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gold rush pits illegal miners against government

Tens of thousands of Peruvians have flocked to the country Amazon region to join a chaotic gold rush. But illegal mining has led to violence, pollution and the destruction of parts of the country precious rainforest. Can new government measures to control the miners succeed?

Manuel Kameno reaches into the undergrowth and plucks out a bright green leaf. “This one is good for back pain,” he says.

Mr Kameno, who is well into his seventies, is a walking encyclopedia of the amazing variety of plants and animals in the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most bio diverse rainforests in the world.

But all this is changing before his eyes.

Peru south eastern Madre de Dios region is in the grip of a frantic and lawless gold rush.

Record prices on international gold markets have attracted tens of thousands of migrants from across Peru, overwhelming the existing informal mining sector.

Illegal miners now operate right on the border of Kameno indigenous community, the Amarakaeri.

“Since mining started with machines, the gold miners have made holes in the forest. So the animals have run and gone to other places. Our fear is that the forest will disappear,” Mr Kameno says.

Further up the mighty Madre de Dios river,
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Huepetuhe is one of oldest mining areas in the region,
cards against humanity sale. It looks as though the skin of the earth has been peeled back. Earth movers pick unceasingly at the carcass.

Gold mining has stripped trees from parts of the rainforest

Walter Baca takes me on a tour of his goldmine. Clad in a pair of shorts and Wellington boots, he proudly shows me how it all works. Truckloads of earth are dumped down a steep metal chute and mixed with water. At the bottom,
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By the end of a 10 hour shift, Mr Baca and his team of a dozen miners have collected about 40g of gold.

“In the last few years, there has been gold fever here because back in 1999 gold was worth just 27 soles a gram. Last year, there were days when it was worth 145 soles (about $55),” he says.

People continue to arrive from Peru poverty stricken highlands to seek their fortune.

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The government believes that anywhere up to 50,000 small scale miners are now active in the Madre de Dios region.

Almost all operate outside the law, without government permits and with little concern for the environment.

Deforestation is not the only problem,
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Miners use mercury to process the gold dust, which then pollutes the rivers and the food chain.

The president of Madre de Dios regional government, Jose Luis Aguirre, is frank about the scale of the problem: “It almost like it has kidnapped us in our own homes. I have had death threats myself from illegal miners.”

But the administration of President Ollanta Humala, elected last year, is now acting, he says. New decrees issued in February set out tougher penalties for illegal mining.

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RiP is a handsome sartorialist, who has been serenaded by waiters before. He is also sport-mad. RiP likes rugby, but brings his vast knowledge of all sports to bear when talking to the narrower-of-vision i.e. us.