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Oil exploration and gold mining in the Peruvian rainforest

At least as serious a threat to the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian rainforest are oil exploration and gold mining , which are an enormous potential threat to the rainforest in Peru.

As the danger from terrorism faded in the mid-1990s, Fujimori's politico-economic agenda opened the way for oil and gas exploration . Initially, the government appeared to be bending over backwards to assist multinationals exploit the reserves discovered, mainly in the Madre de Dios and Camisea areas. Only the Amazonian indigenous organizations and environmental conservationists were in opposition, and the momentum of fossil-fuel exploitation in the Peruvian Amazon has slowed right down for the moment, but this is more likely to be an unforeseen extension of Fujimori's policies than genuine concern, as the government was not prepared to offer the companies as big a monopoly over the Peruvian power-supply industry as they desired. Consequently, the multinationals pulled out of the Camisea project in mid-1998 after investing many millions, and substantially reduced their plans for the Madre de Dios region. The threat is still there, however - in 1999, the Peruvian Energy Minister claimed that there were over sixty companies expressing an interest in the Camisea gas reserves.

Illegal gold mining is at its worst in the south-eastern jungles of Madre de Dios, home to the Amarakaeri Indians, where monster-sized machinery is transforming one of the Amazon's most bio-diverse regions into a huge muddy scar. A number of gold miners have already moved into the unique Tambopata Reserved Zone, a protected jungle area where giant otters, howler monkeys, king vultures, anacondas and jaguars are regularly spotted.

All plant life around each mine is turned into gravel, known in Peru as cancha, for just a few ounces of gold a day. Front-loading machines move up to about 30m depth of soil, which is then washed on a wooden sluice where high-pressure hoses to separate the silt and gold from mud and gravel. Mercury, added at this stage to facilitate gold extraction, is later burnt off, causing river and air pollution. The mines are totally unregulated, and the richer, more established mining families tend to run the show, having the money to import large machines upriver from Brazil or by air from Chile.

The indigenous tribes are losing control of their territory to an ever-increasing stream of these miners and settlers coming down from the high Andes. As the mercury pollution and suspended mud from the mines upstream kill the life-giving rivers, they are having to go deeper and deeper into the forest for fish, traditionally their main source of protein. Beatings and death threats from the miners and police are not uncommon.

There is a hope that improved gold- mining technology can stem the tide of destruction in these areas. Mercury levels in Amazon rivers and their associated food chains are rising at an alarming rate. However, with raw mercury available for only $13 a kilo there is little obvious economic incentive to find ways of using less hazardous materials. Cleaner gold-mining techniques have, however, been developed in Brazil. Astonishingly simple, the new method utilizes a wooden sluice with a gentler slope (instead of a steeper, ridged slope) to extract the gold from the washed river sediment and gravel. Trials have shown that this increases gold yields by up to forty percent, and the addition of a simple sluice box at the base of the slope has also led to the recovery of some 95 percent of the mercury used in the process. The same project has also developed a procedure of test-boring to estimate quantities of gold in potential gravel deposits, which minimizes unnecessary and uneconomic earth moving in search for gold. If taken on board by gold miners in the Amazon and elsewhere, these techniques should reduce environmental damage. However, the fact remains that pressure by international environmental groups , and the publicity that they generate, continues to make a difference.



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