Peru’s ‘Wonder Woman’ Battles Illegal Gold Mining In The Amazon
Speeding over to a muddy bank of Peru’s Madre de Dios river in a motorboat, Karina Garay pointed to a small wooden structure.”Bingo!” exclaimed Garay from behind her designer, diamante sunglasses, an environmental prosecutor for the Amazon rainforest region at the centre of Peru’s gold mining. In the middle of a floating raft was a diesel-powered water pump attached to a sluice of plastic piping. The rudimentary dredger was used by wildcat miners to suck up river silt which they mix with mercury to extract up to 15 grams of gold grain a day – worth about $600 at current prices – while dumping toxic waste in the river.
Peering through telescopic sights on their rifles, two marines flanking Garay could see the dredger’s operators and illegal miners fleeing up the river bank and into the dense lowland jungle in southeastern Peru’s Amazon Basin. A navy captain hacked at the hand-made sluice with a machete as one of the marines prepared rounds of dynamite. “Working with explosives, your first mistake is your last. You don’t get to tell the tale,” he said, before moving the speedboat to the opposite riverbank and yelling: “Fire!”A flash of rising flames, a cloud of black smoke, then a sonic boom ricocheted across the river and bounced off the forest canopy, sending screeching parrots into the air.
It was just another day’s work for Garay, 35, who is on the frontline of government efforts to seize control of vast jungle areas of Madre de Dios – the scene of a modern-day gold rush after global prices spiked a decade ago. Wearing brightly-coloured trainers, gold jewellery and colourful dresses, Garay cuts a singular figure in the male-dominated world of law enforcement in the region dubbed Peru’s ‘Wild West’, home to about 150,000 people. “It became no-man’s land,” Garay said in an interview in her office where, next to a tome of Peru’s penal code, sits her collection of Wonder Woman dolls that started after colleagues gave her a birthday cake decorated with the fictional superhero.
“The state didn’t have control over it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Asked about the doll collection, she said she drew inspiration from the character she saw as a local heroine. Rather than the stars-and-stripes wearing U.S. figure, she admired comic creator Stan Lee’s lesser-known re-imagining of a Peruvian Wonder Woman – Maria Mendoza – given special powers by the Inca Sun God. “She’s an Andean Wonder Woman named Maria de Amazonas, who fought the mine looters in the time of the Inca Empire,” explained Garay.
Peru is the world’s sixth largest gold producer, partly fuelled by the illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios that has become a multi-billion dollar black market. Nearly one third of Peru’s gold exports are illegally sourced, according to a 2016 report by Swiss think-tank, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Tens of thousands of miners have flocked to Madre de Dios, mainly from Peru’s poor Andean highlands, hoping to earn a living, while playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities who have struggled to combat the illegal trade.
As illegal mines emerged across Madre de Dios, the region became a magnet for crime rackets involved in smuggling diesel, equipment, and mercury used to extract gold, along with sex traffickers working in and around the town of La Pampa. But the tide has slowly started to turn since Peru’s military launched the biggest-ever crackdown on illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios in February 2019, dubbed Operation Mercury, putting the region under a state of emergency. Garay was appointed chief environmental prosecutor when Operation Mercury began and has become a fixture of the regular raids and the driving force behind a steady rise in prosecutions for illegal mining and the first prison convictions.
Under her watch, at least 20 people have received prison sentences for illegal mining and more than 100 have been convicted for smuggling diesel. In the past, intermittent raids did little to control the onslaught of illegal miners and frustrated the government enforcers who wanted to do more.”I felt helpless because I’d go and do a raid against illegal mining, and a few days later the miners would come back,” said Garay, who was born in the Andean highland tourist city of Cusco. But this time the state was here to stay. The government has set up six military and police bases in La Pampa, a city of some 25,000 people and a hub of sexual exploitation of women and girls in the dim bars and brothels popular with local miners. “During the first 15 days of the first stage, we actually managed to clear out whole cities that had grown within the reserve,” said Garay, referring to the shanty towns of clapboard and corrugated iron shacks mingled with dingy bars and brothels.
Miners have flocked to Madre De Dios for decades in search of gold but two factors sparked an explosive boom. The global financial crisis in 2008 – and the completion of a long-awaited road cutting through Madre de Dios’s forest, connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic across Peru and Brazil. The 1,600 miles (2,600 km) Interoceanic Highway has transformed the lives of residents in one of Peru’s most isolated corners – but not always in a positive way. The road fuelled the exponential growth of illegal mining in La Pampa that grew into a lawless no-man’s land marking the entrance point to a treeless moonscape verging on the Tambopata National Reserve, Peru’s most-visited Amazon park.
Since Operation Mercury started, deforestation caused by illegal mining has dropped by 92% in La Pampa – from 173 to 14 hectares a month, according to MAAP satellite images. Garay is often found racing along the Interoceanic Highway in a caravan of military pickup trucks leading anti-mining operations flanked by the armed forces. She encountered a desolate scene in one raid late last year on an illegal mining camp which the Thomson Reuters Foundation joined.
