The Peruvian government has announced a 60-day state of emergency in the southwestern state of Madre de Dios due to mercury contamination linked to illegal mining, highlighting the environmental dangers posed by this illicit business.
The emergency measures were announced in a decree published in the official gazette, El Peruano, which states that the purpose of the state of emergency is to “execute immediate and necessary actions of response and rehabilitation aimed at reducing the harmful effects caused by this situation.”
As this video from the non-profit group Pure Earth explains, rudimentary gold mining operations around the world commonly use mercury to help separate gold from the soil in which it is contained, often leading to mercury pollution in surrounding areas.
A recent report from Peru’s National Civil Defense Institute (Instituto Nacional de Defensa Civil – INDECI) warned that hundreds of people in Madre de Dios live in areas where they could be exposed to dangerously high levels of mercury. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, mercury exposure can cause serious damage to vital organ systems, and can even be deadly.
However, El Comercio reports that many local community members, including the state’s governor, Luis Otsuka, are opposed to the declaration of the state of emergency. Illegal mining accounts for a large portion of the Madre de Dios economy — more than 50 percent by some estimates.
In addition to mercury contamination, the illegal mining industry has also contributed to deforestation in Madre de Dios, as shown by these satellite photos published in April by El Comercio.
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According to recent estimates, illegal mining accounts for more than a quarter of the gold mined in Peru and generates some $2.6 billion per year in revenues. This lucrative illicit business not only contributes to environmental damage, but it also intersects with other criminal enterprises such as human trafficking and money laundering.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining
As InSight Crime has previously pointed out, combating illegal mining has proven difficult for a number of reasons. One is the sheer profitability of the trade, which can be more profitable than the drug business by some accounts.
A major difficulty in tackling the illegal gold trade stems from the challenge of proving when legal business entities are knowingly or negligently dealing with black market products. Gold importers are normally required to ensure their purchases come from legitimate sources, but proof of origin documentation can be falsified, allowing illegally-mined gold to enter the legitimate market.