Last Tuesday, 19 February, the government launched a large operation to combat illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios. It announced a state of emergency for two months, and dispatched 1,272 police and 300 troops to the area of La Pampa in an operation conducted by air, river and land.
The programme is designed to last two years. The first 15 days are to be used to take control of the trade in gold and to rescue people caught up in associated illegal activities of drugs, sex and labour exploitation. The next six months will see full police control of the area and the installation of a military base to forestall the usual pattern whereby miners, warned in advance, disappear, bide their time and then reappear. The remainder of the two-year period will see work focused on the formalisation of informal producers and encouragement of activities alternative to mining.
The operation is being presented as unprecedented, but for José De Echave, a former vice-minister of the environment, it has all the features of an old film being replayed. The battle began in 2010 with legislation to establish the illegality of such activities. Under President Ollanta Humala, in 2011, 1,500 army and police were sent to the region, much the same number as now.
The problem today has grown enormously since. Illegal mining is causing deforestation on a grand scale. In 2018, deforestation from wildcat mining in southern Peru peaked at 22,931 acres according to the satellite imaging work of the project Monitoring the Andean Amazon (MAAP). There has also been massive contamination from mercury spillage, plus many associated health problems. Abuses of human rights have abounded: slavery, child labour, drug consumption and trafficking etc.
The main policy response so far, apart from police raids with no more than temporary effects, has been to encourage formalisation. This has moved slowly and lacked the decided political support to make it sustainable. De Echave points out that political heavyweights are arrayed against any really serious effort to control illegal mining. An unknown but substantial amount of illegal gold ends up in ‘legal’ channels. He wonders whether the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF) is willing to disburse the resources required to sustain a multi-year development plan. The scale of it would need to be large if the negative legacies of illegal mining are to be tackled.
Yet there are some new elements to this film. The two-year focus is important, as is the prominence being given to rescuing victims and getting them to places of safety. So is the emphasis on alternative development in providing livelihoods within the legal economy. Another element is the support being provided by no less than seven ministries and numerous other state agencies.