Authorities in Peru say they have successfully driven illegal gold mining out of the Amazon, but will other illegal economies take its place?
Early this year, Peruvian authorities carried out a massive operation to remove some 5,000 illegal gold miners from an area known as La Pampa in the Madre de Dios region.
The miners are now gone, but Madre de Dios’ governor calculates that 80 percent of the businesses in La Pampa had ties to gold mining and that up to 40,000 people in the region directly or indirectly depended on the mines for their livelihoods, the Miami Herald reported.
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Locals say violent robberies have increased since the military wiped out the illegal mining site. A spate of robberies targeting tourist buses and nature lodges in Madre de Dios — one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse corners — has led to the cancelling of nearly half of the planned tours to the region this year.
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As an increasing number of Peru’s illegal miners become desperate for work, they could be enticed by other illicit activities — including violent crime, coca cultivation and illegal logging.
Peru’s government has promised some $160 million in funding to formalize and reintegrate illegal miners, as well as bring new businesses to La Pampa, a 20-kilometer stretch of highway full of bars and other businesses that long catered to them. But only $64 million has been approved, and little of it has gone to La Pampa.
Even if the government is able to bring new business to La Pampa, there is still the question of what happens to the thousands of illegal miners now out of work.
The process of integrating and legalizing the illegal miners has also proven difficult. Few have been granted mining licenses, and incentives to register with the government have largely failed in the past, as illegal miners fear being taxed.
Miners in La Pampa were able to earn $100 to $200 in a 24-hour shift, the equivalent of a month’s wages in the region.
Legal work will not bring anything close to those wages, which means miners may be enticed by other illegal activities common in the region. A similar dynamic was seen in Peru recently when a drop in coffee prices led farmers to find work in coca plantations, where they could earn higher wages.
What’s more, one of the most important coca growing areas in Peru sits close to La Pampa. The Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley region, known as the VRAEM, has seen a boom in coca cultivation in recent yers. In 2017, the 21,646 hectares of coca in the river valley accounted for nearly half of the nation’s total crop, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Illegal timber logging is also big business in the Madre de Dios region, and could increase with the influx of former miners. Peru has attempted to combat the trade, but it is still a thriving business, accounting for much of the deforestation in the Amazon alongside illegal mining.
The dismantling of illegal gold mining in La Pampa is certainly a move in the right direction, but a long-term investment and security plan in Madre de Dios is needed.