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Environment: In Peru's Amazon, finding gold but leaving mercury

An illegal gold rush in Peru is capitalizing on the high price of the metal worldwide – but at a cost to the Amazon's rivers and forests.

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Prospector: Illegal gold miner Riquelme dives along the river bottom. A rush for Peru's resources has led to environmental woes.

Matthew Clark/The Christian Science Monitor

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On a sweltering day in Peru’s Amazon, Riquelme loads a bag of rocks onto his back, sticks a plastic hose in his mouth, and steps off the back of a makeshift barge into the chai-colored Tambopata River. He’ll spend the next two hours with his eyes closed, vacuuming up sediment from the river bottom.

On the barge, his partner Borian works the vacuum’s motor and sprays the mixture onto a rug. Once it dries, Borian puts it into a cylinder with mercury, then squirts it into a handkerchief in a crude separation process. Specks of gold – occasionally – emerge.

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Welcome to an Amazon gold rush.

Recommended:Latin America's surprise rising economic star: Peru

Skyrocketing gold prices have spurred hundreds of thousands of small-time entrepreneurs to spend day after day trolling through mud, hoping for that brilliant yellow fleck. For every “Buy Gold NOW” ad you’ve seen, there’s a peasant here who’s decided to go forty-niner. “We’ve been here for a few days, but we haven’t found any gold yet,” Borian smiles. But he’s optimistic. He can make more in days than most of his nonmining peers can make in a month.

But it takes about five grams of mercury to extract a gram of gold. That mercury is usually tossed overboard, poisoning one of the world’s most biodiverse rain forests. And Borian’s form of mining is among the most benign. Illegal cartels with heavy equipment clear-cut and mine huge areas of virgin forest, alarming environmental activists.

But patrolling the remote area is difficult. Just down the river from Borian and Riquelme, government environment officials sit in the shade. “There aren’t enough of us and we have very basic equipment,” says guard Harry Henderson Cooper, pointing to a dug-out canoe with a 5 horsepower engine. It’s no match for faster boats used by the illegal miners.

But the real problem, say most experts, is the local government, which is accused of being part of the illegal gold and timber cartels. “We are proposing the formalization of gold mining, so it can be managed sustainably, but the regional government doesn’t listen,” says Victor Zambrano, who heads a local conservation group. “The miners pool gold to pay off government officials. Everyone puts in a few grams.”

Environment minister Antonio Brack Egg pledges to fight corruption. “I have detailed information on all public officials involved in the corruption. We will take them out one by one,” he says. Mr. Egg and others say that the international community should create a process to certify “conflict-free” gold, as it has done with diamonds through the Kimberley Process.

Meanwhile, more illegal miners are flooding in. Says Egg: “When the price of gold goes up, the ministry of environment trembles.”

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- Matthew Clark traveled to Peru on an International Reporting Project Gatekeepers trip.