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In the Peruvian Amazon, if you cut down all the trees, scrape off the remaining vegetation and then blast away the topsoil with high-pressure water hoses, there is a chance you'll find gold. That hope is driving an illegal gold rush in eastern Peru that has consumed tens of thousands of acres of rain forest. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, miners are not only chewing up vast tracks of land, they're also poisoning the local waterways with mercury.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: One of the largest gold mining zones in this part of Peru is known as La Pampa. Sabina Valdez Rondon is standing in what used to be a rain forest but what now looks like a massive gravel pit. Two years ago she says this area was full of animals.
SABINA VALDEZ RONDON: (Through interpreter) And now what animal are you going to find in this wasteland? It's painful even to look at this area.
BEAUBIEN: Miners have torn up miles and miles of terrain around Valdez's village of Manauni. A cluster of two dozen simple wooden houses is surrounded by a buffer of tall trees. But just beyond the forest is a sea of dun-colored dirt. Valdez says the illegal miners have had a huge impact on her community.
VALDEZ RONDON: (Through interpreter) The miners don't care about anything. They don't care if they pollute because they are not from here. They take out the gold, and they go away. In contrast, we are from here. We live here. We stay here. And we worry about our environment.
BEAUBIEN: The miners used water hoses attached to giant pumps to blast the topsoil. They then sift the mud, searching for gold. Finally, they mix beads of mercury in with the slurry. The mercury acts like a magnet, grabbing any remaining flecks of the precious metal. In the process, the miners contaminate the local water supplies with mercury and mud. Earlier this year, Luis Fernandez from the Carnegie Institution for Science tested the residents of Manauni for mercury exposure.
LUIS FERNANDEZ: On average, the levels of mercury were six times the level recommended by the World Health Organization. Some people had as high as 14 times the maximum limit.
BEAUBIEN: The WHO warns that exposure to even small amounts of mercury can cause serious health problems. It's particularly dangerous for children, causing developmental delays and mental retardation. The mercury isn't just ending up in communities around the mines, it's been found at extremely high levels in fish hundreds of miles downstream. Without the mercury, the small-scale fly-by-night miners here wouldn't be able to extract nearly as much gold from these floodplains. And currently, they're extracting tens of millions of dollars' worth each year, which might be why many miners now deny that mercury is a health threat.
MAYOR FLORENTINO SUCSO: (Foreign language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: Florentino Sucso is a miner and the mayor of a mining village called Tres Islas. He says any idiot knows that there's no harm in handling mercury.
SUCSO: (Through interpreter) That's a lie. That's a trick, my brother. I am 54 years old. I am not sick. I can jump. I can run. I can play football. I can have children, everything you want.
BEAUBIEN: Federal officials in Lima have attempted to rein in the illegal mining. They've tried to limit fuel shipments into the mining zone to cut off power to the miners' pumps and generators. The military has blown up mining rigs. They've launched raids on the brothels known as prosti-bars that have sprung up near the excavation sites. Officials have blocked mercury imports and shut down gold buying shops. Despite all this, the number of miners invading the forests continues to grow. As one miner told me, if Americans were living in shacks and struggling to feed your children, you wouldn't leave that gold sitting in the ground. There are now tens of thousands of miners here working in an area the size of Massachusetts.
In the regional capital, Puerto Maldonado, many gold shops that were officially closed last year near the central market continue to operate. Some simply moved into a back room. Others have taken down their we-buy-gold signs, but still have an electronic scale and a blowtorch on their counters. Standing outside the market Luis Fernandez, the Carnegie researcher, says these shops are environmental nightmares.
FERNANDEZ: Since the gold buyers want to buy just gold and not mercury, they have to get rid of the mercury. And to do that, they actually burn it with blowtorches on the spot and then weigh the gold. But in the process, they release massive amounts of mercury in the center of a large city.
BEAUBIEN: Each gold shop, Fernandez says, can emit as much mercury as a small coal-fired power plant. The current gold rush here began when international gold prices skyrocketed. Gold prices rapidly rose from $300 to more than $1,800 an ounce as institutional investors shifted money out of stocks into precious metals. Jorge Borja runs a jungle lodge on the Tambopata River, and he's not happy about the destruction the miners are causing. He says part of what's crazy about this problem is that people in this incredibly remote part of the Amazon are being affected by wild fluctuations in the price of gold in London.
JORGE BORJA: Like I say, the people in here don't - I don't have any gold in my hands. You can see me. I have nothing. And you walk in the streets in Puerto Maldonado, you are not going to see anyone full of gold in here. So for who is this gold? That's the question.
BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
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