitted during the burning process. Now we’ll get a glimpse of how well the device works in the field.

After a few bleary hours on the intermittent pavement of the new Interoceanic Highway—the first paved road linking Puerto Maldonado and Madre de Dios to the outside world, a road funded mostly by Brazil as an overland route for exports to the Pacific—we see the first warm rays of the sun penetrate the silver-blue clouds of daybreak. Small encampments dot the edge of the highway, with mine entrances closer to the river. They follow a standard model: rough frames made of branches, draped with tarps, and topped with leaves and old tires. Unnamed, they are referred to by the kilometer number at which they appear along the road. As we pass kilometer ninety-eight, workers are climbing on their motorbikes to head out to their sites.

Inside a gold shop, sponge gold is heated in a crucible
to vaporize the mercury, leaving behind a pure nugget.
Inside a gold shop, sponge gold is heated in a crucible to vaporize the mercury, leaving behind a pure nugget.

At about 7:00 a.m., we stop at Mazuko, a small town at the edge of the road that leads up to the Inambari River. Luis has learned that one of the gold shops in town recently installed one of his recapture devices, and he wants to visit. E&M Gold Shop is a windowless room with a counter at the back, the floor covered in blue and white floor tiles. A painting of Jesus hangs on the wall and a bouquet of bright fake flowers sits atop a small television blaring cartoons to entertain the children of the woman running the shop. A half dozen bottles of mercury are stacked in a plastic display box on the counter. congratulations! you have just bought “el español” the best mercury in the world, ¡mirror! 99.99995% top purity with safety cover. The red and black letters are flaking off the clear plastic bottles, printed with a dashing image of a matador taunting a bull with his capote. Each contains a full kilogram of mercury but wouldn’t fill a half cup.

In the corner by the door is the hood where the woman burns the gold brought in by the miners. It’s the same kind found in every gold shop, essentially a sheet-metal house with an arched opening. Inside is a small terra-cotta vessel with a metal handle wrapped around it. The gold goes in the vessel, and flame from a blowtorch-like device is applied. The mercury vaporizes and is sucked up the makeshift chimney and released into the air. The difference, in this shop, is that Luis’s recapture device is plumbed between the hood and the exhaust pipe. Inside a repurposed fifty-five-gallon drum, metal baffles have been welded. The vapor collides with the metal plates and cools into droplets, which roll down the baffles and can be drained from a small spout. The remaining air, carrying 80 percent less mercury, continues out the exhaust pipe. The collected mercury can be reactivated using a battery and resold, adding an all-important economic incentive to the health benefits.

A one-kilo bottle of El Español, marketed as 'the best mercury in the world.'
A one-kilo bottle of El Español, marketed as “the best mercury in the world.”

Luis powers up the Jerome Mercury Vapor Analyzer, a boxy handheld contraption with a piece of gold foil inside that attracts mercury and registers micrograms of mercury per cubic meter of air. “Like the Ghostbusters ghost trap,” he says, as the pitch of its whine rises. Luis carries it around the room, in and out of the hood where they burn the amalgam, around the exhaust pipe that empties onto the street, looking for hot spots of mercury. The micrograms per cubic meter register in the high twenties, close to the World Health Organization level for maximum eight-hour industrial exposure. Levels this low are unheard of in shops without the system.

We move next door, and Luis chats with the shop owner, who is genial and talkative. Tall and fair, with feathered gray hair, he says he came from Lima thirty years ago. He agrees to let Luis test the air. Luis brings in the mercury analyzer, drawing closer to the hood, next to which a tiny infant girl sleeps in her pajamas on a mustard velour sofa. He looks up from the display, face drawn, and says to me in English, “Get out.” He turns to the shop owner and tells him the levels are dangerously high. The man points to a water bucket next to the hood, which he believes cleans the exhaust bubbled through it. Luis explains that it is very difficult to capture mercury with water, and that the levels in the bucket have to be exactly right, or it will have no effect at all. The owner is friendly but dismissive, saying he was planning to get an exhaust fan soon. The infant’s mother, who was behind the counter, snatches the baby from the couch and hurries outside.

