Peace has returned to the remote Amazon region of Madre de Dios in southwest Peru, following violent clashes between thousands of miners and riot police which left three people dead.
They were protesting against the Peruvian government’s plans to impose stiff jail sentences on anyone operating unregulated or illegal gold mines, and to force all mines to meet minimum environmental standards. Mining is devastating the region, which is one of the most biodiverse on Earth – but it's also an important source of income for many of Peru's poor. Now, it appears a compromise has been reached. But will both parties honour the agreement, and can it really protect this vital part of the world?
Destruction and desperation
Peru’s new leftist government, under President Ollanta Humala, has vowed to eradicate unregulated mining in Madre de Dios in the next 12 months. That would be a huge achievement, in an area where Humala doesn't have an unblemished record. Unregulated and illegal miners have wiped out large areas of forest, and have also polluted rivers with mercury, while child prostitution rings have been busy luring some 1,200 young unsuspecting girls to the mines every year.
But most of the 40,000 small-scale miners, who live in shacks covered in blue plastic sheets, see mining as their only livelihood. Nearly all are farmers who arrive by bus from the dirt-poor Andean highlands, desperate to find work to maintain their families back home. The fact that the price of gold has tripled in the past few years does not make the situation easier: legal or not, their work is something they will fight to keep.
In exchange for peace with the miners, the authorities last week agreed with Fedemin, the main regional mining federation, to create a framework to legalise unregulated miners in areas where mining is officially permitted. The hope is that if the industry is regulated, it will cause less environmental damage. The administrative process will also be made speedier and simpler.
Many question the pact’s success in defusing the crisis and preventing the destruction of Madre de Dios. Any new rules will be extremely difficult to enforce. This remote region is like the wild west, where the state is largely absent and laws are often ignored.
Illegal gold mines remain no-go areas for the police. Most are accessible only by motorcycles bumping along narrow man-made paths that cut across the thick jungle from the main road. The mines – "Guacamayo", "Delta1" – form huge deserts in the middle of the forest, visible from space. Visitors are not welcome there, and anyone seen with a camera risks being lynched or worse.
The new rules are an important step forward. It remains to be seen whether the miners will accept them, or simply move to different areas. What poor farmers really need are more options, so that they can afford to give up mining altogether.
Further reading: Alfonso Daniels describes life among the illegal mines of Madre de Dios.