In Peru, officials play a losing game of whack-a-mole with illegal miners

  • A crackdown in 2019 on illegal mining in Peru’s La Pampa area has displaced the destructive activity to the region around the Pariamanu River, where deforestation rates are accelerating, according to a recent report.
  • Since 2017, Pariamanu has lost 204 hectares (504 acres) of forest to illegal mines, one and a half times the size of London’s Hyde Park, with the monthly deforestation rate nearly doubling in 2019 from the previous two years.
  • Indigenous Amahuaca communities living near the sites of the new mines have reported water pollution and an increase in violent crime and illegal cantinas and bordellos in the area.
  • Authorities acknowledge that the illegal mining problem has simple been displaced from one area to another, but say they lack the funds to tackle all the problem areas at the same time.

Deforestation driven by illegal mining around Peru’s Pariamanu River has accelerated in the past six months, with forests one and a half times the size of London’s Hyde Park lost since 2017.

A report released May 4 by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) shows that, between October 2020 and March 2021, illegal mining operations destroyed more than 15 hectares (37 acres) of forest around the river southern Peru’s Madre de Dios department. Over the past four years, Pariamanu has lost 204 hectares (504 acres) to deforestation 2017.

MAAP director Matt Finer told Mongabay that Pariamanu has become the most emblematic case of the devastation wrought by illegal mining in Madre de Dios “in terms of deforested area, constant pressure from miners and degrading forest quality (which affects primary forest).”

Video of satellite images showing deforestation from illegal mining in the Pariamanu area. About 71 hectares (175 acres) were cleared between 2016 and 2021 in this area. Images courtesy of Planet.

In August 2020, Mongabay reported that the Pariamanu region had the highest increase in deforestation generated by new mining activity after the displacement of illegal miners by the government’s Operation Mercury crackdown in 2019. The operation aimed to retake control of La Pampa, a territory located in the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve that has been devastated by illegal mining, in an effort to eradicate all illegal activity in the area. At the time, the MAAP, a joint initiative by the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) and Conservación Amazónica (ACCA) with the support of USAID’s Prevenir project, recorded 99 hectares (245 acres) of deforestation in the Pariamanu area — an increase of 70% from 2018. The rate of forest degradation nearly doubled from 2.5 per month in 2017-2018, to 4.2 per month in 2019.

The illegal mines were located near the native community of Boca Pariamanu. According to Indigenous peoples living in the area, they spread from the left bank of the river to 10 hectares (24 acres) inland, encroaching onto concessions of Brazil nut. During the canoe patrols they frequently carry out to guard their territory, the Indigenous Amahuaca inhabitants detected at least eight mining operations that were contaminating the river and putting their health at risk. After they reported these cases to the authorities, the Amahuacas received death threats from the illegal miners. However, the reports would prove crucial in triggering a series of law enforcement operations against the mines.

Satellite images show the spread of deforestation between 2020 and 2021. Image courtesy of MAAP with data from Planet.

Between August and November of last year, authorities destroyed illegal mining camps, mining equipment, and ramshackle structures that served as cantinas and bordellos. Authorities also found mining sites not just near the Boca Pariamanu community but also several miles away, along the course of the Pariamanu River. The illegal activity, it appeared, had spread even as the crackdown was taking place.

Alarming damage

Illegal mining in this part of Peru is intricately linked to the Brazil nut concessions. Some Amahuaca inhabitants who spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity, citing fears for their safety, suggested the concession holders were allowing the miners to operate on their land in return for weekly payments of between 10 and 15 grams (0.3 and 0.5 ounces) of gold, depending on how much gold the miners can extract. An Amahuaca leader said that despite the crackdowns, there are still three major mining centers near Boca Pariamanu, each of which has wiped out about 10 hectares of forest. “There are Brazil nut concessionaires who have their own machinery and are now extracting gold on the land where they should be protecting the trees,” the leader said.

The leader added that deforestation caused by mining has spread throughout the Pariamanu River Basin to Boca Pariamarca, more than an hour away by river from Boca Pariamanu, and also home to Brazil nut concessions. According to the leader, this is where the illegal miners have built new bars, liquor stores and bordellos. Julio Cusurichi, president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (Fenamad), confirmed that illegal mining had moved upriver from Boca Pariamanu, but said hadn’t received any reports about illicit facilities as described operating here, as there are no native communities in the area. “Yes, you can see that a lot of people go there. There is movement on those rivers,” Cusurichi said.

In the space of 15 months, illegal mining led to the clearing of 105 hectares (259 acres) of forest in Pariamanu. Image courtesy of FEMA.

Last year, as the illegal mining settlements expanded almost unchecked in Pariamanu, the Amahuacas began calling the area the “new Pampa.” Besides the increasing deforestation, they were also aware of the operation of illegal cantinas in the Brazil nut concessions and the rise of armed robberies. Last December, according to the Amahuacas, a group of about 20 people were targeted while traveling to Puerto Maldonado by boat on the Pariamanu River. Five armed men pretending to be passengers boarded the vessel near the illegal mining points and went on to rob the others.

