Ilegal Mining in the Peruvian Amazon Madre de Dios

By Dalia Benavente and Francois Guzmán

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972), established that the environment is the set of physical, chemical, biological and social components capable of causing direct or indirect effects, in the short or long term, on human beings, living beings, and human activities. Therefore, the environment is the space where human beings and other living creatures must coexist harmoniously.


The reality shows that the ideal coexistence between man and other living beings seems to be a utopia. Thus, the human being has damaged and violated, considerably, the normal composition of flora and fauna existing on the planet. In Peru, the lack of control and surveillance regarding environmental standards and policies, have given rise to illicit activities that harm the environment, especially those referred to illegal and informal mining. These activities are followed or correlated to negative effects such as child exploitation, citizen insecurity, as well as damaging the health of the population, particularly due to the absorption of mercury and other heavy metals. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish what are the differences between illegal and informal mining.


Carmen Heck, director of the Citizenship and Socio-Environmental Affairs Program of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA) (2014), points out that the main difference is that illegal mining is one in which no formalization process has been initiated and it is carried out in areas where extraction is prohibited, such as protected natural areas, rivers, and lagoons. On the other hand, informal mining takes place in areas permitted for mining, but those who practice it have not started a formalization process or have failed to comply with the different mandatory stages


Both, illegal and informal mining, are executed with equipment and machinery that do not correspond to the size of the activity and do not comply with administrative requirements. However, only illegal mining is classified as a crime in the Peruvian Penal Code, where articles 307-A and 307-B contain the crime of illegal mining, in its simple and aggravated form. Therefore, the one who carries out exploration, extraction, exploitation, or other similar acts, of mineral, metallic or non-metallic resources, without the authorization of the competent administrative entity, that causes or may cause damage to the environment or its components, could be punished with a sentence that ranges between 4 and 8 years. Similarly, develop illegal mining in protected natural areas, or even if it affects irrigation systems or water intended for human consumption; could carry a penalty between 8 and 10 years.


Despite the considerable penalties that punish the commission of the crime of illegal mining, this activity continues to be carried out indiscriminately and excessively. In this context, and taking into account that illegal mining not only affects the environment and the health of the population, but also society in general; the following article will address the impact of illegal mining, especially in the Peruvian Amazon and surrounding areas.


Illegal mining in protected natural areas


Following the Peruvian Law, No. 26834, protected natural areas are those continental or marine areas of the national territory, expressly recognized, including their categories and zoning, to conserve biological diversity and other associated values ​​of cultural and landscape interest. These are extremely important and are considered great pillars due to their wealth and diversity. Despite this, unfortunately, each year these areas are affected by the illicit activity of illegal mining, which is present in practically all regions of the country like Cusco, Madre de Dios, and Puno.


One of the protected Natural Areas that has suffered the repercussions of criminal activities carried out by illegal miners is the Tambopata National Reserve (Madre de Dios), which buffer zone, is threatened every year by the mining of gold. According to Karina Garay (2020), inspection work has been intensified with the Specialized Environmental Attorney (FEMA), the Navy, and agents of the National Police; by carrying out operations that include the seizure and destruction of machinery. Likewise, a huge number of boats have been implemented, to enter rivers and carry out weekly operations.


Besides, a study carried out by the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA) (2016) confirms that the Tambopata National Reserve is the most damaged protected natural area by mining activity. It is also considered to be the place where the greatest protection efforts have been concentrated, in some cases without positive results. Other protected natural areas that have been affected are Ichigkat Muja National Park - Cordillera del Cóndor (Amazonas), Huascarán National Park (Áncash), and San Fernando Reserve (Ica).


Current situation of illegal mining in Madre de Dios


Madre de Dios, officially known as ¨The Capital of Biodiversity of Peru¨, is located in the Amazon. More than the 70% of its economy relies on the mining, being the gold the most extracted mineral in the zone. However, most of this extractive activity is carried out outside the law; causing social, health and environment problems for this city and the population. According to data from the Amazon Center for Scientific Innovation – CINCIA (for its initials in Spanish), more than 80 thousand of Amazon forest has been lost through the years in Madre de Dios due to metallurgic activities.

Since the last decade, the international price of gold has suffered a sharp rise, causing a new gold fever in places like Madre de Dios, which is closely linked to an increase in mining, mostly illegal and in protected areas. One of the most affected areas by this illegal activity is ¨La Pampa¨, a buffer zone belonging to the National Reserve of Tambopata, causing such impact that only in this protected natural area 11 thousand hectares were registered as deforested.

As a result of the critic situation in this natural reserve, a Comprehensive Plan Against Illegal Mining is being develop in Madre de Dios, with the participation of various agents, having four main pillars:


  1. Intervention in areas used by the illegal mining and the destruction of daggers, motors and other equipment that is used for this illegal activity; by the Ministry of the Interior.

  2. Formalization in the mining corridor of the city, with four main requirements that any miner wishing to formalize must comply with; DO NOT participate in any activity related to human trafficking, DO NOT employ children, DO NOT utilize mercury to obtain gold and DO NOT perform mining exploitation in protected natural areas. All this strategy is being carried out synergistically by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining, and the Regional Government of Madre de Dios.

  3. Social support to the victims of human trafficking and the children and adolescent who illegally were forced to work in this activity, under the supervision of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations.

  4. Sustainable development and generation of new and novel alternative of employment for the inhabitants. These alternatives are related to tourism activities and non-timber products commerce. This last pillar is led by the Ministry of Production.


Although this plan has been obtaining some remarkable results, these are only related to the interventions to the machinery used in illegal mining. Thus, it is important to promote and prioritize efforts to discourage illegal mining for all the harmful effects it has and encourage alternative activities that boost a sustainable development in Madre de Dios, where a large part of the national and international biological diversity is being conserved. Likewise, the articulated work promoted by the government must include the people of nearby areas, reforesters, environmental leaders and indigenous communities with a direct relation to the development of illegal mining in the area.


Threats faced by the environmental defenders


As explained above, there are plenty of agents involve in this situation. Being the environmental leaders and defenders who are being more threatened by mafias where illegal mining, human trafficking and drug trafficking activities congregate. Only the last year, 98 environmental leaders from the Amazon were assassinated in Latin America. Many of them ask the authorities guarantees for their lives, still, many times their claims were not attended and were victims of criminal organizations. According to data from the National Human Rights Coordinator – CNDDDHH (for its initials in Spanish), in the last 7 years, the murders of 12 environmental leaders in Peru have been reported, 4 of these occurring in the middle of the pandemic. These environmental leaders were: Arbildo Meléndez (Huanuco), Gonzalo Pio (Junin), Lorenzo Wampagkit (Amazonas) and Roberto Carlos Pacheco (Madre de Dios); the latter was the son of Demetrio Pacheco, vice-president of the Tambopata Management Committee.

The situation of these environmental defenders worsens even more in our country, after congressmen from different parties voted against the ratification of the Escazu Agreement. This agreement sought to legitimize the defense of environmental rights and at the same time was looking for to recognize, protect, investigate and punish attacks and any act of violence that threaten the well-being of environmental leaders and their territories.