Satellite Images Show Evolution of Illegal Gold Mining in Peru

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Satellite images show that while military operations against illegal mining in Peru’s Madre de Dios region might be paying off, the same fight is not yet being waged in other parts of the country. 

Illegal mining activities dropped significantly in the La Pampa region in 2019 after the launch of Operation Mercurio in February 2019, according to the most recent report by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) released in January. The study, which uses satellite images to monitor the evolution of gold mining activities in Peru, found that deforestation in La Pampa dropped by 92 percent between February and June last year when compared to the same time period in 2018. 

Illegal mining, however, continues to decimate Peru’s Amazonian forests. Some 2,000 hectares — equivalent to almost 3,000 American football fields — have been destroyed since 2017 due to mining operations. Deforestation of 470 hectares, or 22 percent of the total, occurred in 2019 alone. 

SEE ALSO: Peru Running Out of Ideas to Stop Illegal Mining in Madre de Dios

La Pampa has long been considered as the epicenter of illegal mining in Madre de Dios, and it’s one of the regions that has suffered the greatest environmental damage from mining.

The MAAP satellite images show rapid growth in illegal mining deforestation in Lampa between 2016 and 2018. After the launch of Operation Mecurio in February 2019, the advance of illegal mining into the forest suddenly stops.  

The main illegal gold mining areas in the Peruvian Amazon. Map courtesy of Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP)

The MAAP investigators state that the drop in mining activity in La Pampa coincided with the start of Operation Mercurio, the multi-sector initiative by the national government intended to dismantle illegal gold mining operations in the region. The strategy primarily focused on destroying machinery, encampments and other equipment needed for illegal mining operations. Operation Mercurio has been continued into 2020. 

The deforestation in the Amazon took place primarily in other regions of southern Peru, such as Alto Malinowski and Pariamanu in the department of Madre de Dios and Camanti in the department of Cusco. A large number of miners displaced from La Pampa by Operation Mercurio have since arrived in Pariamanu, although MAAP ruled out that this had caused the surge of deforestation and illegal mining in 2019.

InSight Crime Analysis

While La Pampa represents the greatest concentration of illegal mining in Peru, the complete focus on fighting mining in that region has allowed mining operations to spread almost unchecked in previously-unaffected areas, such as along the Napo and Nanay Rivers in the department of Loreto.

     SEE ALSO: Illegal Gold Mining Operations Enter New Parts of Peru

Even in regions that have historically been affected by mining activities, such as Alto Malinowski, Camanti and Pariamanu, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. For this reason, authorities may extend Operation Mercurio to these territories in 2020.


These areas represent an additional challenge for authorities, as they have historically suffered from low levels of development and State abandonment. This has in part led to the large growth of illicit crops over the past few years, which has made these areas into fertile territories for organized criminal groups to flourish.

Carlos Neyra, a journalist covering public security at newspaper El Comercio, told InSight Crime that close links exist between illegal gold mining, drug trafficking and timber trafficking, especially in the area of Puno.

According to Neyra, these criminal economies are complementary as the timber traffickers clear the forest for illegal mining and the gold can then be used to help launder drug trafficking assets. Furthermore, in southern Peru, cocaine is moved to Bolivia, and then bound for Chile and Brazil, but is paid for in gold.

La Pampa is a sad example of the destruction caused by illegal mining. The gold rush frenzy resulted in the forests being replaced by enormous pools of mud mercury and debris, while other illegal activities, like sexual exploitation, prosper in makeshift mining settlements.

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