MS Risk Blog

Fighting illegal gold mining in Madre De Dios.

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Peru’s government launched operation Mercurio 2019 in February to once and for all curb the illegal mining in Madre de Dios. The illegal mining in Madre de Dios is centered around the ad-hoc gold rush town La Pampa near the Tambopata National Reserve. The main goal is to rid the area of the more than 5,000 illegal miners and several thousands of merchants and other people working in the area in supporting roles. It is likely that the operation will have some success in ridding the area of the illegal miners. Positive results from the initial phase foster some optimism, however, it is unclear if the operation will yield any major long-term success. If the government manages to sustain the military operation and follow up with good policy initiatives, the intervention does have a chance of success where previous similar operations have failed. However, there are a series of pitfalls and risks facing the operation.

Illegal gold mining badly hurt the environment, and the fragile ecosystem in the Tambopata National Reserve is at great risk. The reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, spanning around 1,000 square miles, and it is estimated that more than 5,000 illegal miners are active within the buffer zone around the reserve. The environmental hazards are several. Besides the deforestation of the mining area, miners use toxic mercury in the separation process, leading to an intoxication of the soil. According to a report in 2016, 41 % of the population in Madre De Dios was affected by this, mostly in terms of contaminated water and fish. As illegal mining is inevitably unregulated, the 2015 ban on mercury had no effect on the illegal miners, who are reportedly importing black-market mercury from Bolivia.

Operation Mercurio 2019 consists of several phases; an initial intervention phase, followed by a consolidation phase before moving on to sustained work planned until 2021. The initial phase pertained a raid against the town and illegal mining hub La Pampa on 19 February, resulting in some 40 women rescued from sex trafficking and 30 illegal mining camps dismantled. Some 1,500 security personnel, both military and police, was dispatched to the region to take part in the raid. The second phase is due to last for six months, and is aimed to relocate residents, rid La Pampa from crime and establish a security presence through four military bases. The first of the bases was inaugurated on 5 March near the Tambopata National Reserve. The last phase, set to last for two years, is designed to reintroduce some of the miners but legalize and regulate the mining. Through these efforts, the government wishes to assure that the mining is done in an environmentally responsible manner. Further efforts to diversify the economic activities are also planned.

The policy initiatives set to follow on the military operation aims to replace the illicit mining activity with legal commerce such as tourism, forestry and agriculture. The goal is also not trying to eradicate gold mining, but to steer it away from the national reserves and register and regulate it. On paper, these initiatives seem like good solutions to reinvent the area, however, these policies are facing a host of problems. The long-standing issues in Madre De Dios, such as its reputation as a crime-ridden and mercury polluted area, will likely weaken the attraction of these alternative industries. Further, as gold prices globally keep soaring, the appetite for gold mining is unlikely to diminish. Trying to replace this highly lucrative source of income with legal activities will be very difficult. The announced policy efforts might also not provide sufficient options for the thousands of people who are losing their livelihood and need to relocate. Thus, the operation risks driving the miners further into the rainforest, where they are likely able to continue the illegal mining.

The style of the operation is by no means a novel measure taken against the illegal miners, as previous operations, reaping little success, have shared many characteristics. However, this operation appears to be bigger and more resolute. Defence Minister Jose Huerta said, in a statement, that the troops will not leave the area until it is as green as it always was. But troops are not enough, and the potential success of the operation will highly likely lie in the implementation of long-term replacement policy.

Despite all pitfalls and risks, Mercurio 2019 appears to be a decent attempt to rescue Madre De Dios from the immense environmental hazard illicit gold mining causes, and the other illegal activities following it. There will be many bumps ahead, but if the operation does reap long-term success, and manages to turn the Madre de Dios region around, it can provide useful lessons to subsequent operations, both in Peru and internationally.