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Small-scale miners´ protest turns deadly
Ramiro Escobar*
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Informal mining pits itself against government campaign to stamp out their jobs, citing pollution.

A protest by small-scale miners in the coastal town of Chala in southern Peru ended with five dead demonstrators, killed by police bullets.

The protesters, who had blocked roads and clashed with police April 4-7, were demanding the government scrap a decree to stamp out illegal mining in the Amazon basin region of Madre de Dios.

The protest, called by the National Federation of Artisanal Miners of Peru, a labor group with 60,000 members, many of whom are based in Chala, also called for and end to two other decrees passed for the free trade agreement with the United States that aim to open up some areas where small-scale miners work to large-scale mining companies.

The some 250,000 small-scale miners in Peru — who operate both illegally and legally — are mainly focused on gold extraction, and the Andean country is the world´s sixth-largest producer of the metal.

At least three-quarters of Peru´s small-scale miners work informally.

“It employs double the number of people that formal mining employs,” said José de Echave, director of CooperAcción, a Peruvian organization dedicated to sustainable development and natural resources.

In the forested Madre de Dios region, there are at least 2,700 mining concessions and another 1,500 requested. The government, however, issued a decree putting a cap on new mining concessions in the area, citing environmental damage from the use of toxic mercury and other chemicals to extract the gold to deforestation, a measure that sparked the protest.

Some miners in that region also use dredges and light machinery to extract the ore from riverbeds and banks, causing extensive damage to the ecosystem. Gold mining accounts for at least 40 percent of the impoverished region´s economy.

Absence of the state
April´s protest, which was also focused in Madre de Dios, was broadly frowned upon in Peru because of the environmental impact of informal and small-scale mining, which is blamed for the destruction of several Amazon ecosystems and also been tied to lawless land grabs.

But still, the problem appears difficult to stop abruptly because of what caused it.

“All of this is the result of a very permissive economic model,” said Peruvian economist Humberto Campodónico, noting that corporate, large-scale miners have also been granted lax state control of the industry.

Peru produced 183,215 kilograms of gold last year, and 88 percent came from medium- and large-sized miners. Informal mining produced 17,215 kilograms. But a study by engineer Héctor Benavente Revilla, a consultant for small miner Fidami SA, says this figure is more to the tune of 30,000 kilograms, or close to 15 percent of Peru´s total gold extraction. In mid-April, Peru´s tax agency, Sunat, said it would fine four mining companies for buying gold from informal producers for tax evasion.

The other side of the mining boom
Peru is the only country of the Andean Community bloc that does not list the origins of all of its gold exports, some of which clearly come from illegal mining.

Kathia Romero, of the International Labor Organization, said that a study in 2001 found that there were 200,000 artisanal miners in Peru, most of them working illegally, and even worse, there were 50,000 children working in the industry in 2001, painting a bleak picture of the social consequences of this activity.

Minors under the age of 14 are prohibited from working in Peru in any form.

Along with the boom of informal mining towns in the jungle and in the 17 other regions of Peru where informal mining is present, is the sexual exploitation of minors.

“This is an economic activity that doesn´t get you rich, said Romero. “It´s about survival and it involves entire families ... and it gets worse when it starts to develop in areas where the state is absent or has a minimal presence.”

The Ministry of Energy and Mines estimates that Madre de Dios produces US$1.3 billion of illegally mined gold a year, a large sum considering the state´s tardy and weak response to the issue, which fails to address the poor work opportunities and other root causes of the problem.
—Latinamerica Press.


Illegal gold mining has plunged areas of Peru´s southeastern jungle in lawlessness and destroyed local ecosystems. (Photo:
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