Top Peruvian Amazon tourist destination invaded by gold-miners

Interview with environmental activist Victor Zambrano on his work protecting the Tambopata National Reserve in Madre de Dios

The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that travel and tourism’s “total contribution” to Peru’s GDP will exceed 11% by 2026, but how well, in the long-term, is Peru protecting its best tourist assets? Among foreign tourists easily the most popular destination in the country’s lowland Amazon region is the 274,000 hectare Tambopata National Reserve (TNR) – yet it currently stands invaded by gold-miners.

The TNR is in the Madre de Dios region in the south-east of Peru. Over 632 bird species, 1,200 butterfly species, 103 amphibian species, 180 fish species, 169 mammal species and 103 reptile species make it one of the most biodiverse places in the world, according to the Environment Ministry, but those numbers don’t compare to the gold-miners. According to Victor Zambrano, president of the TNR’s Management Committee and the recently-announced winner of the 2016 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation, there are 8,000 miners in the reserve itself and more than 35,000 in its buffer zone.


Security forces raid an illegal mining camp in the Tambopata National Reserve in April 2016, but environmental activist Victor Zambrano questions such initiatives. Photograph: SERNANP

“Why is Peruvian patrimony that generates such income for the state not being defended?” Zambrano asks. “It isn’t being protected in the way that it should. It’s like we want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Gold-mining is one of the biggest causes of deforestation in Peru’s Amazon and Madre de Dios is the hardest-hit region of all. Over 50,000 hectares of forest had been cleared by 2012, hundreds of tons of mercury have been dumped into the rivers, and opponents assassinated. It involves people trafficking, 10,000s of child workers, prostitution, sexual exploitation of minors, and indications of forced labour, among other horrors.

Last month the government declared a 60 day “State of Emergency” across Madre de Dios because of the mercury contamination. A serious attempt to address a desperate problem, or political theatre intended to undermine one of the two candidates, Keiko Fujimori, standing in the presidential election subsequently held on 5 June? Zambrano calls the “State of Emergency” “absurd”: too short a time period, too little budget, too big an area included, no attempt to stop the mining, and declared at a “totally inopportune moment” with one government on its way out and another coming in.

SERNANP, the government institution responsible for the TNR, has issued various statements about the reserve in recent months, saying that the mining does not affect tourism and reporting government efforts to destroy mining camps and equipment. But Zambrano dismisses such initiatives, claiming they are more public relations than anything and claiming the miners have found numerous ways to protect themselves – including buying off members of the authorities tonot destroy their equipment. Below, in excerpts from an interview with the Guardian in Madre de Dios, he talks about the “State of Emergency”, his years of working to protect the TNR, and gold-mining in the region in general.

 Environmental activist Victor Zambrano recently won the 2016 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation. Photograph: Victor Zambrano

On the government’s almost complete failure to act to protect the TNR:

 “We have done everything humanly possible, everything humanly possible it is to do. However, the issue has always been that the central government has never given our protected natural areas the importance they deserve. When you make concrete decisions to correct something, it needs to come from the top, from the president. . . I see no results, my friend. I see no results.”

On the use of the navy to evict miners from the TNR:

“A navy post was installed [but] because of a lack of budget they were only there a week. And by the end of that week they had evicted practically all of the miners that were in the reserve, but then the week was up, no more money, no more logistical support, and so the navy had to leave. The miners – even more than before – returned.”

On the use of the police to destroy the miners’ machinery:

“The only thing the High Commission [on Mining] has done is go in by force with the police and destroy the motors and the things the miners use. Just that. And that’s because it involves large sums of money. . . There were interventions like that in 2014, 2015, but not one has had any result. Results: zero.”

On death threats and assassinations:

 “Yesterday we had a meeting. . . all the representatives from the [TNR’s] buffer zone from Bolivia to Inambari [. . . ]. They report on the areas they’re living in. The dramas I saw yesterday, with people with tears in their eyes saying how they’re being invaded, how they’re receiving death threats. . . Something could happen at any moment. Like what happened last year with one of the leaders from there. They killed him. Alfredo Vracko Neuenschwander. He was a forest leader permanently defending his territory and he was eliminated by illegal miners. And the authorities gave it no importance whatsoever.”

On rumours that if the miners don’t mine the gold, multinational companies will:

“The state isn’t helping miners to formalise and that’s where this idea comes from. “Aha, the government doesn’t want to formalise us.” So that’s why these stories emerge: “They’re reserving this zone for the gringos, so that the big companies can enter.” That’s the thinking going around at the moment. The logic is: “Why would we leave this [gold] for the gringos? Better to exploit it ourselves, however it’s done!”

On the mercury contamination:

No one disputes it. That huge quantities of mercury have been dumped into the rivers, that is certain. Not even the hecatomb that took place in Minamata [in Japan] is comparable [where] 80 tons of mercury were dumped into the sea. . . What are we going to say if here approximately 400 tons have been dumped into the rivers between 1998 and 2010?. . . We know people have come here and taken hair samples and analysed them etc etc, and that we’re contaminated, and that’s why it’s said 40% [of the population] have signs of contamination.”

On other impacts of the mining:

“It’s savage deforestation – the forest disappears and all that’s left is sand. The wild animals are being corralled, they’re under pressure, because they don’t have access to their food and resources. They’re being forced to change their normal migration routes, and they’re being hunted mercilessly. The miners have no compassion whatsoever. They’re decimating them.”

On the timing and length of the “State of Emergency”:

“It was a surprise for us, really. . . [Years ago outgoing president Ollanta] Humala didn’t want to know anything about a Declaration of Emergency [and in the meantime] all this [the mining] has been advancing. . . [A Declaration] has to be made at the right moment, not when they’re just leaving office. Do you think that in 60 days they’re going to achieve all that that law sets out to do? 60 days! And 60 days ends in July, when another government enters. . . . We’re not against a Declaration of Emergency, because we’ve always called for one, but it has to be at the right moment. . . It’s absurd! It’s absurd!”

