Peru’s Media-Friendly Mining Ban Conceals Toxic Inaction

Speaking in Quechua, her voice thick with despair and fury, the elderly Doña Yolanda Quispe told me how the gold mines on the mountain summit above her village in Southern Peru had destroyed her river and taken everything she owned. “Before the mines, the river was crystalline. There were mountain trout of great size,” she said, indicating the length of her forearm. “Then, in 2004 and 2005, right around that time, they started mining in the highlands of Ananea and Pampa Blanca where the river starts,” she said. “Almost overnight, the river turned muddy, full of lamas,” she continued, using the Quechua word for the ultrafine, mushroom-colored silt that for eons lay submerged under river rocks and the spiny bushes of the Andean pampa, or grasslands.

In the last decade, informal, surface gold mines have turned hundreds of square kilometers of land upstream of Doña Yolanda’s village on the Azangaro/Ramis River into a cratered moonscape. Miners who excavate pits with giant front-loaders and earth-moving equipment pitch the surface soil and processed mine waste down the river.

“The fish died and the birds left after the mines were built,” Doña Yolanda told me. “And then,” she said, echoed by the grim nods and downturned gaze of other villagers standing beside her, “the frogs didn’t sing anymore.” She wept as she talked about the frogs. All her life, she said, their voices had kept her company while she tended her animals by the river. “After the mining began, you couldn’t even see an insect in the river anymore,” she said, describing in detail the midges, stoneflies, and moths at the base of the river’s web of life.

Ananea is one of scores of off-the-books mining enclaves in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru where hundreds of thousands of workers have migrated in search of income. The United Nations has estimated that unlicensed mining accounts for as much as 10% of gold exports worldwide. With revenues from illegal gold mining exceeding profits from narcotics exports in the Andes, government pledges to stop toxic, unregulated mines echo antinarcotics campaigns, in which flows of illegal commodities persist at the same time that militarization of remote areas consolidates alliances between criminals and rogue elements inside states.

In the case of the Ananea and Pampa Blanca mine fields above Doña Yolanda’s tiny village of Jila Central, officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, long aware of the gold-enriched sediment in the river bed, obtained the financing to purchase and transport large machinery to the remote site to do the initial excavation in the early 2000s. At that point, toxic waste rock sediment from the informal mines began pouring onto fields and pastures through irrigation canals. Potato plants and barley withered. Pastures of hardy alfalfa grasses thinned and many sheep and cows who grazed in them died from intestinal maladies; lambs and calves were stillborn, some with horrendous deformities such as organs on the outside or distended bowels.

Villagers suspected that what was poisoning their animals was the mercury used to process the mineral-rich ore from the mines. This, however, was only one of a toxic soup of chemicals present in sediment, soil, and pasture in the mine-affected fields. Data from soil and water samples that I took in Jila Central (processed at Environmental Quality Laboratory at the San Andres Metropolitan University in La Paz, Bolivia, and the Zvicor Group Laboratories in Arequipa, Peru) indicated that the sediment and water were loaded with a suite of heavy metals including lead, copper, zinc, and highly elevated levels of arsenic.

Shortly after taking office in July 2011, President Ollanta Humala responded to national and international outcry over despoiled rivers, forests, and fisheries with a series of measures that he claimed would phase out off-the-books mines. Declaring that starting in April 2014 informal mines would become illegal, the government announced plans to formalize the status of an estimated 300 thousand to 500 thousand miners working off the books. Registration with the authorities would oblige miners to pay taxes, submit environmental impact reports, and abide by labor standards.

By all appearances, Humala’s crackdown on informal mines is one of the toughest in the hemisphere, lauded by international media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Associated Press, and Bloomberg News. Peruvian government officials made moves to cut off supply lines of critical inputs for mines, including gasoline, heavy machinery, mercury, and cyanide. Customs agents were ordered to verify origins of wholesale gold shipments leaving the country. In addition, in early 2014 President Humala announced that Peru would cooperate with Colombia to combat illegal mining in their respective countries.

A closer examination of Peru’s informal mining ban, however, raises questions about whether the highly publicized, muscular campaign will provide relief for the rural and indigenous communities who have been impacted profoundly by mine-related riverine pollution and deforestation. The largely military and police-led tactics used to crack down on mining have sharply increased tensions between local communities, miners, and state forces in mining areas. Miners complain about the loss of their jobs, while fishing and farming communities who rely on clean water, soil and intact vegetation are infuriated by being left without environmental remedy or compensation for their losses. The ban on informal mines relies on a fallacy that mines operating under license and tax authority are non-polluting, whereas unregulated, untaxed mines pollute.

In truth, the Peruvian state has been scattershot in its approach to regulation of mines across the board, formal and informal. Even as community protests have multiplied in the last decade to include what the Human Rights Ombudsman lists on its website as 145 protracted socio-environmental disputes, it often remains unclear which state agency has the power to conduct investigations of mine pollution and which has the power to stop polluters or order cleanups. On-the-book mines claim they face fines for pollution, but enforcement actions by various government agencies are uncoordinated and insufficient. The six-year-old Ministry of the Environment has some limited review power over applications for mine licenses, including the review of environmental impact statements, and some power to fine polluters. However, even its paltry sanctioning powers were all but eliminated with a controversial new law passed in June 2014 that prevented the Ministry of the Environment from issuing fines to mining and drilling companies for a period of three years. The Ministry of Energy and Mines, meanwhile, an agency infamously hostile to communities who have issued environmental complaints, is charged with overseeing mines’ compliance with operating procedures.

