Interoceanic Highway Leads To Peru's Gold Mines

A gold seller in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, offers a piece of pure gold for sale. i i

A gold seller in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, offers a piece of pure gold for sale. He is selling this piece for 1,600 soles, about $540. Some predict that in the next few years, gold will double from its current price. John Poole/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Poole/NPR
A gold seller in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, offers a piece of pure gold for sale.

A gold seller in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, offers a piece of pure gold for sale. He is selling this piece for 1,600 soles, about $540. Some predict that in the next few years, gold will double from its current price.

John Poole/NPR

Although the work in the Peruvian town of Huaypetue is hard, people still keep coming here.

Most are from the arid highlands. They travel to the vast Amazon basin in the Madre de Dios department to make their fortune. But the majority are only able to eke out a living.

Mountain mining bores deep holes into the peaks of the Andes. In the sweltering lowlands, they practice alluvial mining — dredging for gold along the banks of the rivers.

Enrique Ortiz, an environmental activist who has worked extensively in mining areas, says alluvial mining is extremely damaging to the environment.

Miners sift through some 30 tons of rock and dirt, only to find enough gold to make a plain wedding band. Entire tracks of the forest have been ground up and turned into mud flats. Deadly mercury is used in the refining process, polluting the rivers and contaminating animals and humans alike.

Ortiz says one nearby mining town has quadrupled in size in the past six months.

"It's just a cancer that is spreading all around, and with the prices going up of gold, predictions are not so good," he says.

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