Stanford grad student sees firsthand illegal gold mines in Peru and their threat to the rain forest

Illegal gold mining in the rain forests of Peru has had devastating effects on the environment and the health of people working and living there. Stanford graduate student Katy Ashe took a trip to the mining shantytowns for her research.

Courtesy of Katy Ashe Illegal gold-mining boat in Peru.

Illegal gold-mining boat in Peru.

On the back of a beat-up motorcycle I fly down miles of winding footpath through the dense Amazon rain forest, the driver never able to see more than several feet ahead.

Myriads of bizarre creatures lie camouflaged among the dense vines and lush foliage. Flocks of parrots fly overhead in rainbows of color, and a moss-covered three-toed sloth dangles from an overhanging branch. A troop of red howler monkeys rumbles continuously in the background. Leafcutter ants form miles of crawling highways across the forest floor. Even the hot, wet air feels alive.

Then suddenly the forest stops.

Bone-dry dusty air burns my nostrils. The harsh equatorial sun – no longer filtered through layers of canopy and understory vegetation – beats down with full force.

We are in a vast expanse of sandy desert, the tree line barely visible on the other side. The scar of deforestation reaches miles into the horizon. An apocalyptic scene unfolds.

Enormous muddy craters pepper the sandy terrain, filled with makeshift mining rigs. Illegal gold-miners in tattered clothing stand beside deafening, rickety motors sucking earthen slurry through large hoses.

The miners' faces are covered in motor oil and dirt, and they slump wearily from 18-hour workdays.

This is the scene I pass each morning on my way into the illegal gold-mining zones of Madre de Dios, Peru.

I came to this region of the upper Amazon to study the mercury levels in the human population. These illegal mines use mercury to scavenge tiny flecks and pebbles of gold dust out of the slurry.

Mercury is being released in quantities of around 40 tons each year here. The detrimental toxin makes its way into the food, water and air, poisoning even those who have no part in the mining industry and live nowhere near a mining zone.

A Stanford graduate student in environmental engineering, I was intent on determining the extent of mercury poisoning caused by dramatically increasing mining activity.

A biodiversity gold mine

Located in the western Amazon Basin, the Madre de Dios region is home to some of the most unspoiled tracts of Amazon rain forest remaining. It is a vibrant sanctuary of species. Unfortunately, it is rapidly disappearing, as artisanal gold mining has become a booming industry in the past several years. The global market price for gold has doubled in the past year alone, with skyrocketing prices fueled by fear during the global economy crisis.

Illegal gold mining in Peru employs 100,000 people nationally and the industry is valued at $640 million a year. A poor migrant population, typically from the Peruvian highlands, flocks to this region of the rain forest looking for work. There are about 300 new arrivals each day.

The government verifies that 2,000 square miles (over 500,000 hectares) of rain forest in Madre de Dios have been destroyed due to mining, but environmental groups on the ground claim the figure is actually threefold. The exact number is hard to pin down as the rate of deforestation has more than tripled in the last three years.

The mining zones are like the Wild West. Shantytowns sprawl across the center of the zones, filled with residences, brothels, restaurants and nightclubs constructed of black and blue tarps.

Cities set up nearly overnight, and by morning the residents are hastily destroying one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet.

The immediate devastation is obvious: slash-and-burned forest, river channels heaped with rubble, sluiceways through which thousands of tons of Amazon soil are blasted with high-pressure water hoses.

Rhett Butler / Muddy toxin-laden river that drains the Río Huaypetue gold mine joining a clearwater river in the Peruvian Amazon.

Muddy toxin-laden river that drains the Río Huaypetue gold mine joining a clearwater river in the Peruvian Amazon.

Drunkards stumble down the main corridors at all hours of the day. Women sit out front of the brothels in plastic lawn chairs, lazily advertising their tents. Infants splash in mercury-contaminated mining ponds as children throw rusted metal objects at each other.

I grab a jagged, rusty iron hoop from a toddler, only to be reprimanded by his mother for stealing his toy.

I come from a world where a broken mercury thermometer in my high school classroom spurred evacuation for the afternoon and extensive cleaning by hazardous materials teams.

This child lives in a world where mercury is often viewed as an acceptable laxative –the incredible weight of mercury essentially pushes everything out of your digestive tract.

Mercury has been used in gold mining since the time of the Incas. But the releases that we are seeing now are devastating. Unfortunately, there is little knowledge in the mining camps about how to properly handle mercury. Miners hold mercury in their bare hands and mix the toxic metal into buckets of dirt with their bare feet.

Once they've recovered the mercury-gold mixture from the dirt, they heat the mercury off of the gold in a frying pan over an open flame, causing it to turn into a vaporous form that is incredibly dangerous to breathe.

Local superstitions have led to rejection of mercury recycling technologies. The fact that mining this way is an illegal activity makes it nearly impossible to intervene with educational programs.

Health survey

The health survey I used to interview hundreds of people living in the mining zones contained five simple questions that required only one-word responses, yet they frequently elicited life stories.

A weary looking middle-aged man sat in the waiting room of the doctor's office. His face was covered in the tan dust of the mining camps and his hands were chapped from long hours of work with heavy machinery. The dark circles under his eyes suggested he had just finished a night shift. When I approached him asking if he would care to participate in my study about mercury contamination, he put on a sad half-smile. He seemed dejected, but obliged. I asked him the regular questions: "What is your age? Where do you reside?"

Halfway through my questioning, he stopped me.

"The next question you are going to ask me is about how often I eat fish," he interjected as he grabbed my arm and looked in my eyes. He was right. Soon he was unraveling the long story of how he had ended up in the mining camps.