We return to E&M, in search of a power source. Luis plugs the Jerome into an electrical outlet and it begins to whir. “That last shop basically blew out the system, saturating the sensor so we can’t use it,” he explains. Ten minutes plugged in allows it to burn the mercury off the saturated gold foil and regenerate the sensor. I discover later that the Jerome analyzer tops out at a thousand micrograms per cubic meter—more than fifty times the WHO safe maximum limits. The air near the hood in the shop had levels higher than that.

When the sensor has regenerated, we make our way down to the river, where the trail to Huepetuhe begins on the opposite side. Macho pickup trucks, ready to load supplies onto their beds, idle on the far bank. A stream spills down the boulders leading to the river, and the 4 x 4s are the only way, besides hiking, to get into the interior.

The drivers regard our party with suspicion. Nearly everything in Huepetuhe is illegal and procured on the black market—from the workers and the trafficked prostitutes to the diesel fuel and the mercury—and visits by the region’s mining authorities are far from welcome. Still, one man agrees to drive us, and we wedge ourselves in.

For an hour, the truck labors along the boulder-strewn bed of a long-drained river. We crash so hard back and forth over the rocks that I worry about losing my tongue to my teeth in an unforeseen jolt. Luis turns around from the front seat. “It’s pretty much a dead river in this place,” he says. “This was a wide tropical river, but now? There’s so much sediment loading there’s not much left, there’s not a lot of water. That’s probably why there’s reportedly not any more fish in Huepetuhe. There’s so much sediment, it’s choked off, there’s no more oxygen. It’s contaminated with mercury. It’s kind of the worst of all worlds.”

As we draw nearer to the settlement, large breaks appear in the trees, burned forest giving way to a long view. Beyond the charred stumps, a startling new landscape emerges. Green selva surrounds us, clouds snagged on the tips of the trees, but here in front of us, above the naked ground, the clouds have burned away. Thick rain forest years ago collapsed into vast canyons of poisoned tailings in shades of rust and sorrel and chocolate—a sight from the American southwest, sandstone cliffs under a clear desert sky. The jagged contours of plateaus and gorges have cut away the forest, and the riven earth gapes two and a half miles wide and farther away than I can see, another twelve miles on. The tailing-land is not unbeautiful, but it is out of place, and it is dead.

Dead, in a place once known for the density and diversity of its life, is startling. Just north, on the far bank of the big river, away from the new highway, most of the forest is reserved for the indigenous tribes who prefer to remain separate from modern Peru. Under the triple canopy, life heaves and sighs, seethes and shifts and flutters and swings, sings, chatters, growls, screams. It is loud and teeming, filled with eyes and breath, and it is unmistakably, aggressively alive. Its potential destruction, to many, is unforgivable. In the pursuit of gold, billions of living organisms have already been destroyed in just this small piece of the Amazon basin. Logging and agriculture are culprits as well, but mining has exploded here in the past decade, deforesting some twenty-five thousand acres.

Rickety wooden structures begin to appear alongside the track as we reach the outer edges of Huepetuhe. A skinny boy in muddy blue shorts runs beside us, towing a toy car by a string. Our driver wants to leave us here, but we press him to take us into the center where the gold shops are clustered. Rolling slowly through knee-deep puddles, we splash into town. Mining communities are quiet during the daytime when the miners are out in the field. A woman in heavy Quechua skirts ducks back into her room as we pass, her baby still asleep on a three-foot pile of castoff concert T-shirts. Most of the buildings have two stories; they are built of rough wood planks and concrete and have cantilevered balconies listing at precarious angles. In one section near the riverbed, frilly underwear hangs to dry on the railings, advertising the presence of available women within. “It’s like Deadwood,” I say. “It is Deadwood,” Luis corrects. “The costumes are a little different, but that’s about it. In a lot of these places, you can even pay for your beer in gold.”

