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gold mining activity in the Nanay river
Amazon, Peru

The Fear of a Gold Rush Looms Large Along Peru's Nanay River

It is an ordinary Sunday in the area surrounding the Nanay River in Loreto, Peru. A man named Nicolas plays a soccer match that will end with a 5-3 score in favor of locals, Lieutenant Franco of the Peruvian navy patrols the river with his men between the communities of Pucaurco and Alvarenga, a woman named Marcelina rests from her endless meetings in the city of Iquitos, and Pedro*, whose real name is not used for anonymity reasons, takes a break from his work on a mining dredge to avoid detection by authorities.

On his patrol, Lieutenant Franco will also dynamite three dredges and a mining camp. These add to the more than 100 dredges that have been destroyed by authorities, and is part of tensions between locals, miners, and authorities that have dragged on for years, since search for gold began in the 1980s.

Understanding the conflict

According to Peru's Legislative Decree 1100, alluvial gold mining is illegal because it uses dredges, operates in a protected natural environment, and risks a water supply. Science has demonstrated that mercury can be fatal to people, animals and the environment, including a fragile ecosystem like the Nanay River.

The area is home to 3,484 inhabitants in 25 communities. Over the years, the threat of gold mining has led to a series of legislative measures to protect the rivers. This includes the creation of the Alto Nanay Pintuyacu Chambira Regional Conservation Area (ACR ANPCH).

In October 2018, alarm rose as mining returned; during the pandemic, illegal activity increased due to the absence of authorities on the rivers and the rise in gold prices.

small trains
Mining activity in the region / Credit: Juanjo Fernández.

Different points of view: For and against

In Iquitos, which can be two or 10 hours away from Santa Maria—depending on whether you take a boat with a powerful motor or a “peque peque”, a small boat—regional authorities worry about the fight against illegal mining. They say that the presence of foreign miners, armed and supported by locals, who have already confronted the police and navy, make them fear for their safety. They speak of drug use, prostitution and increased violence. They also point out that high-level corruption helps the miners evade justice.

The authorities recognize the failure of the state's work and the lack of connection with communities, which have not been able to find sustainable economic alternatives. Marcelina Angulo, president of the ANPCH RCA Management Committee, sums it up in a few words: "much has been said but little has been done.”

A visit to the area

When we visit Alto Nanay and talk to residents, the story becomes even more complex. Fear is present and anonymity is requested. Some authorities who are willing to speak, such as Nicolas Lopez, sergeant of Bahía de Santa Maria, says that the miners prevent them from living a normal life, including walking along the river or fishing. He also complains about the lack of resources due to ACR's restrictions. Other residents say that the ACR prevents them from using the resources on which they have traditionally lived, especially timber, and funds for development have not come into the area due to bureaucracy and corruption. They are offered only a kilogram of rice and a pair of boots for surveilling the area, and some communities have already refused to comply.

On the other hand, there are residents who support the mining. "The state left us completely abandoned during COVID. The only medicines we received were given to us by the miners," says one person. In fact, they say that life in the community is peaceful and that people have capacity to exercise authority. They say that families' lives have improved thanks to income from gold, whether by making their own artisanal well or owning an electric generator. They add that there is no opposition to the authorities, however, there is great distrust after years of meetings and unfulfilled promises.

"Burning of dredges is not enough", recognizes Carlos Castro, prosecutor of the Environmental Prosecutor's Office (FEMA) of Maynas.

In Diamante Azul, we met two miners who agreed to speak anonymously. Their stories differ from those of the media and authorities. "No drugs are consumed while working. Underwater, all the senses are needed," they say. There are seven workers per dredge: four divers, two hose-men and the cook. They explain that their jobs allow them to support their families, save a little, and have a beer or a drink during their breaks, like any other worker.

The end of mining

The fight against mining has been slow but effective; according to locals and miners with whom we spoke, there are no more than 20 dredges left at present thanks to the efforts of the Prosecutor's Office, navy and PNP.

Carlos Castro of the Environmental Prosecutor's Office (FEMA) of Maynas, recognizes that the burning of dredges is not enough. A much more thorough investigation is needed to uncover and prosecute the financiers.

Bratzon Saboya, assistant prosecutor of the Maynas FEMA, and Herman Ruíz, head of the Alpahuayo Mishana National Reserve, agree that in less than two months there could not be a single dredge left if resources and willpower are aligned in the same direction. However, both agree that it would be useless if the communities are not given other options to make a living. Many acknowledge that mining will return if people do not receive quality services in education, health, and water, along with job alternatives that align with the environment.

Coast guards seizing gold / Credit: Juanjo Fernández. 

Many residents of the basins point out the need to reestablish trust and open communication with administrations and officials. They demand that projects are carried out rather than remaining empty promises. The resources, they insist, must reach them and not get lost in a labyrinth of bureaucracy and corruption. 

Finally, they demand to be recognized as the conservers of their territory with intimate knowledge of the region.

The defense of the environment in paradises such as the Alto Nanay basin goes hand-in-hand with the end of the poverty for the people who live there. Without it, any change in the near or medium future—in legislation or the work of authorities—will be a problem if the needs of communities are not solved.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Caretas on June 28th, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The Nanay River has been a target for gold mining since the 80s / Credit: Juanjo Fernández.