TRI Field Notes: Gold Mining in Madre de Dios, Peru
by Rafael Roca, 2015 TRI Fellow
After almost a month in Lima, where I spent time with family and did final background research on the current status of gold mining in the Madre de Dios region, I arrived in Puerto Maldonado. I had seen pictures and videos of mining areas in this region, but to experience it first-hand was something else. I traveled along the interoceanic highway towards Cusco for about two hours, accompanied by the president of the mining community I was visiting.
I passed through recently built mining towns; where drinking and prostitution capture most of the miners’ income. We arrived at the entrance of the community, where two motorcycles were waiting for us. There are no roads to access this community, so the only way to get people and supplies in and out is by motorcycle. The community has since regulated the once-astronomical motorcycle rates. We rode for about fifteen minutes before seeing a huge desert landscape that is the result of mining. The sun was unbearable, huge water ponds were left from mined holes in the past, and the forest edge was barely a glimpse in the distance. That forest marked the entrance of the community I am researching.
I later found out that this deserted area, which local people call ‘the beach,’ had once been a significant mining town. Nowadays only a few families are spotted there, working mostly at night since the army burnt the mining equipment and some local stores a few years back. This settlement, and most others in the nearby areas are considered illegal. They were set up after a rise in gold prices during the financial crisis, long after the Tambopata Reserve had established this area as a protected buffer zone. In the case of my research site, they are also illegal miners, but they were in the area before the buffer zone was created. Instead of avoiding national authorities like other illegal miners, this community seeks to be formally recognized and follow legal procedures for mining.
It wasn’t long before I found out that my site was not an indigenous community, but rather started as a mining association founded in the 1990’s by miners arriving from the Malinowsky River. This changed my research perspective to an approach that relied more on informal interviews, since it will be extremely challenging to spend enough time formally with the miners.
Once we arrived to the community, everyone greeted the president and I was introduced to some of the partners. I was taken to the house where I am currently staying, which is owned by one of the most respected persons in the association. He told me to set camp in their living room, but since about seven miners had their meals there every day, I thought it was more appropriate to set camp in the unused second floor. There is no ladder, so I have to climb up and down every day. There are no walls and it does get chilly, but I have the best view in town. There is no running water, but we have the river. No sewage system, but we have a latrine. Accommodations are fine, but it’s hard to imagine that this experience will last only a month for me, while some of them have been doing it for the past 30 years.
Every day I wake up with the sunrise, around 6 am, read for less than an hour, and go to the same mining camp. I walk about 40 minutes alone, but with the security of my machete, observing fresh footprints that range from jaguar to wild pigs to deer. I observe how the miners extract gold from the rugs that are located within a sliding structure called a ‘tobogan,’ and how they modify the whole structure to begin extracting soil sediment and gold from another section of the pond. Around mid-morning I visit another camp and attempt to interview one miner. After that I return to the house to register how much gold has been extracted. After lunch, which is usually shared with the miners of a particular camp who are not working that day, I return to the camps to observe how they work in extracting the sediments. I attempt to converse with another miner if they are not too busy. By about 5 pm I am back in town and ready for a river bath, where I enjoy watching one of the most beautiful landscapes. I join most of the miners from 7-9 pm to watch television at one of the two local shops that have a diesel generator, laughing and having a good time while charging our cellphones, which only have reception in the second floor of a particular house in the village.
It will take time for me to analyze and frame these conversations, and I look forward to writing further about the miners’ reasons for mining, their day-to-day work, and their plans for the future.
“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics. The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For more information on research and fellowships visit http://environment.yale.edu/tri/