Operation Mercury: Major success in reducing illegal gold mining in Peru

Building the technology, infrastructure and government capacity needed for authorities and local communities to win the fight against illegal deforestation.

Early in 2019, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in the southern region of Madre de Dios. The culprit was a familiar one, as the region has been plagued by the illegal gold mining that has plagued the region for decades. The unmanaged and illegal extraction process turned once thriving habitats into wastelands and left behind only toxic fumes and mercury-contaminated lands and rivers. But not all was lost. The government launched Operation Mercury, a series of highly-coordinated military interventions that apprehended illegal gold miners and destroyed the mining camps that not only destroy thousands of acres of forests but were the breeding ground for human trafficking, child labor, sex slavery, and hired hit men. The result was immediate: a 92% decrease in deforestation caused by illegal gold mining in the region.

This intervention was a culmination of years of work. For the past five years, our deforestation satellite monitoring program has given the Peruvian government real-time reports on illegal deforestation. We applied our satellite monitoring expertise to build the government’s capacity in understanding and using this high-tech information within the judicial system, by training judges, prosecutors, and government officials, as well as creating specialized offices to conduct their own satellite monitoring. Since often the complexity and bureaucracy inherent in governments makes it difficult for agencies to step out of their own silos to effectively work together on fighting complex environmental crimes, we also worked to establish the formal intra-governmental relationships necessary for action to take place. Now the government has a working system – called the National System for Control and Monitoring – that uses high-tech information and is able to coordinate large-scale interventions like Operation Mercury. 

Photo of Marcelina

The National System provides the government with the framework to combat forest crimes, as well as a way for local people to get involved, as they can send evidence of illegal activities taking place in their forest homes so the government knows where action is needed. Recognizing the important role of everyday forest users in stopping illegal deforestation, we trained 27 people this year in the use of drones and smartphone apps to remotely monitor their forests for invasions and illegal activities, adding to the 73 trained in previous years. Using our technology protects them from potentially life-threatening, face-to-face confrontations as they gather needed evidence. Marcelina G. is one of the drone pilots we helped certify. “Now that I can fly drones, I can make sure people don’t illegally enter my forest and that of my neighbors, so others don’t destroy our forest for their gain.” Marcelina is now working together with the government as a front-line guardian of the Amazon.

Much of this progress has been made thanks to the collaborative work of governments, local communities, international supporters like the Norwegian Agency for Development Corporation (Norad), and local conservation organizations nonprofits like us. We will continue to strengthen Peru’s successful monitoring model and help transport it to other areas of the Amazon. 

This was a story from our 2019 Impact Report. Click here to read about other conservation successes from 2019.