All traces of vegetation had gone. In its place were rolling hills of sand and stagnant, polluted ponds dotted with makeshift wooden chutes and plastic tubing. On arrival, a flurry of action occurred as troops armed with semi-automatic rifles took positions under torrential rain. Four miners were caught red-handed, arms handcuffed behind their backs, forced to lie face down in the dirt puddles. “We’ve been here four times and this is the fourth time we find whole dredges. The workers we were lucky enough to catch today will be prosecuted,” said Colonel Luis Guillen, a police officer and chief of operations for Operation Mercury.
From under a ragged tarpaulin the miners used as a shelter, Garay found a small, opaque ball of mercury and gold amalgam. “It’s about 13 grams – $700, more or less,” she calculated. Authorities aim to disrupt mining operations, making it more costly for the gold miners’ financial backers to continue than to cease, said Gonzalo Cordova, a veteran army colonel.”This business of illegal gold is as profitable, or more, than drugs,” said Cordova, with gold prices soaring to a record high in August, passing $2,000 an ounce for the first time.
In Peru and Colombia – the world’s largest cocaine producers – the value of illegal gold now exceeds the value of cocaine exports, according to a 2016 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Back at the raid, soldiers found three more miners who offered no resistance. “We bring charges against the people we find working. They only get paid a small wage for the work they do and the bosses, the financial backers, are the ones who earn more,” Garay said.
“What we’re trying to do is get to those people (the hirers) and arrest them, and carry out an investigation.” The army platoon peeled off to find two wooden shacks and a dirt track leading into the mining area. Inside soldiers found the tools of the trade – a plastic basin used to separate gold from the silt and a fuel cannister, along with an old mattress and a new moped. “Burn the lot,” said Garay, from the backseat of the pickup, while chewing on a mango.
At an army base, soldiers carried seized items down a jungle path that ended at a place they call the ‘cemetery’ – an enormous junkyard of confiscated machinery ranging from motorbikes to motorized pumps to fuel tanks. Explosive experts laid dynamite charges and returned to base. As dusk fell, an enormous mushroom of flames and black smoke appeared above the treetops followed by a deafening boom as dogs barked for miles around.
Alongside the military crackdown, regional governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Hidalgo Okimura, is also fighting his own battle watched over by several bodyguards having received threats in the past for trying to stop illegal mining. More than half of Madre de Dios is covered by national parks and indigenous reserves, including tribes living in voluntary isolation or with little contact with the outside world.
Hidalgo wants to put the region’s biodiversity and sustainable tourism and farming at the centre of its economy and reap the economic benefits from mining. “Unfortunately, the gold has left nothing for us. None of this stays in Madre De Dios. The gold is taken out as contraband and goes to Brazil or Bolivia,” said Hidalgo, a medical doctor of Peruvian-Japanese descent who was born in Puerto Maldonado when it was little more than a jungle outpost.
About 70% of the local economy is based on mining, and Madre de Dios should receive between $70 million and $120 million a year to pay for needed hospitals and schools, Hidalgo estimated.”We have the gold. We can’t continue being a beggar sitting on a golden bench,” he said, citing a Peruvian maxim first coined by the 19th Italian naturalist Antonio Raimondi. This expresses the long-held sentiment that Peruvians rarely get rich from their country’s vast natural resources. Hidalgo replaced a pro-mining governor in 2018, promising Madre de Dios a green future and shift away from illegal mining.
But about 30,000 miners, many small-scale and working illegally, have lost their jobs following the closure of mines due to Operation Mercury, causing widespread unemployment and some miners to return to their native Andean highland villages. And Hidalgo acknowledged that other mines – and resulting deforestation – had since sprung up elsewhere across the tropical wilderness, deeper into the forest outside of La Pampa.”There’s been a balloon effect,” he said, referring to the idea that squeezing the air out of a balloon in one place only makes it reappear elsewhere.
For it remains a major challenge to bring illegal miners in the formal fold. A total of about 250 small-scale miners have been granted formal permits since Hidalgo came to office. Miners have been given a 2021 deadline to apply for permits allowing them to work within a dedicated “mining corridor”, to stop using mercury, pay taxes and reforest the land they clear. “In the legal zone, the zone of the mining corridor, a whole process of formalisation is going on … (it) implies the use of clean technologies,” Hidalgo said, adding that the goal is to have about 1,500 miners formalized by the end of 2020.
To fill the gap left by ending so many mining jobs, farmer cooperatives, forest restoration programmes, and fish farms have been introduced to encourage wildcat miners to switch livelihoods and to legal sources of income, Hidalgo said. But former miners, like Reynaldo Saavedra, say Operation Mercury has left them with few options to earn a living. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the government offered temporary work to thousands on road building projects but most of those jobs have dried up. Saavedra, who is now a taxi driver, said the government should try to make a “truce” with the miners. “It’s just as if you were taking the bread out of someone’s hand and repaying them with nothing, not even crumbs to eat,” he said.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped raids against illegal mining or Garay’s determination – despite the prosecutor getting infected with COVID-19 herself in July. About 270 raids have been carried out in Madre de Dios since the pandemic began in mid-March. Garay believes she is on the right path in the battle against illegal gold mining.”With a little more perseverance, without stopping our operations, I’m convinced that we’ll win this war,” she said, clasping a Wonder Woman-themed rucksack on her lap.
Reported by Dan Collyns; Anastasia Moloney; Max Baring; Edited by Belinda Goldsmith Thomas Reuters Foundation Photo: Jeison Higuita-Unsplash