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The Rainforest Foundation team recently visited the Peruvian Amazon department of The Madre de Dios in order to research the potential impacts of an oil concession and illegal logging. What we found, however, was gold, and the rapacious devastation of relentless illegal gold mining on indigenous territories.

The vast department of Madre de Dios consists entirely of rainforest and is home to thousands of indigenous people, including the Harakmbut, Ese Eja and Matsiguenga Apart from the department capital of Puerto Maldonado, most of the regions inhabitants are indigenous families who rely exclusively on the resources provided by the forests and rivers to maintain their traditional livelihoods. However, for the past few years Madre de Dios has been experiencing a full-on gold rush.  Each day, over 100 people descend from the highlands to seek gold. There are at least 3,000 mining concessions in the region.  Most of the gold mining is illegal and improvised, meaning that the highly toxic mercury and cyanide tailings are dumped directly into the formerly pristine jungle rivers and streams.

Luis Tayori, President of the indigenous advocacy organization COHARYIMA, has been fighting for the land and resource rights for the Harakmbut indigenous communities for years. He is dedicated to preserving their heritage, which is intrinsically linked to the rainforest. According to Tayori, the situation has never been worse. “The miners not only pollute our water, but also our culture,” said Tayori. “They are just looking to get rich quick and have no interest conserving the land. When they do find gold, they often drink heavily and look for prostitutes. We worry about the youth in our community.”

Indeed, after we witnessed the environmental carnage caused by gold mining, Luis somberly showed us what was once a lush river basin that had been turned into a desert, so contaminated that there were no surviving fish. The neighboring ramshackle mining town, known as Delta, felt wretched. It is populated by thousands of gold miners, but it was very clear from the conditions in the town that the profits were going elsewhere. Apart from gold-buying and supply shops, the entire town seemed to be run-down brothels and bars. Luis warned me not to take photographs. Although most the people in Delta are gold migrants, Luis is concerned that more and more Harakmbut youth will be drawn to the promise of quick cash, rather than practicing traditional resource use—putting the area at risk when the gold runs out or if international prices drop.

Most miners don’t find gold or strike it rich, and supplement their income through illegal logging.

Gold is Peru’s highest value export, valuing over 10 billion dollars in 2012, much of it to the United States. Demand for gold remains high, being touted as a safe and stable investment. As long as prices stay well above $1,000 per ounce as they are now, Peruvian prospectors are likely to continue scourging the rivers of Madre De Dios to dig it up. According to prominent Peruvian economist Elmer Cuba, 20 per cent of exported Peruvian gold is illegally sourced, and it has overtaken cocaine as Peru’s most profitable illicit activity. I had always known that a lot of the gold that American ‘s buy—either stockpiling gold coins per the advice of Glenn Beck or simply buying a watch or necklace—comes from dubious sources. After seeing first-hand the cultural and environmental devastation that our gold consumption drives, I will do my best to avoid it.