The extractive economy in the Peruvian Amazon has reached a new juncture with government militarization of gold resources amidst a gold boom, as nearly 50 thousand miners in Madre de Dios produce an annual 18 tons of gold worth $800 million (Arthur 2012). The first in a sequence of military strikes occurred early in 2011 when Peru’s Ministries of Environment, Defense, and Internal Affairs joined forces and hailed nearly a thousand soldiers and federal police into Madre de Dios to martial a large-scale anti-mining assault. Equipped with speedboats and helicopters, the plan was to eradicate millions of dollars worth of mining equipment, approximately 300 dredgers (dragas) and other large instruments used in alluvial gold mining to enforce a new decree restricting mining in the region (Reuters 2011). However, only 13 dredgers were destroyed before the local mining syndicate, Federación Minera de Madre de Dios (FEDEMIN), organized a paro minero (miner’s strike) in capital city Puerto Maldonado and halted military operations.
The strike resulted in a number of injuries and casualties and the suspension of further military action until later in the year when 130 dredgers were firebombed (La Republica 2011). The power struggle between informal miners and the central government is ongoing and subsequent decrees have resulted in further military operations and large-scale labor strikes with shutdowns of parts of the Interoceanic Highway and the Billinghurst Bridge (the largest suspension bridge in Peru, spanning 722 meters), to which the state has responded by deploying tear gas and in some cases opening fire. Each year this sequence is followed by temporary resolutions to quell social unrest and advance towards formalization.
These conflicts are described as political responses to growing concerns over environmental, health, and social consequences of informal gold mining in Madre de Dios. As the greatest contributor to deforestation in the region, mining has led to a tripling rate of deforestation since 2008 (Asner et al. 2013), correlating with the rise of world gold prices (Swenson et al. 2011).
Mercury, which is used to extract gold from slurries of mud and rock, is subsequently discarded, re-deposited, and metabolized across ecosystems (see Eisler 1987; Hoffman et al. 1995; Veiga et al. 1999). Mercury cycles across trophic levels and ultimately reaches human populations primarily through food consumption (Ashe 2012). Social consequences of mining are also manifold. Former Peruvian president Alan Garcia, who presided over the 2011 conflict in Madre de Dios, described mining as “savage” in the “social sense” because it exploits labor, ensuring “no steady income, no social security, no retirement benefits…” (Infosurhoy 2010). Peru’s first Minister of Environment Antonio Brack Egg, whom Alan Garcia appointed, calls it a “deteriorating situation” run by an “informal mining mafia” that pollutes the environment and violates basic rights (Peruvian Times 2008; 2009), primarily through human trafficking, child labor, and sexual slavery, which rampantly occur in mining encampments and operations in Madre de Dios (Verité 2013).
One morning during fieldwork in April 2014, I awoke to the Doppler effect of a Peruvian army helicopter flying low over the city, likely en route to Huapetue, an area part of the mining corridor in Madre de Dios. Huapetue’s barren landscape is due to desertification from wide scale mining. In a spectacular presentation of state power and authority, General Daniel Urresti arrived to Huapetue with twelve television journalists and 1500 members of the navy, the Army, Air Force, and National Police to initiate “Operación Principio de Autoridad 1” (Operation Principle Authority 1). The first of the new interdictions in 2014 included armed forces destroying machinery and equipment used for gold mining including 74 large engines, 13 laundry ‘chutes,’ 7 backhoes, 2 excavators, a number of front loaders, six tippers, 118 thousand gallons of fuel, 1300 square PVC pipe, 4,800ft of 5-inch hose and 7 medium ‘carancheras’ (machines).
Government officials posted images of the operation on Flickr, Facebook, and other social media, but miners whom with I have spoken called the operation “pure words” claiming that the military strikes were just for show and media attention before reelections and that the mining corridor has returned to normal. The power struggle between informal miners and the central government is ongoing as decrees from the capital in Lima have resulted in further military operations and large-scale labor strikes with shutdowns of parts of the Interoceanic Highway and the Billinghurst Bridge (the largest suspension bridge in Peru, spanning 722 meters), to which the state has responded by deploying tear gas and in some cases opening fire. Each year this sequence is followed by temporary resolutions to quell social unrest and advance towards formalization.
It is important to note that gold mining in the region was not always illegitimate in the eyes of the law. The central government played a critical role in promoting gold mining in the region in the late 1970s. As the price of gold began to rise, Peru offered a blanket tax-exemption for individuals and companies working in Amazonia (Asheshov 1977). The state-run Banco Minero (Mining Bank) assisted in developing the region using grubstake loans to encourage people to look for gold and by purchasing gold at prices that followed global market rates, transmitting information about mining through radio programming, and by supporting regional infrastructures such as constructing small towns like Boca Colorado and Masuko. Which factors motivated the central government’s position to shift from financial support to military opposition? Reasons like deforestation, pollution, and child labor are often given in petition for the state to fulfill its moral responsibilities associated with protecting its citizens and land. However, informal gold mining in Peru extracts around 15 tons of gold with a net worth of approximately 700 million dollars, of which 70 percent is from Madre de Dios (Brooks et al. 2007), but mining remains almost entirely informal (i.e. performed without permits) or is outright illegal. This represents a significant amount of lost income for state tax revenue especially considering that nearly 40 percent of the regional GDP comes from gold mining (Mosquera et al. 2009).
Peru passed legislation in 2011 to increase mining royalties from around $650 million to $1 billion annually as the informal mining sector in Madre de Dios represents an estimated $186 million in lost taxes each year (Arthur 2012). Formalizing mining would also better enable transnational mining corporations (four of which account for 70 percent of ~$4 billion dollars generated annually in Peru from mining) to access gold resources. During interviews some gold miners expressed weariness that the central government plans to formalize gold mining in the same manner it did with timber at the turn of the twenty-first century, pointing out that ‘selective logging’ policies marginalized small-scale loggers and enabled monopolies of large timber companies. “The same will happen with gold!” miners warned, a fear echoed by many in the region.