Miners in Peru have skirted coronavirus mobility restrictions to return to Madre de Dios — an Amazon region where the military launched a massive 2019 operation to root out illegal miners.
Illegal mining operations have ramped up in the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected area of tropical rainforest in southeastern Madre de Dios, El Comercio reported. Miners have also made incursions along the banks of the Malinowski, Tambopata and Pariamanu rivers.
The beginning of the quarantine saw miners in Madre de Dios leave for other regions, such as Cusco and Puno, according to El Comercio.
But people involved in illegal activities are entering prohibited zones once again, Peruvian biologist Carmen Chávez told news outlet La Repúblíca.
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In response to reports of an uptick, Peru’s special prosecutor’s office for environmental affairs (Fiscalía Especializada en Materia Ambiental — FEMA) carried out more than 75 interventions against illegal mining operations in Madre de Dios between March and early June, breaking up mining sites and destroying machinery.
While Madre de Dios has not reported a large-scale outbreak of coronavirus, with only 1,467 confirmed cases and 25 deaths as of June 29, authorities have warned that the arrival of more miners could spread the virus in a region poorly equipped to detect and treat cases.
Peru had registered some 279,000 cases of coronavirus on June 29, with 9,300 deaths.
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Illegal miners in Peru have been emboldened by weakened controls and soaring gold prices.
In February 2019, Peru launched a massive deployment of 1,800 police and military officers to Madre de Dios. The force drove out thousands of miners, destroyed millions of dollars in wildcat mining equipment, and broke up business in La Pampa, a hotbed for illegal mining and other criminal activities, such as human trafficking and prostitution.
In the region of La Pampa, deforestation decreased by 92 percent during the operation’s first five months. Illegal mining, however, soon increased in other parts of the country, including the Amazon department of Loreto.
Now the withdrawal of police and army forces to enforce lockdowns and attend to the health crisis has allowed for illegal mining to return to Madre de Dios, Karina Garay, Madre de Dios’ environmental prosecutor, told El Comercio.
The global spike in gold prices, which reached their highest level since 2012 at $1,764.55 per ounce in May, has also fueled the demand for illegally sourced gold.
According to Pablo de la Flor, executive director of Peru’s National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy (Sociedad Nacional de Minería, Petróleo y Energía – SNMPE), legal mining exports dropped by 65 percent in April. Official mining operations have had to adhere to the lockdown, allowing illegal miners to flourish in their stead.
Peru is not alone in this crisis. In Venezuela, illegal gold mining has provided illicit cash flows to President Nicolás Maduro’s regime amid the collapse of the price of petroleum and a decrease in remittances as a result of worldwide confinement measures.
Venezuelan gold is principally mined in the Arco Minero zone, where miners are forced to work in precarious conditions under the constant threat of armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas.
Luis Fernandez, a researcher with decades of experience researching the impacts of gold mining in the tropics, predicted that illegal miners would likely to return to Madre de Dios.
“Going in with an iron fist in La Pampa, that stops the problem for the time that you’ve got the fist closed,” Fernandez told Mongabay. “But if you open that up, things might change very fast. It might go back to the way it was.”
It appears that the coronavirus health crisis has done much to loosen that grip.