Peruvian gold abounds in American products, yet too often comes at the expense of miners’ freedom, health and lives
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
Video of illegal gold mining operations that have turned a portion of the Amazon rainforest into a moonscape went viral on Youtube after a popular radio and TV journalist in Peru highlighted the story.
Last week Peruvian journalist and politician Güido Lombardi directed his audience to video shot from a wingcam aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), an airplane used by researchers to conduct advanced monitoring and analysis of Peru’s forests. The video quickly received more than 60,000 views on Youtube.
The attention generated by the broadcast is significant because the issue of gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon isn’t well known, despite its widening impact.
Güido Lombardi voiceover detailing the damage caused by gold mining in Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru (Spanish).
According to Greg Asner, the Carnegie Department of Global Ecology scientist who led the development of the CAO, more than 50,000 hectares have been affected by gold mining in just the southern part of the department of Madre do Dios. A soon-to-be-published paper, co-authored with members of Asner’s team as well as Peruvian researchers, will show that the rate of expansion has nearly tripled in recent years, climbing from 2,166 hectares per year prior to 2008 to 6,145 thereafter.
While the numbers may seem abstract, seen from above, the extent and totality of the devastation is astonishing. Vast areas of wildlife-rich rainforests have been annihilated, while normally clear-flowing streams have been converted to muddy cesspools. Streams draining mining areas run blood-red and carry toxins and heavy metals like mercury to downstream towns and villages. Virtually all this mining is illegal.
Given the growing damage — including social problems like violent conflict, crime, poor labor conditions, human trafficking and prostitution — getting a handle on the activity is a priority for Peru’s Ministry of Environment. The agency, better known as MINAM, has partnered with Asner’s team to track mining in near real-time.
“CAO’s sensors provide detailed information on patterns of degradation that are specific to gold mining; practically in real time,” Ernesto Raez, a senior official at MINAM, told mongabay.com. “We are very interested in the ability of the technology onboard CAO to detect illegal gold mining in the eastern foothills of the Andes (where it is much less visible and easier to hide) and to detect chemical traces of gold mining in the waters, particularly the presence of heavy metals.”
Raez says that illegal gold mining is also afflicting high elevation areas in the Titicaca Lake basin.
“The dimension of illegal mining in the Titicaca basin, particularly at the sources of the Ramis river, is even more shocking than in the jungle (if possible), with massive destruction of precious highland wetlands with heavy machines. These are giant operations. Arsenic has been found in the Titicaca Lake.”
Ernesto Raez describing the impact of gold mining (Spanish).
The Peruvian government doesn’t yet have an estimate for the total extent of gold mines across the country, but Raez estimates that informal mining may involve 150,000 people across the country, suggesting it is well entrenched and therefore potentially very difficult to address.
Asner says whatever the utimate number, it is clear that gold mining is much more pervasive than previously estimated.
“These numbers are much higher than previous reports, and we have fully validated them by combining CLASlite [Asner’s satellite-based deforestation and forest degradation tracking system that is currently being used extensively by MINAM], CAO and clandestine fields surveys,” Asner told mongabay.com. “Working on this problem with Ernesto and the rest of MINAM is a top priority for the CAO team.”
Tarnished gold: why Peru’s forced labor mining matters to the US
About one-fifth of the gold exported from Peru is illegally mined, with forced labor extracting much of the precious metal that ends up in cellphones, computers and jewelry, according to US nonprofit Verité.
Peru’s Andean mineral wealth has made it the world’s sixth-largest gold producer and boosted it into the ranks of middle-income countries, but some miners have paid for the boom with their freedom – or their lives.
Each year, between 16 and 20 metric tons of gold come out of unregulated “informal” mines, where concession holders pay no taxes and workers labor without contracts, benefits or safety gear. Many are held in near slavery, forced to repay ever-increasing debts to labor brokers, according to a new report by Verité, a US-based non-profit watchdog organization.
“There’s an incredibly high risk of forced labor in illegal gold mining in Peru,” said Quinn Kepes, Verité’s research program manager and one of the authors of the study. “About one-fifth of the gold exported from Peru is illegally mined,” and the country’s role as a leading gold exporter makes it a source of “a good percentage of the gold that’s making its way into our wedding rings or cellphones”.