It is also entirely unclear which agency or set of agencies is charged with monitoring water and air quality in the vicinity of mines. In localities where mining threatens waterways and air, inter-agency rivalries often prevent collection of data or sharing of data. This leaves the public with inconsistent or nonexistent data on pollution, despite the fact that it is collected by national and regional health agencies, local watershed councils, and a range of special agencies including the national fishing agency, regional drinking water authorities, and the newly-established National Water Authority (ANA)—which against all logic has no bureaucratic connection to any of the former species agencies, but instead is housed in the Ministry of Agriculture. Tort laws—which on paper offer the prospect of collecting damages from environmental lawbreakers—have provided no source of relief for communities, with plaintiffs claiming that judges’ standards of proof remain arbitrary and capricious. A crowning absurdity is that the agency that carries the legal power to prosecute violations of environmental law, the National Police (PNP) has only a tiny corps of prosecutors and investigators with knowledge of environmental science and law.

Given inter-agency rivalries and the lack of sufficient expertise within government enforcement bodies, the ban on informal mines serves as feel-good political theater for audiences in Lima and abroad, but does little to heal the environment and restore rural livelihoods. “The Peruvian government,” writes Gerardo Damonte Valencia in a 2013 article for The Broker Online, “finds itself trapped between a large-scale extraction agenda that prioritizes large-scale over small-scale mining and a conservationist environmental agenda that aims to control both.” Critics of the government’s environmental record argue that high-profile government raids of informal mines are a transparent bid to deflect attention from the government’s dismal record in dealing with hundreds of ongoing disputes over mines that are operating under license. These latter disputes have resulted in deadly government repression against communities protesting large commercial mines such as Newmont’s Conga Mine in Cajamarca or the Xstrata mine in Cuzco. Where large mines do employ environmental safeguards, they often do so as a safeguard against tort claims in foreign courts, or against media exposés that are may affect investor perception and their companies’ stock prices.

In addition to regulatory gaps, Humala faces formidable political hurdles in curbing informal mining. National media have reported that his own presidential campaign received contributions from informal mining interests, a charge Humala denies. His high commissioner in the informal mining ban, Daniel Urresti, who rose to the head of the Interior Ministry, faces accusations that he was directly involved in the 1988 killing of journalist Hugo Bustios of Caretas magazine during the military’s campaign against the Maoist Shining Path insurgency.

Finally, in the past decade, informal mines have accounted for approximately 15% of Peru’s gold production, but they have employed the vast majority of those who work in mining—somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of all miners. Defenders of large, on-the-books mining and drilling operations argue that their operations, unlike informal mines, benefit communities through royalties, the so-called canon minero, which has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the municipalities and regional governments where minerals are extracted. However, it is indisputable that informal mines, employing far more people, have created short-term booms in many remote, mineral-rich areas.

Miners in the gold fields see themselves as having little to lose in resisting government raids. Average net incomes in the mines are as little as $30 to $50 for rank-and-file workers. Violence, respiratory disease, and toxic exposures leave miners with life expectancies that health experts estimate at between 40 and 48 years, according to the United Nations (the shorter life expectancy applying to women palliris who work waste rock). Leaders among informal mine workers who mobilized multi-day blockades in protests in Ica, Junin, Puno, and Madre de Dios in the months leading up to the mining ban, argued that the licensing procedures, which involve interacting with five government agencies through six administrative steps, were thoroughly out of step with the realities of most miners living hand to mouth.

What the media-friendly ban on informal mines ignores is the brutal fact that informal mines are perversely effective local employment machines, expanding their bases of support even as they obliterate rural livelihoods in agriculture and fishing. In areas such as the Azangaro/Ramis River, many families stripped of their livelihoods by gross pollution have no choice but to go to work in the very same mines.

Addressing the conflict between community water and precious metals in Peru requires more than a ban on informal mining enforced by military-style raids. The most glaring hole in Humala’s campaign against informal mining is the government’s silence on the question of damages and long-term monitoring of contested lands. Over 20 laws and decrees were passed to enact the informal mining ban, but the government enacted no legal framework for cleanup in places like the Azangaro/Ramis basin or Madre de Dios, nor did it strengthen legal provisions for citizen suits, which might give some compensation to victims and serve as some disincentive for polluters. Most importantly, communities with direct stakes in clean water and intact forests must be afforded meaningful involvement in participation in data collection, including monitoring of air, water, and forest cover.

In the Ananea gold fields upriver from Jila Central, the mining ban so far suggests that business as usual will resume. According to La República, the ban came to the mountaintop region in April 2014 with a battalion of 600 national police blowing up backhoes and pumps as the cameras rolled. Government resolve appeared strong as miners complained loudly but without effect in blockades and rock-throwing demonstrations. Quietly, however, the forces who ran the mines shrugged. Within two weeks, mining resumed. Backhoes and earthmoving equipment, somehow stored just ahead of the raids in sheds and garages in municipalities all through the high pampa, began again under cover of darkness and started pumping the deadly lamas down the river.