Shops advertise COMPRAMOS ORO ('We buy gold') to passersby.
Shops advertise COMPRAMOS ORO (“We buy gold”) to passersby.

One shop in town has the mercury-recapture system installed, and Luis wants to see how it is working. Ministry officials want to lend their support to Luis’s project, to encourage a seed of change; when David Cuadros lived in Huepetuhe twenty years ago it was a small town of independent miners on legal claims. Workers came from the mountains looking to escape the violence of the Shining Path. Under the Fujimori administration, mining was privatized, and explosive growth outpaced the government’s ability to keep up and regulate. The government finally withdrew in defeat as the town grew out of control, and the school, credit union, and health clinic now crumble on a hill above town.

The shop with the recapture device looks like all the others, covered in big, bright signs reading compramos oro (we buy gold). Inside, though, is clearly the domain of an early adopter. A curling poster hangs on the wall showing the ghostly, bruised face of a woman superimposed over a messy sheaf of paperwork; underneath, it reads femicide: we must stop it. your timely action can save the life of a woman. The owner installed the system with help from the ministry, and it stands prominently on a table, painted in responsible matte green, attached to a chimney made from machine-lubricant cans welded together. Luis grabs an eight-inch kitchen knife from the counter, resets the calibration screw on the Jerome, then flips it on. Levels in the shop are mostly good, hovering around the WHO limit of twenty micrograms per cubic meter. He waves the tester in a corner and the reading spikes to six hundred. Confused, Luis moves in for a closer look, and the owner reaches over and picks up a plastic bowl of mercury sitting next to the recapture device—the mercury he had drained from the system and planned to reactivate and sell. Open pools of mercury evaporate, Luis explains, and are better stored in a container with a cover.

Outside on the street, there is a palpable unease. People stare from doorways and windows. We convince another truck driver to take us across the riverbed into the tailing canyons. We roll to a stop at the edge of the muddy embankment and wait for a front-end loader and a Volvo truck to cross from the other side. A small pile of garbage smolders to my left and a black pig roots through the plastic bottles and bags that line the water’s edge. Dozens of vultures scatter from the vehicles, and a scruffy dog wades toward us through the knee-deep stream that is all that remains of a wide river. I lean out the window as we approach the far side of the wash and unexpectedly spot the object of the vultures’ interest: the carcass of another black pig.

A few hundred yards beyond the empty riverbed, the truck climbs between two piles of processed ore that have just begun to be bound by a gray stubble of shrubs. We climb out and hike to the top of a hill. Behind us, the town is a jumble of wood and scrap metal like a clump of trash clinging to the hillside. In the man-made landscape below us, a few dump trucks and backhoes crawl through the channels where the ground has been eaten away. Operations with more money bring in the big machinery, but most of what we are seeing, David Cuadros says, is sixth-, seventh-, eighth-round processing. The record price of gold has made it worthwhile to go back through the tailings, dug out years before, and process them again for fractions of gold. The landscape shifts, piles moving from one place to the next. Around the corner, David points out a reforestation project on top of another old pile, acacia trees meant to create soil on top of the tailings. Newer waste has since been dumped from the slope above, and the skeletons of half-buried trees protrude from the rubble.

The government in Madre de Dios has little ability to impose itself in places like Huepetuhe. It is one of the older, more accessible settlements, but even after the paving of the highway, it’s still six hours of road, river-crossing, and 4 x 4 track away from Puerto Maldonado. And other settlements stretch farther and farther away, more remote, harder to control. Ridding the jungle of illegal miners would be like shoveling water with a pitchfork.

