In February 2019, the government of Peru launched an all-out and what is planned to be a “sustained” military campaign to eradicate illegal mining in the department of Madre de Dios. The raid included 1,272 police agents, 300 members of the armed forces, and 70 representatives from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Madre de Dios borders both Brazil and Bolivia. The region is not new to interventions by law enforcement. Since 2010 local and national authorities have attempted to curb illegal and informal mining in Madre de Dios by force. These attempts have largely failed, due to, what critics sum up to the lack of a permanent presence of the Peruvian military. The Peruvian government has promised to now change that. But is this new strategy really going to get at the root cause of the problem, or will it criminalize the wrong people?
The Gold Rush in the Amazon
- The 2008 global financial crisis that pushed gold prices to new highs resulted in an escalated and sustained extraction by formal and non-formal entities.
- The issue is also of grave concern in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia.
- In Peru it has become particularly ugly, since it is now the largest gold producer in Latin America and sixth in the world.
- An estimated 25% of Peruvian gold production now originates from the illegal sector.
- Over 60,000 hectares of land in Madre de Dios has been destroyed by mining, peaking in 2018 at 9,280 hectares.
- An estimated 30 to 40 tons of mercury are dumped into the environment of Madre de Dios annually; now 78% of residents have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies, with women of childbearing age the most affected.
- Illegal mining is linked to other criminal activities, including transnational organized crime, child labour, human trafficking and land grabbing
The regional authorities have been ineffective in containing the disaster in Madre de Dios. Just a few days before the launch of the latest operation, the Governor of Madre Dios, Luis Hidalgo Okimura, said to the press that in the zone “there is no law” and “no one, not even police, is allowed in the area without the permission of the mafia hitmen”. Following the raid in February, dubbed ‘Operation Mercury’, a two-month state of emergency was declared by the Ministry of Defense. The government said it was suspending civil liberties and tasking the armed forces with restoring the rule of law in districts with rampant illegal mining. The operation got off to a terrible start with two police officers and a prosecutor killed when a bus transporting security forces flipped over.
The two-pronged strategy
In the past, miners in Madre de Dios were often tipped off about government plans to destroy illegal mining camps in the jungle, allowing them to hide machinery and flee. They would then regroup once security forces left the area. As a result, two weeks after the raid, the government inaugurated, what will be the first of four planned military bases in the region. The Minister of Defence José Huerta told the press that the bases will be “highly mobile” and dedicated to the eradication of illegal mining. Each base will have 100 soldiers, 50 police, and a State Prosecutor permanently stationed. For surveillance, the bases will be equipped with drones, and have access to satellites for remote imagery and a military plane for aerial footage.
The Minister of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP) Ana María Mendieta, announced that the military and police operation will be followed by additional stages in coordination with multiple agencies. Just in last month’s raid alone, 37 women were rescued from traffickers. Mendieta claims the difference from past efforts is to permanently eradicate organized crime from the region. The plan is not only to rescue victims but also “to make the zone productive, changing the activities and mentalities of the people”. She further adds, the intervention “has the main objective of re-establishing authority in the zone, eradicating illegal mining that brings along with it child labour, sexual exploitation, and trafficking.
A Misguided Policy?
Critics are skeptical and say law enforcement is outmanned and underequipped. Previous governments that sent troops to destroy illegal mines in the region have failed to stop their expansion. There is also an important distinction to be made. Illegal mining considers extraction that occurs within designated protected areas, involves illegal activities, such as child labour, or use illegal machinery, like dredges. However, these illegal mines are not the majority in Madre de Dios. Most are informal or unregistered mines that due to the bureaucratic loops cannot formalize a concession. The corporate mining lobby has also pushed against laws that could aid the artisanal sector and governments have traditionally favored big business. The government has a miserable record of formalization across all sectors in the country and mining is no different. The number of formalized mining concessions in Madre de Dios can be counted on a single hand.
It is very important for the government to crackdown on illegal mining operations, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. However, the government should refrain from only ‘iron-fist policies and criminalization. An effective solution to the illegal mining issue in Peru requires innovative and efficacious approaches that focus on both formalization and addressing environmental protection and human rights concerns. Finally, corporate mining should not be considered a silver bullet and immune to human rights violations and environmental concerns.
Image: Wikimedia Commons (link)