The Peruvian government could do more to protect its people, but responsibility lies with business, consumers and regulators in developed countries as well, according to Verite. The group says the US government should require companies to disclose whether gold in their supply chains is produced with forced labor and prosecute those companies that “launder” informally mined gold to make it appear legal.
There are precedents for such a requirement. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, manufacturers must report any use of “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo or neighboring companies. And the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which took effect in 2012, requires large retailers and manufacturers operating in that state to disclose efforts to eliminate forced labor and human trafficking from their supply chains.
Verité also urged companies that buy gold to participate in certification or corporate-responsibility programs like those sponsored by the Responsible Jewellery Council, an industry group, or the No Dirty Gold campaign. Some high-end jewellers, such as Tiffany & Co, and some mass marketers, such as Walmart, have signed on with No Dirty Gold, but many other retailers have not.
High gold prices in recent years triggered the labor problems in Peru’s small mines. The Amazonian Madre de Dios region became the epicenter of a gold rush, with migrants – mainly poor farmers or laborers from the Andean highlands – drawn by promises of payment in gold.
For many who talked with Kepes, the dream of riches vanished when they found themselves in remote, squalid camps and were told that they would receive no wages until they repaid a supposed debt to the labor broker who hired them. Meanwhile, they continued to rack up debts for food or other items in bonded labor that sometimes continued for several years.
Estimates of the number of workers in the Madre de Dios gold camps range from 15,000 to 50,000.
Workers fell trees to clear the mine site or operate huge motorized suction hoses that send a cascade of mud over a sluice. When the heavier, gold-bearing sediment settles to the bottom, the miners use their hands or feet to mix it with mercury, which clings to the gold, separating it from the sand. Then they heat the amalgam, sometimes with nothing more than a blowtorch, vaporizing the mercury and leaving behind a chunk of gold.
The moonscape-like deforestation caused by the mining has grabbed national and foreign media attention, but the forced labor, violence, mercury exposure, disease and death in the camps has been largely ignored, except for occasional reports of underage girls rescued from brothels.
Informal miners also operate in hard-rock mines in the Andean highlands, said Kepes, who interviewed workers in the Cusco and Puno regions. Some are self-employed, but others are in debt bondage to the brokers who recruited them.
The Peruvian government has formed a multi-agency commission to tackle the problem, and has passed laws to bring the miners into the formal economy, but the effort has bogged down amid bureaucracy and conflicting land claims. Even Cabinet ministers admit that corruption is the biggest obstacle to “formalizing” informal mining.
Peru’s Labor Ministry lacks labor inspectors and funding, Kepes said. Even if the ministry had inspectors in Madre de Dios, it would be dangerous for them to go into the camps, where miners have been known to physically attack authorities, he said.
Given the obstacles facing regulators in Peru, Kepes said, companies that buy gold should take steps to make sure they are not contributing to exploitation of the poor.
Ideally, he said, companies should buy gold directly from a mine, and auditors should visit to ensure that environmental, labor, tax and other regulations are respected. The Association for Responsible Mining certifies gold from small-scale mines as “fair-mined” if the miners meet a series of social and environmental standards.
For example, Santa Filomena, a hard-rock mining community in the southern Peruvian highlands, won certification after eliminating child labor, establishing strict safety requirements, upgrading miners’ housing and building a cyanide processing plant to replace open-air mercury amalgamation.
Some refiners and other buyers will seek certification to protect their reputations, said Fiona Solomon, director of standards development for theResponsible Jewellery Council. Large mining companies such as AngloGold Ashanti and jewelers such as Cartier International are members of the council.
But gold from “informal” mines in the Amazon, Africa and Asia is often bought by small-scale brokers in a parallel system susceptible to corruption and organized crime, Solomon said.
Standards and certifications are only effective if they’re verified at the source, said No Dirty Gold campaign director Payal Sampat.
“For the informal mining sector, the direct involvement of miners and community members in verification and auditing is central to legitimacy and transparency,” Sampat said.
“Workers and community members have to be interviewed by auditors, and there has to be transparency in the way reporting is done.”
Barbara Fraser is an independent journalist based in Peru