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11/12/09

Peru: Madre de Dios gold mining, as seen by Hambone

The Amazon jungle, as seen by Peruvian gold mining
companies and ignored by its government

I've been given permission by the author to paste up part of chapter 17 of the great book 'Peruvian Plunge' by Sam 'Hambone' Mitchell (another excerpt is here, along with a link to get your own copy...only $5 and well worth your time) that covers the ecological disaster area known as the Madre De Dios gold mining zone (that we covered in this post earlier in the week).

We join our hero as he goes through a difficult waters moment while travelling on a boat up the Madre De Dios river. Read on.....


"....my bladder stretched to the bursting point by two cups of coffee, I begged the captain to pull over for a pit stop. “I know just the spot coming up,” Pablo – who spoke perfect English – assured me. Two minutes later, we drew near to what first appeared to be a rocky beach on the left shore. As we pulled up to it, however, I noticed that the “beach” had been stripped bare of all vegetation as if it had been grazed by a Brontasaurus (who knows, maybe it had); just a few yards back from the waterline, three boxcar-sized pyramids of loose gravel and slag had been heaped there by some unseen giant hand. No bird stirred and no grasshopper whirred in the eerily still, almost sterile air of the place. What the Hell?

“Your first Madre de Dios gold mine, but certainly not your last,” announced Pablo when the motor had died. He indicated the riverside wasteland with a dismissive wave of his hand and weary ironic smile. “This one was just abandoned; I wish I could say the same for the others.”


Thinking that the ruined crescent of beach was “all” there was to the abandoned mine, I scrambled out of the boat and up one of the thirty-foot high slag heaps to find a private place to pee, as no tree or bush remained standing on the waterline. Cresting the top of the pile of loose stones, my eyes were speared by a shocking sight: stretching several hundred feet back into the jungle behind the slag heaps was two to three acres of sun-blasted, scorched-earth wasteland. In the middle of this ruined barren moonscape, covering perhaps a quarter-acre, was a slimy pool of toxic sludge that looked more like anti-freeze than water. Scattered about were stray bits of rusted-out machine parts and plastic jetsam. I added my own stream of human waste to the decoupage of destruction, and retreated back to the boat rocking gently in the waters of the Mother of God.


“This was just a small-time operation, what they call a ‘pirate mine’ because it had no permits to operate by the Peruvian government,” Pablo explained as we waited for the other passengers to finish their business. I asked him if the government had shut this mine down; Pablo laughed a “yeah, right” snort. “The government has neither the money nor the will to shut these mines down. The miners move in wherever they want to, dig until they think they can do better somewhere else, then move further into the jungle. These guys are set up somewhere else by now.”


As I had read but never paid much attention to, the other problem with these mines, legal or illegal – besides the total destruction of the fragile riparian corridor – is the fact that the miners leach the sand and pebbles through mercury, which binds to the gold dust, allowing them to harvest the tiny yellow flecks that have been luring fortune-seekers to Peru for centuries. Once the gold is collected, the mercury is washed on down the river to poison the fish – and anyone who eats the fish, be it bird, otter or human – downstream. Out of sight, out of mind, like so much else in the jungle. With the Peruvian government’s full knowledge and cooperation, hundreds of gallons of the toxic metal are simply washed away down the river for someone else to deal with.


As Pablo knew from experience all too close to home, it wasn’t just the folks downstream from the mines who suffered. “My brother went to work in one of these mines. When he got there, there was no fresh water for the workers to drink. His boss told him, ‘Drink from the creeks and river like everybody else.’ Pretty soon he was sick, then in the hospital for six weeks. He’s better now, but he says he will never work in the mines again.”


