Devastating cost of illegal mining in Peru higher than ever thought: government

Since 2011 thousands of Peruvians have flocked to the country's Amazon region to join a chaotic gold rush. But illegal mining has led to violence, pollution and the destruction of parts of the country's precious rainforest.

According to the latest study conducted by the government and divulged over the weekend, illegal gold mining in the Andean country has already destroyed more than 40,000 hectares of Amazonic forest so far. A lot more than the 18,000 the country estimated last year.

The most noted damage Cuzco’s Quincemil district, a region that has become the main target of illegal mining ever since Peru’s authorities tightened regulations in the south-eastern Madre de Dios region.

In an interview with local paper El Comercio (in Spanish), advisor to the Environment Minister, Ernesto Ráez, said Saturday the activity has started to attract illegal foreign workers to the area, coming mainly from neighbouring Ecuador and Colombia, but also from as far away as China.

It is estimated than about 5,000 illegal miners currently operate in the Quincemil district.

"[Quincemil] is an area where there is no law. People are killed every day, and authorities live permanently threatened by illegal miners," said Ráez.

The report comes on the heels of a study published earlier this moth exposing the lethal effects the use of mercury, a direct by-product of artisanal gold mining, is having in Peru's south eastern Amazon population.

Last year the government recently passed decrees banning extraction of gold in protected areas. Those small-scales miners working in legal zones must now become formal. This means they have to register, pay taxes and complete an environmental impact study.

Devastating cost of illegal mining in Peru higher than ever thought: governmentTo date about 30,000 Peruvian small-scale miners have been “formalized.” The deadline for doing this without legal consequences expires in April next year.

Small miners, in particular illegal ones, use mercury to bind together small pieces of gold, and then burn it off, releasing it into the environment.

Peru is the world's sixth largest gold producer with 165 tonnes in 2012.

Image: 2011 clash between illegal miners and military in Madre de Dios. Courtesy of Mines and Communities.