“I could take you there sometime, but that place is hell.” Lucho frowned as he said the words. I nodded. The middle-aged Peruvian scientist working on Amazon conservation wasn’t the first person to describe the gold mining camps to me in this way. During my weeks in the jungle, I had spoken with individual after individual who corroborated Lucho’s version of a veritable underworld of illegal activity. The camps are massive, heavily guarded, and lawless, spread across large strips of remote Amazon territory called mining corridors. Everyone in the area is aware that they exist, including the government, but no one goes in.
Many of those that work inside are victims of human trafficking, individuals from small jungle or highland villages deceived by false offers of lucrative work opportunities. Recruiters enter into impoverished communities characterized by low education levels and search for targets. Once the victims have arrived at the mining camps, they have unknowingly accrued an enormous amount of debt to the recruiter in the form of food, documentation, and travel fees. The traffickers inflate these costs and tack on a preposterous interest rate that condemns their new hires to a life of unpaid labor.
Addressing rural poverty still presents one of the largest and most critical challenges for Peru. The country’s economy is strong, but most of this wealth is centralized in urban city centers where deep-seated linguistic, geographic, and tribal prejudices against Andean and Amazonian natives are common. Stagnant local economies create more desperate workers who are eager to carve out new lives for themselves elsewhere. Promises of jobs, education, and a chance at a better life are difficult to turn down when an individual finds himself struggling to eke out a living as a subsistence farmer. For an Andean potato farmer seeking to send his children to a distant high school or university, a too-good-to-be-true work offer is often the only way.
Southern Amazon cities like Puerto Maldonado have seen a striking increase in economic activity since the completion in 2012 of the Interoceanic Highway, a vast stretch of road that connects the Pacific to the Atlantic through Peru and Brazil. Much of that activity is informal, undocumented, or illegal and has hastened the rapid destruction of huge swaths of rainforest and the marked contamination of its rivers. The highway also serves to facilitate the smuggling of illegal drugs, especially coca, across the porous borders of neighboring Bolivia and Brazil.
Peru has also seen a surge in tourism over the last decade thanks to steady economic growth, political stability, and an aggressive national advertising campaign that celebrates the historical, natural, and gastronomic marvels found within its borders. In jungle cities like Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, colorful billboards covered in slithering boas and resplendent green landscapes invite visitors to come experience the Amazon Rainforest, one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. To some extent the billboards are true. There are majestic landscapes to be enjoyed, exotic wildlife to observe, and a growing tourism industry boasting charming eco-lodges and adventurous river excursions.
Any visitor who chooses to look a little deeper will find that the situation is more complex than it seems. Wealthy foreigners, not Peruvians, own the majority of the thriving lodges found in the Amazon. While they might employ a few natives, their presence does not typically occasion a large investment in the local economy. That local investment is direly needed to diversify economic opportunities, which could create sustainable jobs in a region dominated by resource extraction. Narrowly specialized economies are more vulnerable to corruption and instability. In the long run, regional growth could also improve education opportunities and healthcare infrastructure, creating a healthy and more upwardly mobile local population.
Throughout my travels in the Peruvian Amazon, I have observed a region marked by a snarled web of institutionalized corruption that permeates numerous layers of local authority, effectively rendering the law subordinate to the whims of the highest bidder. Money laundering, embezzlement, and corruption are commonplace, and the influence and impact of the flourishing drug trade continues to expand. Individuals working to fight trafficking in the area confirm that the organization of the crime, once informal and haphazard, is increasingly growing to resemble the complex networks of mafias that have long controlled Europe. These circumstances make the work of organizations like Not For Sale more urgent than ever.
To see a glimpse of the effects of gold mining in Peru, click here.
By Laura Keen, Social Enterprise Coordinator.
Laura has been working in Peru with Not For Sale for the past 6 months. While working directly with our communities in the Amazon, she has also had the opportunity to travel to local economic hubs and see first hand the need in the region. Her work will have a lasting impact on the way we approach our programs in Latin America.