Gold Rush in Peruvian Amazon: Mercury Laced Rivers and Three Dead

Puerto Maldonado has been for some years the stepping off point for eco-tourists to the Peruvian Amazon, pushing aside Iquitos in the north east,  as the top draw.  Just a short air trip from Cuzco, several tour companies take small groups to well maintained jungle lodges along tributaries of the Amazon.  Along with spotting crocodiles and herons, small rafts and flat-bottomed boats can be seen with barefoot and bare chested men and children dredging up river mud, churning it through home-made solutions including mercury, and discharging the slurry back into the river.  They are prospecting for gold.  We saw several boats and the ragged camps behind them on a trip in 2010

As the price of gold has skyrocketed in recent years so have the hopes of the Peruvian poor. (Ghana, Indonesia and elsewhere as well.)  Thousands have descended into the jungles and staked claims along the banks to make a living, if not a fortune.  The work is dangerous to the health of the prospectors: mercury quickly attacks the nervous system through the skin.  Traces are likely to attach to family members, even if they don’t handle the slurry.  It is certainly bad for the fish, fowl and other critters whose home is being poisoned.  It doesn’t take much.  0.002 mg/L is the maximum safe limit according to the EPA.

The government, aware of the dangers, has been trying to stop the flow of the desperate — unfortunately  not at the source, in the poverty of the cities and villages, but where they come bursting out, Puerto Maldonado and the river banks nearby.  Raids, arrests and threats of more have thrown the prospectors into a frenzy and thousands are now fighting back.  Puerto Maldonado is a mini-war zone.

…at least 12,500 miners had attempted to seize public buildings, markets and the airport in the city, said Madre de Dios regional president Jose Luis Aguirre. He told a reporter: “The situation is untenable. You can hear gunshots throughout the entire city.”

.. police made 62 arrests and that nine officers were among the injured. By afternoon, 500 police reinforcements had arrived to bolster a badly outnumbered contingent of 700 officers.

Police said they prevented rioters from seizing the bus station and airport of the largely dirt-street capital of about 37,000 residents. But to the west, miners took control of a key bridge, blocking the transoceanic highway that links the highland city of Cuzco and Peru’s coast to Brazil.

It’s a bad situation all around, with no immediate solution.  The prospectors are despoiling an important part of the national and world heritage, and more likely to ruin than to improve themselves.  The government has no plans in place large enough to provide hope where it is most needed and is left with an armed response that will certainly lead to more than the three reported dead as of today.  The income to the town from tourism is choked off until some way out is arrived at.