Madre de Dios
In Episode 73 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg interviews Thomas Moore, anthropologist, advocate for indigenous cultural survival, and author of the newly released book, Madre de Dios: Refugio de Pueblos Originarios. The remote rainforest region of Madre de Dios in Peru's southern Amazon is a last refuge for isolated indigenous peoples, but is now massively threatened by mining, timber and other resource interests that operate in a semi-legal gray zone in a nexus with criminal networks. Peru has made some progress in complying with international norms on protection of isolated peoples, but these advances stand to be dramatically reversed if far-right candidate Keiko Fujimori comes to power in the pending run-off election. Listen on SoundCloud or via Patreon.
The proliferation of pits and ponds created in recent years by miners dredging for small deposits of alluvial gold in Peru's Amazon has dramatically altered the landscape and increased the risk of mercury exposure for indigenous communities and wildlife, a new study shows. The study, published in Science Advances Nov. 27, found a 670% increase in the extent of ponds across the landscape in heavily mined watersheds since 1985. These formerly forested landscapes are now increasingly dotted by these small lakes, which provide low-oxygen conditions in which submerged mercury—a toxic leftover from the mining process—can be converted by microbial activity into an even more toxic form of the element, called methylmercury, at net rates 5-to-7 times greater than in rivers. The miners use mercury, a potent neurotoxin, to separate ore from soil and sediments, often without adequate safety precautions to protect themselves or the environment. Some of the mercury used by the miners is burned off into the air or spilled into nearby rivers, creating far-reaching environmental and human health risks. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is now believed to be the largest global source of anthropogenic mercury emissions.
A revered leader of Peru's Awajún indigenous people, Santiago Manuin Valera, 63, died July 1 of COVID-19 at a hospital in the coastal city of Chiclayo. He was first taken from his remote community of Santa María de Nieva in Amazonas region to a hospital in the closest city, Bagua; then transferred over the mountains to Chiclayo as his condition worsened. His daughter, Luz Angélica Manuin, warned of a dire situation in the Awajún communities and across the Peruvian Amazon, with COVID-19 taking a grave toll. "There are many dead," she said. "We keep vigil over them and we bury them. The government has forgotten us."
The US and Brazil on Sept. 13 announced an agreement to promote private-sector development in the Amazon rainforest. US officials said a $100 million fund will be established to "protect biodiversity" by supporting businesses in hard-to-reach areas of the forest. At the meeting in Washington where the pact was struck, Brazil's foreign minister Ernesto Araujo said: "We want to be together in the endeavour to create development for the Amazon region which we are convinced is the only way to protect the forest. So we need new initiatives, new productive initiatives, that create jobs, that create revenue for people in the Amazon and that's where our partnership with the United States will be very important for us." (BBC News, Sept. 14; AFP, Sept. 13)
The Superior Court of Justice for Peru's rainforest region of Madre de Dios on March 12 upheld a lower court ruling that nullified mining concessions as well as the titling of agricultural properties and granting of water rights to third parties on the territory of the indigenous community of Tres Islas, without prior consultation with that community. The Regional Government of Madre de Dios (GOREMAD) is ordered to comply with the ruling, as is the National Water Authority (ANA) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MINAGRI). The National Police are called upon to enforce the ruling if necessary. The decision confirms a Dec. 29 ruling by Tambopata Superior Court.
Peru's central government is pouring troops into the rainforest region of Madre de Dios in an all-out effort against thousands of illegal gold-miners operating in remote areas. Under "Operation Mercury"—named for the mercury poisoning caused to local waters by the mining—three High-Mobility Temporary Mixed Bases, manned by military and National Police personnel, are to be established in the area of La Pampa, within the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve. Cabinet officials were flown into the remote area March 5 to inaugurate the first base, dubbed "Alpha." On hand were Defense Minister José Huerta, Interior Minister Carlos Morán and Environment Minister Fabiola Muñoz. Each base is to have 100 soldiers, 50 police agents and a public prosecutor. In the first phase of the operation, launched last month, authoritiies "rescued" 51 people from the mining camps, detained 80, and confiscated millions of dollars in prperty.
Peru's creation of Yaguas National Park—covering nearly 870,000 hectares of rainforest along the remote border with Colombia—is being hailed as a critical advance for protection of global biodiversity. The territory in the Putumayo river basin is roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna—home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (including manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), 500 species of birds and some 550 fish species representing a full two-thirds of Peru's freshwater fish diversity. Some park also covers some 30 indigenous communities of the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua peoples. (NYT, Feb. 14; The Manual, Feb. 6; Mongabay, Jan. 11)
Peru's government has mobilized some 2,000 National Police troops to the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve in the Madre de Dios region to evict illegal gold-miners operating in the zone. Authorities say over 80 camps have been evicted since the operation began July 3, and millions of dollars worth of equipment destroyed. Hundreds were briefly detained in the operaiion, dubbed "Mercury I," and 12 formally charged with illegal miniig and other crimes. Outlaw miners have for years been encroaching on the remote reserve, clearing rainforest and polluting waterways with mercury. The Interior Ministry's Vice-Minister for Internal Order Rubén Vargas, on the scene in Madre de Dios, told reporters: "Illegal mines have operated here for many years and the results, as you can see, are Dantesque. This is an activity that's equally or even more lucrative than drug trafficking."