Illegal Mining in Peruvian Rainforests

by Laurenz Fischer, Switzerland, ELP 2014
Written on July 14, 2014.

In this year’s Environmental Leadership Program (ELP 2014), eight students from some of the world’s best universities had the chance to join the group of experienced environmental leaders at the University of California, Berkeley. I, Laurenz Fischer from Switzerland, am one of them. I am a Masters student in Management, Technology and Economics, with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering, at ETH Zürich.

However, this blog-post is not about me, rather I write about the work of one of the experienced ELP participants: Monica N. from Peru, a passionate lawyer against illegal mining.

Image iconlaurenz-1-300x300_2.pngIllegal mining is not a regularly mentioned issue in Switzerland’s media scene – because it’s not of great concern? Wrong. Switzerland is one of the main importers for Peruvian gold and more than 20% of that gold comes from illegal sources.

Peru is a South American country with 31 million inhabitants. Its area is almost 1.3 million km2, which is more than 30 times the size of Switzerland and larger than Germany and France together. The costal and the southern parts are most densely populated. East of the Andes, which traverse the whole country, are large areas of rainforest. Most of the Peruvian mines are in the highlands and in the jungle. Most illegal mines are hidden somewhere in the buffer zones surrounding the rainforest, far away from the country’s bigger cities.

The extent of illegal and informal mining seems almost inconceivable. Image iconlaurenz-2-245x300_2.pngJust in the region Madre de Dios (Illustration 2), approximately 6150 ha per year are deforested due to illegal mining.

The economic magnitude is not to be underestimated either. Approximately 100,000 people are directly involved in illegal mining - both owners of mines and miners. Further, about 300,000 people are involved indirectly, including the trade of illegally obtained ore in Peru.

The huge amount of workers far away from dense civilization causes, in addition to the environmental damage, a variety of other problems, including nutritional and health issues, corruption, prostitution and many more.

Monica works for the OEFA (Organismo de Evaluacion y Fiscalizacion Ambiental, a governmental institution with two main tasks:

  • Direct supervision of certain economic activities, including large and medium mining activities.
  • Supervision and training of environmental enforcement institutions at national, regional and local levels.

Since Monica, from whom I obtained most of the information, is a lawyer, I want to write more about the Peruvian law and legal barriers for mining. In contrast to many other countries, the Peruvian state is the owner of all mineral resources in the Peruvian ground. Therefore, not only the surface rights, but also a concession for mining in this area is needed to start a project.

Simplified, a mining project can be divided into two stages: the exploration (tracking and locating mineral resources) and the exploitation (extractive work). Miners need to provide an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for each of these steps. The EIA is examined by the authorities, which can assign permits for the exploration and the exploitation. Many illegal mines are located in nationally protected areas, buffer zones or riverbeds, where extractive activities are forbidden and mining permits are not to be granted.

During the last three years, the Peruvian government has initiated a formalization process for small, informal mines. Image iconLaurenz-3-300x200_2.pngInformal means that the miners do not have the permits to mine, but a permit could eventually be granted because the mine itself does not contradict Peruvian law. This may seem easier than it is, but since the miners have the right to continue their activities during the formalization process, informal activities were sometimes hidden under it. One particular practice, which was used by mine owners, was to divide a large or medium mine in several small mines, which individually meet the requirements for the formalization process. Image iconlaurenz-4-300x200_2.pngThis type of illegal mines could be identified due to the use of inadequate machinery or because many small mines, located close to each other, belong to people who are related by a family or corporate bond.

The biggest difficulties Monica and her organization face are that often not only economic, but also political interests are involved and that most regional government officials are unaware of the applicable rules and technical procedures required to supervise and control artisanal and small mines.

For me, Monica’s work, her experiences and the stories she shared with me were inspiring. Her passionate way to talk about mining in Peru is impressive. She made clear to me how different countries are troubled by different environmental problems. Although I am an environmental engineer, I did not know much about mining. During the discussions about her work, I have learned a lot about Monica and Peru. Therefore, I want to thank her and wish her the best with her work to make Peruvian mining environmentally and socially sustainable.