As I write this here in Lima, protestors on the other side of the country are crowding the streets of Puerto Maldonado. Is this a protest for workers’ rights, protection for the environment, or greater government assistance?
No. In fact, it is just the opposite. These protestors are fighting to protect an economic system that relies on informal, dangerous working conditions, environmental degradation, and lawlessness.
Today is the third day of a strike called by the Mining Federation of Madre de Dios, which has been joined by numerous organizations of “artisanal” miners.
They are protesting a government crackdown on their activities, which would increase the penalties for illegal mining, the use of child labor and pollution of water supplies.
Illegal mining employs about 100,000 people throughout Peru, and produces nearly $1 billion in revenue each year.
However, the industry is beset with problems. Up to 30,000 hectares of forest may have already been lost to illegal mining, and water supplies in many parts of Madre de Dios register high levels of mercury and other chemicals.
Mining camps have become notorious for human trafficking and prostitution. Workers have the ability to earn relative high wages, but enjoy no social safety net or basic workplace protections.
In the past, there has been some success in legalizing artisanal mining sites, allowing the government to supervise their environmental impact and working conditions. One example is the fair trade gold mine SOTRAMI. The government has urged the illegal miners in Madre de Dios and elsewhere to apply for the appropriate authorizations.
Miners, however, have said that the government has been slow in granting permits. According to Regional President Jose Luis Aguirre, the local government does not have the resources to conduct all of the necessary Environmental Impact Assessments needed before a project can be approved.
A long-term solution to the problem of illegal mining will require the government to become more efficient in reviewing the license applications necessary for miners to legalize their work, but in the short term, the government cannot back down from its hard line.
Tough enforcement of existing regulations in the region of La Pampa, bordering the Tambopata ecological reserve, reduced the number of illegal miners there by half, according to Peru21. In other areas of the country, however, illegal mining keeps growing, threatening precious ecosystems with irreparable damage.
The protesters have a legitimate complaint that the bureaucracy does not exist to deal with their complaints. However, in the meantime, that does not excuse the continuation of a practice that puts workers, community members, and the environment in danger.
The views expressed represent those of the author, and not Peru this Week.
As gold miners take the streets of Puerto Maldonado, the government faces the question of how to resolve the illegal mining problem.