12 Aug 2012

Tussle for control of Amazon gold rush

7:44 am on 12 August 2012

Peru is trying to control a gold rush in the Amazon. The government estimates up to 50,000 illegal miners are operating in the Madre de Dios region.

The miners have been lured by record prices on international gold markets in the last few years.

The BBC reports almost all operate outside the law, without government permits and with little concern for the environment.

Deforestation is not the only problem. Miners use mercury to process the gold dust, which then pollutes the rivers and the food chain.

Corruption and government incompetence have scuppered efforts In the past, to control illegal mining in Madre de Dios.

But regional president Jose Luis Aguirre says the administration of President Ollanta Humala, who was elected last year, is now acting.

New decrees issued in February set tougher penalties for illegal mining. More staff have also been sent to bolster the regional mining ministry.

The government is aiming to clear all illegal miners from areas bordering the national parks and several thousand have so far been removed.

"Police have been using dynamite to blow up the mining pumps because that is the only way of making sure they are completely destroyed," said Mr Aguirre.

But Fedemin, the miners federation, does not accept the government's reforms.

"I am telling the central government to bring coffins and body bags here because they won't just be taking dead miners away, they'll also be taking police and their soldiers,'' said federation head Luis Otsuka. ''We will never let them steal our work from us."

He accuses the government of targeting small-scale miners while doing business with foreign mining corporations in other parts of the country.

The government in turn argues that miners' leaders oppose reform because they stand to lose revenue if they are forced to become registered, taxed and regulated.

The BBC reports the outcome will depend partly on whether President Humala sustains the crackdown.