Examining Peru’s Gold-Mining Conflict

October 22, 2010

Peru Gold mines Back in February 2010, the government of Peru issued an emergency decree to impose stricter environmental regulations on gold mining. The decree put a hold on approval of new mining claims in Madre de Dios, added controls over where mining is permitted, and prohibited river dredging. The Mining Federation of Madre de Dios (FEDEMIN), afraid the new regulations would cause informal miners to lose their livelihood, called for a strike beginning on April 4. Before the resolution of the four-day strike, violence broke out at a roadblock in northern Peru, resulting in six deaths. (Photo by Walter Wust)

Illegal mining has increased dramatically in recent years with the rising price of gold. Much of the gold market is informal, and thus the government has no way to enforce a tax on gold sales (nor labor and environmental regulations). In defense of the decree, Peruvian president Alan Garcia stated, “How can we permit a savage type of mining that doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t pay proper wages and doesn’t use modern equipment … and which continues to contaminate the Amazon?”

The environmental impacts of gold mining are extensive. Small-scale miners use mercury to extract gold from river sediments. Through this process, large amounts of mercury run into the rivers – polluting fish which are a major protein source in the Amazon – and are absorbed by the soil. Once extracted, the amalgam is burned, releasing the mercury into the air and leaving behind pure gold and a high level of air pollution. In addition to mercury pollution, mining damages riverbanks, contributes to deforestation and, in the case of dredging, destroys riverbeds and silts in the waterways. Some illegal mining operations are carried out within protected-area buffer zones and concessions dedicated to ecotourism.

To resolve the four-day strike in April, an agreement was reached between the miners and the government. Peru’s Prime Minister, Ángel Javier Velázquez Quesquén, agreed to modify the decree to include mechanisms for its implementation. A commission was created by government and mining representatives to help formalize the miners within a reasonable timeframe, thus allowing illegal miners to become legal and to resolve the overlapping concessions.

Progress has been slow, partly due to arguments over representation on the commission and more recently due to the government’s unwillingness to take big steps right before an election. The regional election, however, has now passed and the news is that the pro-mining candidate was not elected. Over the last few months, community organizations have been working to find ways to prevent new mining invasions. Thus, while there have been setbacks in the process, we have also seen positive steps being taken.

Several civil society organizations in the region have been collectively active in supporting the Peruvian government’s efforts to increase environmental regulation. Taking a leading role, ACA provided a dossier of information on the impact of mining in Madre de Dios to Peru’s minister of the environment, Antonio Brack. This information included GIS studies of land use change, a report on mercury pollution in fish (funded by a grant from the ACA’s research grants program), and a collection of publications and photos of mining’s impact. In addition, ACA has supported an open dialogue between the environment ministry and regional and local stakeholders to examine the range of issues surrounding mining in Madre de Dios and to promote mining best practices. We support efforts to resolve these issues so that miners can continue to make a living while complying with regulations in their work as a way to protect the Amazon Basin and the health of the miners, their families, and their communities. (Photo above by Enrique Ortiz)