Government Launches Military Operation against Informal Mining in Peru

By Dialogo
February 22, 2011

On 19 February, a thousand Peruvian military personnel began an operation to destroy twelve dredges used by informal gold miners, who are accused of polluting the rivers of an Amazonian region on the borders with Brazil and Bolivia (in southeastern Peru), the authorities announced.

The destruction of the dredges is part of a government offensive against informal mining, accused of violating the law and polluting the rivers, streams, and fish of the Madre de Dios region with mercury.

Peruvian Defense Minister Jaime Thorne specified that eight of the twelve dredges had been destroyed by the time the day was almost over.

“We’ve already seized eight of the twelve dredges. We’re finishing the process of locating and seizing the rest,” the minister noted, without specifying how many days the action would last.

The dredges were demolished and sunk, and flames, thick columns of smoke, and forest damage could be observed from a military plane that flew over the area, an AFP reporter on board the aircraft confirmed.

The operation involved the participation of 350 military personnel and 600 police officers, with support from three helicopters, two airplanes, and an undetermined number of Navy speedboats.

“We have to look out for the ecosystem. It can’t be permitted that they destroy rivers and streams, and that fish have high levels of mercury, 300% more than what is permitted internationally,” Environment Minister Antonio Brack emphasized.

“There’s (child) slavery, pollution; we can’t permit them to make a mockery of the population’s health,” the Peruvian official added.

The dredges are located in areas neighboring the Inambari River, near the border with Brazil, spread out over a distance of 259 km. At each dredge, around five hundred people work illegally.

According to the minister, the twelve main dredges, which are of Chinese origin, are worth 250,000 dollars each, so that the work of these miners “is no longer small-scale or traditional mining.”

In addition to the twelve main dredges, around 250 smaller dredges are believed to exist, according to Brack.

The gold economy in Madre de Dios, one of Peru’s poorest regions, generates around 800 million dollars a year from the eighteen tons extracted by informal miners.

The authorities estimate that informal mining has led to the destruction of twenty thousand hectares of tropical forest in Madre de Dios.

The gold rush has affected the ecosystem of that Amazonian region, leaving behind, in addition to polluted rivers, craters dug by human activity, mountains of dirt where there was previously forest, and trees buried under mine tailings.

Peru is the world’s fifth-ranking producer of gold with 182 tons a year and accounts for 40% of Latin American production.