“Just three or four days ago, on a highway that goes to Pariamarca, they also assaulted about 15 people. Everything is terrible here, and no one can keep these things quiet,” an Amahuaca inhabitant said.

The port authority in Puerto Maldonado and officers from the Madre de Dios environmental prosecutor’s office, known as FEMA, carried out an operation against illegal mining on April 23 and 24 this year near Boca Pariamarca. They seized 227 liters (60 gallons) of fuel and destroyed a mining camp, rafts and mining equipment. The Amahuacas say that after crackdowns like this one, the miners lie low for four or five days, before returning and resuming operations in the same place or moving on to new areas along the Pariamanu.

Mineria ilegal pariamanu
The Indigenous Amahuacas who live in the communities adjacent to these new mining sites call this sector of growing deforestation the “new Pampa.” Image courtesy of FEMA Madre de Dios.
Bars like this one that double as illegal bordellos have been targeted in recent crackdowns on illegal mining in Pariamanu. Image courtesy of FEMA.

In the first three months after Carlos Chirre was appointed a provincial prosecutor for FEMA, he led several operations against illegal mining in Pariamanu. In one of these, he said, his team found a mining operation responsible for approximately 20 hectares (49 acres) of deforestation. To date, however, they haven’t arrested any illegal miners in the area. Chirre said there are strong indications that the miners employ lookouts at the entrances to the mining sites, who warn them when authorities arrive by river. “In some places we find machinery, but in others, the miners sink them before fleeing,” he said.

For now, FEMA can only reach the mining sites by waterway. Faced with this limitation, Chirre has cracked down on the illegal trafficking of fuel to the mining camps. The volumes that authorities find at the camps during their raids are significant: four 18-gallon (68-liters) drums, at least. “I wonder where they get so much from if the taps here [in Puerto Maldonado] do not supply a fleet of diesel that large,” Chirre said.

He acknowledged that the Pariamanu region had become one of the main hubs of mining activity in Madre de Dios because of the displacement of illegal operations from La Pampa. The increase in deforestation caused by gold mining is also evident in the satellite images that the prosecutor’s office frequently receives.

Fighting without funding

The fight against the mining syndicates in Pariamanu comes at a difficult time. The director of the police’s environmental directorate, José Ludeña Condori, told Mongabay that his staff in Madre de Dios is currently working in the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve. And while he says he wants to expand the reach of police operations to other areas of mining expansion, such as Pariamanu, northeast of La Pampa, the main barrier is a lack of funding.

The mining centers around the Pariamanu River have extended upstream to the Boca Pariamarca area. Image courtesy of FEMA.
minería ilegal pariamanu
Evidence of recent operations in the targeted areas. A lookout likely alerted the illegal miners when authorities were approaching. Image courtesy of FEMA Madre de Dios.

“We are operating with the minimum staff and this should not be the case,” Ludeña said. “Our staff for operations has been reduced. We want to cover all the places that need us, but unfortunately we are left with the impotence of not being able to do so because the resources are not enough. This is the reality right now.”

He added that budget shortfalls also harm the security forces, and that he’s raised the issue during the meetings of the Permanent Multisectoral Commission against illegal mining.

Ludeña said he’s aware of the increase in illegal mining centers across Madre de Dios after the crackdown in La Pampa, which he called “the balloon effect”: press on one side of the balloon, and the volume displaces to the other side. The most serious displacement in this case is in Pariamanu, Ludeña said. In the absence of a strong government presence, he said, these mining centers have become a no-man’s land. “The people who operate there have no issue intimidating or threatening people in the area, in addition to the ecological damage they cause. Nothing stops them. That is the unfortunate panorama,” he said.

Deforestation in the vicinity of the Pariamanu and Pariamarca river basins has grown out of control since April, according to Víctor Zambrano, president of Tambopata National Reserve’s management committee, citing reports. He attributes the problem to the lack of a comprehensive strategy from the government to fight the mining syndicates in the area. Zambrano, like the Amahuacas, said he’s convinced that the occasional raids by the authorities will not guarantee the permanent withdrawal of the illegal mining networks because “they are huge mafias that always reinstall themselves in the areas.” He said monitoring efforts under Operation Mercury in La Pampa have also declined, which has led to the reactivation of some mining centers there. Zambrano said he has no doubt that mining in Pariamanu and other affected sectors is out of control.

“You can notice the impact in the Brazil nut areas,” he said. “They are destroying the most valuable thing in Madre de Dios.”

Banner image: At the end of April, the authorities destroyed camps and mining equipment in the Pariamanu area near Boca Pariamarca. Image courtesy of the Peruvian Navy.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on May 5, 2021.