ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We are traveling this week across Peru and Brazil, following the path of the new Interoceanic Highway. It spans South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, we're following Peruvians who take the road from the poor highlands into the jungle lowlands for work in the gold mines. Gold prices are at record levels and illegal mines are growing.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro rode on the back of a pickup truck down a bumpy road in the Amazon Basin.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're now traveling to Huaypetue, which is a mining town here in the jungle. And the road is incredibly potted and difficult to navigate. I have to say, trying to hold on tight not to get ejected into the road.
And with us is Ruben(ph), who is on his way back to his mining job. And I'm going to ask him what it's like. (Spanish spoken)
RUBEN: (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells us that the work is hard. Day and night, you have to work, he tells us. But still, people like Ruben keep coming here. And most, also like him, are from the arid highlands. They travel to the vast Amazon Basin in the Madre de Dios Department to make their fortune. The majority, though, are only able to eke out a living.
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While mountain mining bores deep holes into the peaks of the Andes, here in the sweltering lowlands, they practice alluvial mining, basically dredging for gold along the banks of the rivers.
Mr. ENRIQUE ORTIZ (Vice President and Co-founder, Amazon Conservation Association): These sands and this dirt is full with pieces of gold.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Peruvian Enrique Ortiz is an environmental activist who's worked extensively in these mining areas. He explains that 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 tracts of the forest have been ground up and turned into mudflats. Deadly mercury is used in the refining process, polluting the rivers and contaminating fish, animals and humans alike.
He says one nearby mining town, in the space of the last six months, has quadrupled in size.
Mr. ORTIZ: So it's just a cancer that is spreading all around. And with the prices going up of gold, well, predictions are not so good.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The government in Lima agrees. Before traveling down the Interoceanic Highway, I spoke with Peru's environment minister, Antonio Brack.
Mr. ANTONIO BRACK (Environment Minister, Peru): (Through Translator) Some predict that gold in the next few years will double from its current exorbitant price, and I, as the minister of environment, tremble with fear. The worst thing that can happen to Peru is that the price of gold rises.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In August 2004, the price of an ounce of gold was about $400. This August, it's about 950.
Peru is one of South America's fastest-growing economies, but poverty is still endemic and almost 40 percent live below the poverty line here. Mining gold for many is a lifeline, and so the Peruvian gold rush is on.
Brack has been trying to curtail the expansion of the mines, but he says there's too much corruption locally for the central government to do much. Miners stake out claims called mining concessions through bribes and without the required environmental impact studies. There's so little oversight that even Bolivian and Brazilian mining vessels, called dragas, work the rivers without permission.
Mr. BRACK: (Through Translator) 99.9 percent of all mining concessions in Madre de Dios are illegal. It's corruption that makes this possible. I have clear and incontrovertible evidence. Everyone in the local government there is involved in some way in the gold industry because everyone wants money.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brack says the unchecked expansion of the gold mines is one of the biggest threats the fragile Amazon ecosystem faces right now. The national government has frozen - for the time being - the allotment of new mining concessions in the Madre de Dios, but Brack acknowledges it's only a temporary solution.
Mr. BRACK: (Through Translator) We are playing with fire. You need to save the Amazon forests of Peru. When you look at the map, you see how close the mines are to the places where ecotourism is possible. But mining is encroaching.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The fear among some environmentalists is that the Interoceanic Highway will make it even easier for highlanders to come down to this Amazon area and spread out even more.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Huaypetue, with the car radio blaring as we drive along, the green of the jungle suddenly transforms into a startling panorama.
I'm now standing in the heart of the gold mining area. Mounds of red dirt and stones are crisscrossed by roads connecting these alluvial mines that stretch off as far as the eye can see. There's almost nothing green here. What was once lush forest is now a lake of mud and silt, desolate and utterly denuded.
(Soundbite of vehicles)
As we were looking around, a car pulls up. A man inside is talking urgently on his phone and then tells us to leave.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells us this is private land and that we are clearly here with bad intentions. (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Spanish spoken)
I ask him what he means, but he refuses to answer and tells us again we must go. As we pull away, our local driver tells us that we just had a run-in with one of the local miner leaders. Turning up the radio again, we head to the shantytown that has sprung up next to these mines.
(Soundbite of music)
The town of Huaypetue looks like something out of the American Wild West: clapboard houses, saloons and shops that sell mining equipment line the mud street. Sewage runs unfiltered to what was once a river but is now a fetid stream choked with silt. Buzzards circle ceaselessly overhead.
The first gold strike here was made by a woman now dubbed La Reina del Oro or the queen of gold. A widow, people here whisper she made a pact with the devil who showed her a rich seam of gold dust. Once the discovery was made public a steady stream of people began arriving.
(Soundbite of crowd)
At a restaurant in town, Beatriz Ojeda(ph) tells us how she came here 10 years ago. At first, she too was looking to make a living off gold. But then she saw what was happening here and became a local human rights activist; that's caused trouble with the miners.
Ms. BEATRIZ OJEDA (Human Rights Activist) (Through Translator) They see what we do and say we're against mining. We're not. We're trying to look after the environment, that's all.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the miners feel demonized, which is why they're suspicious of outsiders. Life is hard here on the edge of the forest. There's hardly any law and few services. What little the miners have, they want to keep.
Walter Condoro Quiste(ph) is an 18-year-old former miner. An orphan, he came here when he was 9 years old. He worked in the highly dangerous but lucrative position of chupadero(ph) or diver. He would spend 12 hours underwater holding a hose that would suck the riverbed up into a sifting machine.
Mr. WALTER CONDORO QUISTE (Former Miner): (Through Translator) That work was the most dangerous. Because when you're in the water, you are creating a kind of wall and it can collapse at any time and crush you. And that's how many people would die. And when they were killed, they'd just leave them there, buried in the water.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A rare success story, Walter eventually got taken in by a local hospice for children and is now on his way to university. But he says the impact of mining isn't only environmental.
Mr. QUISTE: (Through Translator) Mining people are poor and angry, a lot of them. You have to know how to live with them. They would bring a lot of children down to the mines the same way as me. They tell them they'd make money and that they would be taken care of. But they didn't take care of us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Beatriz Ojeda says women, too, are trafficked into the area.
Ms. OJEDA: (Through Translator) I've been witness to the fact that young girls are brought here with lies. They tell them they're going to work in a shop or as a nanny, but they make them work in bars; 14-, 15-year-old girls.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The gold mined here will first travel to the capitol of Madre de Dios, Puerto Maldonado, and from there to cities in America, like Miami and New York, and eventually on to the rest of the world.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
BLOCK: And tomorrow, we follow the Interoceanic Highway to Brazil nut farms in the Amazon. They're environmentally friendly, but they are threatened by an influx of illegal logging and farming.
And at npr.org, you can see spectacular photos from along the highway.
SIEGEL: Finally, a correction to this series. In yesterday's story, some of you may have heard our reporter refer to the city of Sao Paolo as the capital of Brazil. That, of course, is incorrect. Sao Paolo is Brazil's largest city, but the capital is Brasilia.
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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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