Back in February 2010, the government of Peru issued an emergency decree to impose stricter environmental regulations on gold mining. The decree put a hold on approval of new mining claims in Madre de Dios, added controls over where mining is permitted, and prohibited river dredging. The Mining Federation of Madre de Dios (FEDEMIN), afraid the new regulations would cause informal miners to lose their livelihood, called for a strike beginning on April 4. Before the resolution of the four-day strike, violence broke out at a roadblock in northern Peru, resulting in six deaths.
Illegal mining has increased dramatically in recent years with the rising price of gold. Much of the gold market is informal, and thus the government has no way to enforce a tax on gold sales (nor labor and environmental regulations). In defense of the decree, Peruvian president Alan Garcia stated, “How can we permit a savage type of mining that doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t pay proper wages and doesn’t use modern equipment … and which continues to contaminate the Amazon?”
The environmental impacts of gold mining are extensive. Small-scale miners use mercury to extract gold from river sediments. Through this process, large amounts of mercury run into the rivers – polluting fish which are a major protein source in the Amazon – and are absorbed by the soil. Once extracted, the amalgam is burned, releasing the mercury into the air and leaving behind pure gold and a high level of air pollution. In addition to mercury pollution, mining damages riverbanks, contributes to deforestation and, in the case of dredging, destroys riverbeds and silts in the waterways. Some illegal mining operations are carried out within protected-area buffer zones and concessions dedicated to ecotourism.
To resolve the four-day strike in April, an agreement was reached between the miners and the government. Peru’s Prime Minister, Ángel Javier Velázquez Quesquén, agreed to modify the decree to include mechanisms for its implementation. A commission was created by government and mining representatives to help formalize the miners within a reasonable timeframe, thus allowing illegal miners to become legal and to resolve the overlapping concessions.