Ronny Pastor is the director of the regional ministry of energy and mines. He has dark skin with deep creases in his cheeks and a malformed leg that gives him a jerking limp. But he is all confidence and charm, and doesn’t flinch at the reality of mining in the region. He describes a recent failure to enforce a complaint near one of the highway camps. “There was an invasion, at kilometer 107. At first, the farmer invited eight mining machines on his land in exchange for royalties. We’re talking 180-horsepower engines, strong suction pumps. But within a month, there were already sixty machines and a hole three hundred by one hundred meters.” The farmer called in a complaint when he lost control of the situation. “He hosted them, but this is what happens when the farmer who holds a reforestation concession thinks collecting royalty charges is not so bad.”

Ronny put together a team to address the farmer’s complaint, bringing four workers from the regional energy and mining ministry, three ombudsmen, six prosecutors, and forty armed police officers. “When we ask the police for support, the most they can give us is forty people because more, they say, leaves too few behind in the city.” They trekked into the bush, surprised by the quiet, until they found themselves surrounded by “five hundred people with machetes.” Unwilling to escalate the situation, and unable to assert their authority, they were forced to retreat.

When the Environmental Ministry suspended all petitions for title in the region, it overrode regional approvals and closed down the path to formalization and legalization of mining activities, thus shutting the miners firmly outside the law. In Ronny’s view, they need more formalization, not less. He wants to encourage the registering of businesses in the region so that their taxes can be applied in Madre de Dios, a benefit of $50 million a year to the regional government, he estimates. Most of the operations profiting from the region’s gold are registered elsewhere, and their tax money goes to the department where they are based.

His views are not far from those of the Federation of Miners in Madre de Dios (FEDEMIN), the organization of artisanal miners who want to make their claims legal. Samuel Bocangel, who represents the river-dredge operators, has agreed to meet with me at the windowless concrete headquarters of FEDEMIN in downtown Puerto Maldonado.

When I arrive, a couple of men stand smoking outside a doorway. They gesture me inside. I step into the dim room and find it ringed with chairs occupied by twenty men. A tall man with a round face and a receding hairline approaches, shakes my hand, and tells me they will all take part in our meeting. Dressed in brown slacks and a beige polo shirt, he cuts a more sophisticated figure than most of the others, who are wearing T-shirts and muddy boots. He introduces himself as Elber Vargas, legal adviser to FEDEMIN. In the room are mining reps from all the major encampments and advisers from other parts of Peru who are here to strategize. An older man with graying hair and heavy jowls emerges from behind a partition at the back of the room, the president of the national federation. I sit by the door, just a few empty spots from the crowd of stony faces. “Please clarify, because I doubt,” says a younger man across the room, “la señorita,” he enunciates derisively, “is a journalist?”

His paranoia stems from the rarity of a gringa in the region not working with an environmental organization. The miners feel that international scientific NGOs working in the jungle criticize their practices to higher levels of government, and they are generally correct. He asks who in the Environmental Ministry arranged my visit. I stress that I’ve had no contact with the Ministry of Environment, which is based in Lima, and that I have been speaking with officials from the Ministry of Mines. I say that I have heard from many other people about mining and that now I wish to hear directly from them.

Vargas launches into a defense of the small-scale miners, speaking rapidly and intensely, leaning forward in his chair. For ninety minutes, he and the others profess their desire to legalize their mining claims and their good-faith efforts to produce the studies and paperwork required by numerous different departments of the regional government, work that is invalidated in one fell swoop by an environment minister they believe to be the tool of international corporate interests.

In practice, most titles to mining concessions in the region are granted to large transnational corporations. They are still considered “small mines,” however, because of the low volume of output from any given concession. The law does not require them to sign contracts with the workers on their land, so any working miners are outside the legal framework, whether they wish to be or not. Vargas defends the commitment of the miners to improving environmental practices. The corporate title-owners, he argues, live far away and don’t care about Madre de Dios. The miners don’t have enough money to invest in researching alternative technologies, and they have received little help from the government, which blocks them at every step with accusations of pollution and environmental destruction.

