Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Peru's gold rush sparks fears of ecological disaster
Gold mining in southeast Peru - photo: BBC

As they used to say in my old Josephine County, Oregon home, "Been there. Seen it."

Placer gold mining in Josephine County, Oregon circa 1905-10
Photo: Oregon State University Archives

Nope, I haven't seen it in Peru. That's what they were doing 100 years ago ago in my old Oregon home ground -- a region that is considered to be the center of greatest biodiversity in western North America. They started in the southern Oregon gold rush of the 1860s working largely with indentured Chinese laborers and continued relentlessly until the most of the deposits were washed through the sluices and sieves to capture the precious flakes and nuggets. I didn't see it happen but I saw the land still stripped bare of any topsoil (known in miner jargon as the "overburden") a century later. All for the love of gold.

Nowadays, the drama is repeating here in western Amazônia, in the tri-national region called by the acronym MAP -- Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil and Pando in Bolivia -- where the biodiversity of nature's garden is connecting with human aspirations for economic development and a better life. This region used to be considered as the "end of the road" because it literally was. But with modernization and infrastructure development -- bridges, roads, rural electrification, Internet and more -- contact and globalization have set human and wild nature on an ugly collision course. While Acre has been able to make many initiatives toward sustainable development, across the border in much poorer Madre de Dios (Mother of God) it's an often violent confrontation over illegal logging of mahogany and/or "informal mining" in an out-of-control rush to grab valuable resources.

Recently, there have been daily reports of a violent and continuing confrontation between gold miners and the Lima government's plan to regularize "informal" mining which has resulted in a blockade by 6,000 miners of the Panamericana Road. Six deaths have already occurred and there's no end to the violence in sight.

[NEWS FLASH - 7 April, 2010 (08:14): Miners lift strike for 48 hours to enter dialogue.]

Writing daily updates in the blog LivinginPeru, Isabel Guerra reports:

"The Decree 012-2010 includes the suspension of new mining concessions, formalization of all informal miners to make them pay taxes and have environmental licenses, and the creation of a special non-mining area in Madre de Dios, to avoid further damage to the ecosystem.

"Informal mining involves transactions worth US $600 million every year in Peru, produces 20 tons of gold per year in several places in Peru and generates jobs for 40,000 people, but this figure could actually reach 100,000."

Everyone seems to be digging in -- President Alan García says he won't negotiate until the miners end the blockade and violence and "Peru's Prime Minister Javier Velásquez claims that these social protests may be sponsored by businesspeople from Russia, Brazil and Bolivia, who allegedly are extracting gold with big machinery in Madre de Dios, under the disguise of wildcat, informal miners."

Meanwhile, our dear friend
Raviv Angel is reporting, in her blog NatureSong a very different picture from her perch in Puerto Maldonado where she hears first hand the stories of the people caught in the chaos and contradictions of poverty, opportunism, prostitution and the struggles for a better life. It reminds her, she says, of her times in Gaza.

Trying to make sense of it all, she writes "When the earth suffers the people suffer."

Many people will die
and not for the sake of the earth
The earth would keep hurting
Small mines would close down
Big mines would open
Money would change hands
The earth would shut her eyes
tolerate more pain
People would feel more pain
And keep lying

Some people would tell the miners’ story
Others would sing the voice of the government
Some would say “humanity”
Others would say “environment”

I would plant trees

I wonder what I would do? I would like to tell an inspiring story from my old Oregon home of how awareness and laws changed after the craziness of the Gold Rush to usher in an age of harmony between people and nature. But I can't. Indeed, they are still fighting over the conflict between the 1872 Mining Law and the more recent Wilderness Act. At stake is the dredging for gold of one of the last pristine rivers on the West Coast -- often, for RECREATION!

All I can do is to give you the best picture that I know of what is at stake, of what may be lost forever. That picture would come from the botanist David Campbell who studies the forest in Acre's Juruá watershed and writes in his award-winning Land of Ghosts:

I now have data from a total of 18 hectares. A hectare is an area of only 100 by 100 meters, and 18 hectares [less than 50 acres] is just a mote in the vast Amazon Valley. But that small area seems a universe to me. Its diversity is stunning: more than 20,000 individual trees belonging to about 2,000 species -- three times as many tree species as there are in all of North America. And each tree is an ecosystem unto itself, bearing fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, aerophytes, orchids, lianas, reptiles, mammals, birds, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, mites and uncountable legions of insects. The number of insect species alone -- especially of beetles -- may exceed the combined total of all the other species of plants and animals in the forest.

The Amazon River and its forest are the last continent-sized stretch of untrammeled wilderness on Earth and the greatest expression of her biodiversity. The Amazon Valley, in fact, has more species than have ever existed anywhere at any time during the four-billion-year history of life on Earth. Yet just at this moment of peak biotic eloquence, we know that inevitably most of it will be lost. Over the next several decades Earth will lose hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of species. Most of this extinction will occur in the tropical forests and especially in Amazonia. In the course of a generation or two, the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed as a wilderness and as a functioning ecosystem. It is an old story, stale by now. Yet the loss of this place, I'm convinced, will be the most egregious event of a generation of atrocities.

A dark vision but I'm afraid it's quite real. Can it be changed? I don't know. But I do know that it is worth trying.

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