By Suzanne Daley
ON THE BORDER OF THE TAMBOPATA RESERVE, Peru — The raid began at dawn. In four small wooden boats, the forest rangers and Peruvian marines, checking and rechecking their automatic weapons, headed silently downriver toward the illegal gold miners.
They didn’t have to go far. Around the first bend was a ramshackle mining settlement, tarps stretched over tree poles. Soon, the marines were firing into the air, the miners and their families were on the run, and the rangers were moving in with machetes.
They speared bags of rice and plastic barrels of drinking water, kicked aside toys and smashed tools before setting everything on fire. High above the Amazon rain forest, home to trees that are more than 1,000 years old, heavy plumes of black smoke spiraled toward the clouds.
Trying to protect one of the most biologically diverse places on earth from an army of illegal miners that has carved a toxic path through the rain forest, the Peruvian government is setting up outposts and stepping up raids along the Malinowski River in the Tambopata Nature Reserve.
But some experts wonder whether it is far too little too late.
To get here, a remote front line in Latin America’s battle against illegal mining, I hiked nine and a half hours through the jungle, at times in water up to my armpits. But any sense of being in a pristine wilderness was lost at the river’s edge. Already, the miners had done so much damage that the water ran the color of milky coffee. The landscape was worthy of a “Mad Max” movie. Huge sandy craters, mounds of pebbles and poisoned waterways were everywhere. Garbage — rags, plastic bags, plastic foam food containers — clung to the freshly cut tree branches piled up in the river’s nooks and crannies.
With the price of gold high for years, illegal mining has blossomed in many parts of Latin America, not just in Peru. But in this country, one of the world’s major gold producers, the problem has gotten particularly bad.
The amount of gold collected by unlicensed miners is far larger than elsewhere in Latin America. And it is ballooning so quickly that environmentalists fear that even a remote reserve like this one — home to thousands of species of plants and animals, some perhaps not even identified by humans — has little chance of survival.
For all the environmental damage done by corporate mining, illegal miners are far more destructive, experts say. While mining companies tend to concentrate on areas with rich underground veins of gold, illegal miners move swiftly across vast amounts of territory. They cut down broad swaths of jungle, sifting through perhaps 200 tons of topsoil to find enough flecks of gold for a single wedding ring.
Without help, some experts say, the areas they leave behind — robbed of all topsoil and loaded with mercury — could take 500 years to recover.