A local representative speaks up. “We are the ones who live in this place, our children live here, our grandchildren, our families,” he says. “So we want to protect it, but the state has totally abandoned us. The ministers are in Lima, but those who live here are the ones who suffer. But as I say, what we want is to work hand in hand with the authorities, but they must always respect the right to work. It is a social problem.”

Vargas says that Minister of the Environment Antonio Brack ignores their proposals and refuses to work with them. In their view, he has demonized them in the press and outlawed any further legal development by them in order to sell the rights to concessions in the region to large international corporations, such as Newmont Mining or Hunt Oil. “We are demanding the resignation of Brack, because the filing of the documents against us is an attack, a declaration of war.”

“Those who own bars live by gold. Those who rent rooms, it is by gold that they live. Metalworkers, they live by gold. We who sell food live by gold. Everyone lives by gold.”

The sensitivity and the tense rhetoric reflect Peru’s history of exploitation by foreigners to the detriment of its natives. When Pizarro arrived at Cajamarca in 1532, the Inca had no concept of money. Resources were distributed equitably throughout the empire so that no person lacked for food or shelter, even when drought or illness struck. The expansion of the empire rested far more on diplomacy and negotiation than on application of force; plundering newly conquered territories would only impoverish the new citizens and leave them resentful and rebellious. Gold played no role in their daily lives until the Spaniards arrived, willing to murder as many Indians as it took to obtain it.

King Ferdinand was clear: “Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards—get gold.” Exploiting the trust of the Incas, Pizarro captured the Inca king, Atahualpa, who had accepted an invitation to visit with the strange new foreigner. In exchange for his life, Atahualpa offered to fill the room they were standing in with gold and fill a smaller room, twice, with silver. Pizarro accepted the terms, then killed Atahualpa anyway.

Today, Cajamarca is still providing gold and wealth to foreigners while many in the region live in poverty. Yanacocha, the mine at Cajamarca, is the second-largest gold mine in the world, and is mined by the cyanide heap-leach method. This method is touted as less environmentally destructive, but environmental audits of the region have shown that cyanide has contaminated the watershed. Fish and frogs have disappeared and cattle have fallen ill. Yanacocha is distinguished by one of the lowest investment costs per ounce of extracted gold, and is run by Minera Yanacocha, a venture jointly owned by US and Peruvian mining companies and the World Bank. Its majority owner is the American mining company Newmont, the world’s largest producer of gold.

Cliffs and canyons of mercury-laced mining tailings in Huepetuhe.
Cliffs and canyons of mercury-laced mining tailings in Huepetuhe.

In 2004, in opposition to plans to expand mining into regions critical to the local watershed, thousands of protesters blocked access to the mine for two weeks until Newmont withdrew the expansion plans. Following these and other violent encounters between Newmont’s security teams, the police, and protesters, Newmont has begun attempts to repair its relationship with the community around Cajamarca by sponsoring cultural events, community festivals, and health clinics. The company’s profits in 2010 are soaring on the price of gold, as nervous investors stockpile currency, and sales of electronics and jewelry surge in China and India.

The government’s protection of the rights of its corporate investors escalated in June 2009, when violence broke out in Bagua Province after a months-long blockade by indigenous tribe members protesting the government’s support of oil drilling and other exploitation on their lands. Since April, they had been blocking access to hydroelectric stations and oil pipelines by wielding machetes, wooden spears, and protest placards. On June 5, a confrontation between police and protesters ended with eleven police and twenty-five protesters dead. The protesters retaliated and killed another twelve police officers, and have claimed that an undetermined number of their supporters, forty or more, were killed or missing.

That same spring, the government granted Hunt Oil exploration rights to investigate oil reserves inside the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve near Puerto Maldonado. In September 2009, the leaders of ten indigenous communities unanimously resolved their opposition to the project, but the company’s activities continue. Already, mineral and resource rights have been granted in nearly 70 percent of the reserved areas of the Amazonian forest.