On the “State of Emergency’s” failure to address the root of the problem:

“You apply the strategies they have adopted to neutralise the mercury, you spend money doing this, but has the activity itself [i.e. the mining] stopped? That is what must happen. Yet it hasn’t stopped whatsoever. How can we solve a problem if the government hasn’t been able to stop what is causing it in the first place? How are you going to reduce the impacts [of mercury] if, let’s say, in just one river the water is completely contaminated? You start doing your remediation work. Will it have any effect if the contaminated water keeps on coming? If upriver the illegal miners keep operating? You keep spending money on remediation and the miners keep working. . . Is this ever going to solve the problem? Never, never, never, never.”

On one way the miners evade having their equipment destroyed:

“The miners have learnt how it is, how these [government entities] function. Now they just hide their motors [used to do the mining], because there’s infiltration – that’s to say, someone doing the intervention tips them off: ‘Hey, we’re going to intervene. The day after tomorrow we’re coming in. Hide your motors.” When we’ve entered what we’ve found is old and useless motors, and the only thing the police has done was destroy them. Then it appears in the newspaper: “Such-and-such number of motors destroyed” etc etc, but the good ones were hidden. . . . The final results? Nothing.”

On media reports of the miners’ equipment being destroyed:

“We haven’t believed the reports in the newspapers about these interventions. We ourselves, our own technical team, our monitors, we entered the area after an intervention had been done to see if [what was being reported] was the truth or a lie. It was a lie. Because everything was the same. Because the only things that had been destroyed were useless motors – junk. ”

On how the TNR’s “park guards” can’t stop the miners entering:

“What can they [SERNANP] do if they can’t use weapons? The park guards can’t use weapons. They’re protecting that territory, but what can they do against scores of people who turn up armed?

On how the impacts on the forests are worse than satellite images show:

“There are some organisations using satellite images [to monitor the mining], but you can only see what’s visible [from the sky]. What has been deforested can be seen from above, but there are other areas that have been affected too, beneath the trees [that are still standing]. The satellite can’t capture those details.”

On lawlessness in Madre de Dios:

“The principle of authority has been lost completely. No one obeys anything. Everyone does whatever they want. . . It’s the world upside down. . . The police must change. The police must be re-founded because it is now totally discredited, completely smashed.”

On corruption:

“There is widespread corruption that, unfortunately, means we need a re-engineering of government entities. . . Why are the miners not evicted [from the TNR]? Because they’re protected, obviously, by government entities and those at the top taking bribes. That’s the issue.”

On the “mafias” behind the mining:

Maybe some [of the miners] are poor people, but they’re brought by these mafias who charge them for everything they do. It’s [the mafias] who provide the machinery, the petrol, the food – everything so this miner or that person can work, nothing else. . . . [The mafias] capture people, they bring people [to Madre de Dios], make them work, and exploit them. . . As no one says anything, they’re simply under these mafias’ orders.”

On why the TNR is so special:

“The Tambopata National Reserve has set world records in birds, in amphibians, in insects etc etc. It’s a long list. This is what exasperates us the most – and nothing is done. The whole world is watching what is being destroyed, but there is no authority to decide what to do about it.”

On how the government’s failure to formalise some miners is forcing them to operate illegally:

“What’s the point of doing these interventions and destroying equipment if you’re not giving them any option to formalise? That would be the way out for the miners. But if you shut the door on them, you corner them and all you do is beat them, what will be the result?”

On what he would say to those buying Madre de Dios’s gold:

“That they think on what is happening, what is going on, and that that metal is the cause of all of the outrages taking place in Madre de Dios.”

On his own personal inspiration and motivation:

When I was a child I lived with indigenous people, the Ese’Ejas, and I learned a great deal from them about living in harmony with the forest, in harmony with the natural world. . . I had to leave Madre de Dios to study and I was in the navy for more than 15 years, and then [in the late 1980s) I returned and took over the land that had belonged to my father. There was none of what there was before. . . the paradise that I left behind, the forest, the natural resources, where I grew up. When I went back after 24 years, there was none of that. . . It was cattle-ranching areas, forests totally cleared, just pasture for cattle. . . Paradise destroyed.”

On the threats to him and others fighting the mining:

“Life is worth practically nothing. [The assassination of Alfredo Vracko] is the latest proof of that. . . We are permanently exposed to pressure from people who do not want us to exist. Because we are an obstacle to their ideas, an obstacle to them to continue doing whatever they want.”

On how the miners are invading everywhere, not just the TNR:

“They’re invading agricultural land, logging concessions, Brazil nut concessions, indigenous communities. . .”

On forgoing eating fish from the river:

“I eat fish, but obviously I’m aware that fish from the river is, unfortunately, always going to have some effect. So I eat fish from a fish farm and we don’t have any problems with contamination.”

On how he thinks the TNR can be protected:

“Right from the beginning we’ve said spending lots of money isn’t necessary and all that needs to be done is install the armed forces at the entrances to the reserve. It’s about controlling the area and establishing a physical presence there, without needing to issue so many laws. The interventions only last a day. . . Our strategy is simple.”

On what he wants from Peru’s incoming government, with Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as president:

“That authority is established because here in Madre de Dios there isn’t any. There is no authority. The mining camps, the houses there, the businesses, the children forced to work, little girls working as prostitutes etc etc. . . Completely illegal. Like they say: “The law of the jungle.” The law of the strongest. No one obeys anything.”

ORGINAL SOURCE: The Guardian -David Hill 19th June, 2016
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