Everyone back in the boat, we headed off again. We hadn’t gone a mile before the real nightmarish visions began. They started out small enough, with the one- or two-man small-potato operations. While one guy would shovel wheelbarrows full of sand and gravel to fill the gravel-washing sluices (themselves supplied by a gas-powered water pumps from Hell), his buddy would wash the material through the mercury, ever alert for the tiny flakes that were the ultimate goal of all this carnage. Working together in teams, these small-time Planet Nibblers might be able to destroy a few acres of riverside in a year.


As we chugged on downstream, we came to the next level of Planet Eating – huge dredges set on barges in mid-stream that sucked the river bottom off its bed like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up dust from a dirty floor, coughing the sand and rock up onto huge conveyor belts that were combed through by several workers. The tons of mercury-stained silt were dumped directly back into the heart of the river.


But the true, undisputed winner of the Planet-eating blue ribbon prize for inflicting, hands down, the most harm against the Mother of God weren’t the small-potato pirates or the Idaho-baker barges, but the legal “official” gold mines operated with the full encouragement and permits of the Peruvian government. These full-scale assaults against Mother Earth – clearly paid for and operated by some mega-buck multi-national mining corporation – didn’t screw around with piss-ant little wheelbarrows and water pumps. To truly lay waste to a planet, you need bulldozers, front-end loaders, and dump trucks the size of houses to move that rock around. You could almost smell the mercury hanging in the air.


Staring dumbfounded at this unbelievable in-your-face carnage stretching for miles along both banks of the Mother of God River (and this was just the little bit visible from the boat), I asked myself over and over again: what is humanity getting out of this rotten deal? Except for the few guys at the head of the pack – who have probably never even been to Peru – who is the “winner” in this lose-lose situation? The ladies back in the U.S. with their gold jewelry? Are those little flecks of yellow worth this destruction, this needless swathe of death? Could humanity survive without the “precious metal” being ripped from our precious planet? How much insult could one Mother of God take?


Of course, all these miners and their poverty-stricken families needed somewhere to call home. The small-time “pirates” tended to call home tiny little shacks that were really nothing more than overgrown tents made out of bright blue tarpaulins, clinging to the muddy riverbanks in little clearings hacked out between the waterline and the jungle. As we passed these forlorn little bivouacs, packs of curious children would stare out at us; I would stare back at them, wondering what kind of life these kids had to look forward to (clearly not a life in school, as it’s hard to run a school bus up and down a river). I asked Pablo his opinion, and he said, dismissively and unconvincingly: “These people have a lot more money than you think. They don’t have to live this way; they want to live this way.” Whatever you say, amigo…


The really high-rollers in the Peruvian gold-mining game got to move to the downright posh community of Rio Colorado, where they could upgrade from tarp-covered tent to rough plank and tin-roofed hovel. A six-block unbroken line of these depressing miners’ shacks stretched along the right riverbank; perched atop every other one of them like so many invading flying saucers were shiny new satellite dishes, so the miners could come home from a hard day of poisoning themselves with mercury to watch the governor of California blow up terrorists.


Pablo explained that the Colorado River, a major tributary of the Madre de Dios, was being invaded by the miners at an alarming rate. They were pushing deeper and deeper into the pristine million-acre wilderness of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, dumping their silt and their mercury into the river, to wind up in the village. When I asked him why the natives the reserve was supposed to “protect” put up with this, he explained that most of the miners in the reserve were the natives! Whatever “noble savage” myth I was still suffering from at that point floated on down the Mother of God with the gallons of mercury dumped there by the Indians who for thousands of years have depended on the river for their food and water. I mean, be real: who would be crazy enough to live in some hut in the forest when you could live in a house in town with a satellite dish on the roof?


The biggest irony in all of this is that the gold miners are opposed to Hunt Oil’s petroleum explorations because they think, for some reason I can’t fathom, that the oil company will shut down their illegal gold mines. Of course, if that does happen, the gold miners can always go to work for Hunt Oil until the oil is gone, at which time they can go back to gold mining: money is money and Planet Eating is Planet Eating, what difference could it make?



Get your copy of Peruvian Plunge here