He knew what I was going to ask because he was a professor of environmental studies in the Peruvian highlands. In one course, he used to teach his students about the environmentally destructive nature of artisanal mining, but he was laid off along with many other professors when the educational budget was cut.

He began begging for forgiveness. He explained that he looked for serious work for years before resorting to mining, but eventually followed the promise of at least temporary financial security.

"You have to understand," he said. "There was nothing left for me to do."

Frequently, the people I interviewed would ask for my forgiveness or help.

Women would beg me to bring medicine to their children. Prostitutes, usually younger than me, would demand to know why they should trust me, a stranger, after all that has happened to them.

"Would you like to participate in my study?" I asked a pack of a dozen young girls sitting outside of a sizeable brothel tent. They all giggled and chattered at my accent.

"Are you from the United States?" one of them asked.

"Yes," I replied, and asked again if they would like to participate in my study. They were under 18, though, and my research guidelines prohibited me from allowing them to join my study. The intent was to protect minors, yet here they were, cast into a life of prostitution.

They were disappointed they couldn't help me and asked that I stay and chat.

Brothels and prostitution

The girls had ended up in the camp after receiving a tip that there were restaurants looking for waitresses and willing to pay top dollar.

Friends from the highlands, they immediately jumped on a bus together and came down to the rain forest.

What they found was not what they were expecting: The mining camp restaurants served food for only a few hours a day – the rest of the time, it was the girls themselves who were on the menu. At the end of the road, and without the money to return home, the girls soon became trapped in prostitution.

"We are making a lot of money," one girl said as she looked down at her shoes in embarrassment.

Another said, "It's not like we are going to stay here for more than a month."

The other girls echoed with unconvincing agreement. The enormity of their situation weighed on their faces as they sank into silence, replacing the bubbly flow of their earlier inquiries about my favorite musicians. They all scrawled their email addresses on a sheet of notebook paper and told me to stay in contact as I walked away.

Their story is not uncommon. It is estimated that 1,200 girls between 12 and 17 are, often forcibly, drafted into prostitution.

At least one-third of the prostitutes in the camp are under-age. If the other women in the mining camps are any indication, the girls will be in the camps much longer than they intend.

Once in the camps it is extremely difficult to escape. Miners let pimps know if prostitutes try to escape and gun-slinging guards protect the only paths leaving the camps through the dense rain forest. Even when pimps aren't holding the women against their will, many women don't have the resources to escape.

Often, when I asked the women in the prostitution business how long they had been in the mining camp, their eyes would widen at the realization of how much time had passed.

"Two years? I have been here two years!?" said one woman, before trailing into a long stretch of cursing and pulling at her hair.

That was the common response that I heard from both miners and prostitutes after they told me how long they had been in the camps.

"I never meant to stay here this long," one miner said after he informed me that he had been in the camp for 18 months. Time in the endless sandpits is just a blur of monotonously long days with the 24-hour backdrop of whiny mining motors.

The average miner only spends two years in the camps – just enough time to save up a bit of money to move back home and start a small business or go back to school.

Generally, they told me of very modest dreams.

"I want a small restaurant," one miner in his early 20s explained. "Just a small place. I don't need anything fancy … someplace safe, where I can have a family."

Many people spoke longingly about their villages in the mountains, where life was simpler and less dangerous.

I was lucky to gain access to the illegal mining camps, to get past the armed guards and chained entries intended to keep all non-miners away. My guardian was a jovial local doctor who was well loved within the camps for providing advice to pregnant women and ailing miners free-of-charge.

The blame game

My research had landed in the middle of a fiery political debate. In the city plaza of Madre de Dios' capital, Puerto Maldonado, people shout through megaphones as members of local indigenous tribes show up to scream, "We are being poisoned; you are taking our land."

Miners come the next day to violently refute them: "Then why hasn't mercury hurt me?" or, "We need the jobs to survive."

A constant stream of increasingly futile shouting matches echoes through the region.

The struggle between the two disparate viewpoints is unlikely to lead to solutions, but it lays bare the escalating desperation and human suffering at the heart of the problem.

Who is to blame for this catastrophe? The miners themselves have been the most popular and most convenient choice so far. Unfortunately, this stance has also been shown to be the least effective.

In 2010, the Peruvian Minister of the Environment placed heavy restrictions on mining in this region. This led to the unsuccessful approach of stricter permitting and Peruvian military troops attempting forced removal of miners. But even if some miners are successfully sent away, thousands are on their way from the highlands to fill their shoes.

A recent study shows that deforestation in this area is increasing even faster than before.

As long as there is mercury available at a low enough price, people will find a way to mine. Gold brings in enough money and the people in the highlands are sufficiently poor to keep this industry booming, illegal or not. But if the supplies of poverty and greed are inexhaustible, the supply of mercury need not be.

Peru imports nearly all of the mercury used in the country, about 280 tons in 2010, and over 95 percent of that is used directly in artisanal mining. That makes an easily accessible tap that the national government could choose to turn off.

Yet, even if Peru makes an effective policy that stops illegal gold mining, what will happen to the more than 30,000 gold-miners who will be out on their luck once again?

There is no simple answer to this problem. Yet, on the path to finding a practical solution, one thing is devastatingly clear: The era of finger-pointing and easy targets needs to end.

Katy Ashe is a Stanford graduate student in environmental engineering. This story first appeared in

Katy Ashe, Civil and Environmental Engineering: (She is currently overseas, but will receive email intermittently.)

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,