Gold miners demonstrate in Puerto Maldonado for the right to legalize their activity in Madre de Díos, April 4, 2010.
Gold miners demonstrate in Puerto Maldonado for the right to legalize their activity in Madre de Díos, April 4, 2010.

Antonio Brack has followed through on threats to use the military to clear out the miners in Madre de Dios. In February, the national government deployed members of the Peruvian Navy and Coast Guard to shut down seven dredges in the river near Puerto Maldonado. After heated recriminations between the miners and the government, the mining federations organized an indefinite strike to paralyze the mining regions of Peru beginning on April 4. The government declared a state of emergency in six provinces as tens of thousands of miners and their supporters blockaded streets and shut down businesses in Puerto Maldonado and elsewhere, demanding the repeal of the emergency decree targeting Madre de Dios. The government was defiant, with President Alan García calling the miners “savage.” Puerto Maldonado itself remained calmer than expected, locked down by the miners and surrounded by security forces. But in the coastal town of Chala, where six thousand protesters had blocked the Pan-American Highway, police opened fire after being pelted with sticks and rocks, killing six people and wounding some thirty others. Hoping to avoid another Bagua, the government relented, agreeing to negotiate with the mining federation leaders. After eight hours of talks in Lima, the government agreed to suspend the emergency decree for ninety days for review, opening the door to reform of the laws governing formalization of artisanal miners in Madre de Dios. The government also agreed to convene a multi-sector committee to formulate a new plan for formalizing artisanal mining.

The offer was enough to end the strikes, which was the primary aim of the government. In the past, though, the miners say, when they have arrived for scheduled negotiations, they have been stood up by government officials or met by low-level assistants. Now that the strike is over, it remains to be seen whether the government is serious about working with the miners. Unlike at Bagua, where the government had clearly asserted its rights over the indigenous people whose territory was being exploited, these miners are portrayed in mainstream Peruvian media in a negative light, as black-market pirates. Still, police killings of unarmed, impoverished protesters are bound to attract negative attention.

Gold miners demonstrate in Puerto Maldonado for the right to legalize their activity in Madre de Díos, April 4, 2010.
Gold miners demonstrate in Puerto Maldonado for the right to legalize their activity in Madre de Díos, April 4, 2010.

The struggle continues in Peru over who will receive the benefits of the gold that is so damaging to obtain. Many Peruvians resent and distrust the succession of unstable governments, stretching back to the time of the country’s conquest and marked by rulers unable or unwilling to care for the needs of the poor. Since the profaning of the Incas’ sacred gold, since the Spaniards melted offerings to the gods into bars of money, the poorest of Peru have received little of the security that the gold of their lands has given others. They see little hope in a future where foreign companies control their resources.

On the day of my departure, I stand on the edge of the river in Laberinto, watching a half dozen peki peki boats float like banana leaves on the water, ready to labor up the river laden with passengers and cargo. Older women line the bank, cooking food for passengers to take on their journeys. Fried chicken, rice, boiled potatoes, even drinks like limonata, are tied up in plastic bags. Despite the heavy heat, two of the women are dressed in the tradition of the Andes: layered skirts and sweaters, brimmed hats. One, Maria Luce, is shy and busies herself frying mota fish in crackling oil. The other, with a wide smile capped in gold, tells me her name: Profeta Purificación Conza—Prophetess of Purification.

“All of us working in this town, we live for gold,” she says. “We come here from the mountains, from the fields, where we make so little. Potatoes cost nothing. They cost a pittance. Here we can support our families. Here, the base is gold. The problem is that they are going to take the mining away, but everyone here lives by gold. Those who own bars live by gold. Those who rent rooms, it is by gold that they live. Metalworkers, they live by gold. We who sell food live by gold. Everyone lives by gold. If the gold disappears, what will happen? It all dies.” 

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