LIMA, Peru — Protests against a government crackdown on illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon have erupted into deadly violence.
According to official reports, on Wednesday three people were killed and 55 injured, including 16 police officers. The clashes occurred around the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, in the eastern region of Madre de Dios that borders Bolivia and Brazil.
Police also arrested 40 protesters as they attempted to remove road blockades and retake a food depot that supplies the town. Television reports showed a blazing car in the streets of Puerto Maldonado.
The protesters are angry about a series of new laws that came into effect last month aimed at halting a wave of illegal gold mining that environmentalists say is having catastrophic effects on the rain forest.
One of the laws, Decree 1102, makes illegal mining a criminal offense for the first time, with a jail term of up to 10 years. It was previously regarded as a civil violation, punishable only by a fine.
In addition to that big stick, the laws also offer the miners a carrot: government help for those who have previously attempted to formalize their operations.
Madre de Dios has seen a massive influx of artisanal gold miners since international gold prices skyrocketed in response to the 2008 credit crisis.
An estimated 50,000 gold miners now work the rivers and jungle around Madre de Dios, dumping huge quantities of mercury into the environment and deforesting dozens of square miles of virgin forest a year.
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The Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA by its Spanish initials) estimates that just 3 percent of them have formal concessions and environmental permits.
Others are also regarded as “informal,” with some but not all of the papers needed. But the overwhelming majority are categorized as “illegal,” with no papers at all.
Many live in lawless camps deep in the jungle. There, the police venture only when heavily armed, in large groups, as they carry out occasional raids.
The Wild West atmosphere not only threatens the environment but also challenges the rule of law and the authority of the state in this remote region, warns Alan Diaz Carrion, a lawyer with the SPDA who runs a free legal consultancy in Puerto Maldonado for farmers and indigenous communities whose lands have been overrun by the miners.
“The principle of authority does not exist in the region,” he told GlobalPost. “There is total disorder. If the state does not enforce these laws then where will be?”
Meanwhile, President Ollanta Humala’s government took out full-page ads in national newspapers accusing the protesting miners of using “firearms and explosives,” as it warned that it would enforce the law and eradicate illegal mining.
But one of the miners’ leaders, Juan Luna, warned that his followers would not easily surrender their livelihoods for what many in the impoverished region regard as unnecessary environmental safeguards.
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“These laws satanize us and criminalize us,” he told Reuters. “If they don’t repeal this law, we will continue on the frontline and we will give our lives if necessary.”
The confrontation is just the latest in hundreds of “social conflicts” across Peru, invariably involving the extractive industries and angry local communities.
But Madre de Dios is unusual in that the protesters are themselves miners. In most of the other conflicts, documented by Peru’s official human rights watchdog, the Defensoria del Pueblo, local protesters oppose large infrastructure projects by mining or energy companies.
The issue is regarded as a ticking time bomb for left-leaning Humala, inherited from his predecessor, centrist President Alan Garcia.
Since taking office in July, Humala has moved to ease the tensions and show that he is listening to the concerns of remote rural communities.
Nevertheless, his government’s handling of one flagship project, Conga, a proposed $4.8 billion gold and copper mine in the Andes, has sparked criticism that he is favoring multinational companies over the rights of some of Peru’s most vulnerable citizens.
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Despite mass protests in the Cajamarca region, where Conga will be located, Humala has said that Conga will move ahead in some form, albeit possibly with changes to reduce its impact on the fragile mountain watersheds on which thousands of field workers depend.
Meanwhile, Peru’s powerful corporate mining lobby has warned that increased taxation and environmental regulations for the country’s multibillion dollar mining sector could jeopardize economic development.
The illegal miners in Madre de Dios include large companies as well as subsistence miners, warned the National Society for Mining, Gas and Energy, as it sought to differentiate its members, which include some of the world’s largest mining corporations, from the chaos in the Amazon.