Illegal mining, the Pope's visit and employment in Madre de Dios

27/1/2018

Pope Francis travelled to the city of Puerto Maldonado, known as the gateway to Peru's Amazon, before even visiting President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski at the palace, a change to the itinerary undertaken, it was said, because of weather concerns but having the effect of signalling that the Amazon indigenous were Francis' top priority in Peru. 

As we reported last week, the Pope's language was strong and his reception enthusiastic. It also had international impact, played up by those rightly concerned about the issue. There was a rash of articles on illegal gold from international environmental groups and others, before and after the visit (including the Miami Herald, which is much concerned about trade in illegal gold). 

What was also generated was opposition. Reuters, for example, found an inhabitant of Puerto Maldonado quite prepared to say he had opposed the Pope's visit. According to Juan Consa, mining is the dynamo of the region’s economy. “Without it, we’d be poor again” he is quoted as saying. After working in mining camps in the 1990s, Consa was able to put his two kids through college and pay for the motorcycle taxi that now zips him around town. “Even if you aren’t a miner, in Puerto Maldonado you depend on it.” 

Perhaps more significantly, Luis Otsuka, the governor of Madre de Dios region and himself a gold miner, is quoted by the Miami Herald of blaming what he called environmental “mafias” for seeking to keep his region in poverty. “They come here and tell us we can’t touch a tree or eat the fish because they won’t allow it” he is quoted as saying. 

While these are but individual voices against an avalanche of petitions placed before the Pope, they do illustrate some of the complexity of the issue. Alternative development is every bit as important as effective control of the well-proven abuse of indigenous populations and of the environment with its generational and world-wide consequences.

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