Dark Secrets – Amazonia – Part 4 of Our Circular Trip of Peru

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To quickly recap, here are the links to the first three parts of our our 22 day Peru adventure tour:

  1. Exploring Lima and Peru’s Desert Wonderland
  2. Exploring South Pacific Ocean to Lake Titicaca, Peru
  3. Stunning Cusco & Breathtaking Machu Picchu – Stage Three of 22 Day Circular Adventure Journey Around Peru

Expecting part four of our trip to be the highlight or climax, it’s regrettable that our most vivid memories are ‘Amazonia’s dark secret’.

This blog describes our expectations, observations, research and conclusions.

1. EXPECTATIONS

Our trip notes for days 20, 21 & 22 promised, ‘ Day 20: Short flight to Puerto Maldonado; travel by boat into rain-forest; afternoon jungle walk. Day 21: Jungle exploration by boat and on foot. Day 22: Fly to Lima; end Lima.’

Day 20 notes stated, ‘On arrival, we transfer to the dock for a boat trip to our lodge in the Tambopata Nature Reserve – this journey takes between 1½ and 3 hours depending on which lodge we stay in. On the way, we may see caimans, river turtles and waterfowl. After some time to settle in, we will take a short walk along the forest trails near the lodge to look for nocturnal animals.’

Day 21 notes included: ‘Activities today will vary according to the lodge used, but will generally include a mixture of walks along the forest trails, time spent in canoes to explore rain-forest lakes, and the opportunity to go high into the canopy for a completely different view of the forest. The resident guides are normally around in the evening to answer questions, and from some lodges (not all) there is the option to take a canoe out onto the river in search of caiman by torchlight’.

2. OBSERVATIONS

Upon arrival at Puerto Maldonado Airport, we had to separate our baggage into bags for storage and limited baggage for transport to Amazonia by boat. There was a vague mention of security issues in Puerto Maldonado.

We met our Amazonia guide, who provided an introductory briefing on the bus transfer to the river. We then joined a large, motorized canoe for a three hour journey along the river.

Having recently spent a month in Ecuador, and being familiar with rain forests in Malaysia, Borneo (Indonesia) and Australia, we were quickly aware of the absence of bird-life on the river. Normally, we would have expected to see birds commanding vantage views on the trees, diving in the river for food, or majestically skimming the river surface in flight. The only birds that we actually saw were vultures, very high in the sky, and some distance from the river. We quickly appreciated that something was drastically wrong but only understood the gravity when we returned to Lima.

In his briefing, the Amazonian guide, employed by the lodge where we stayed, referred  superficially to illegal gold mining and the authorities intervening. He mentioned in passing that local people could not eat river fish because of dangerous mercury levels (introduced in the gold mining).

3. RESEARCH

When we returned to Lima, with high speed internet, we were keen to research our trip to Amazonia.

Our Peru Amazonian trip was based in the Tambopata National Reserve, described as:

In the Amazon Basin of southeast Peru, spanning vast areas of bio-diverse savannas and rain-forest. Rich in wildlife, it’s home to many colorful parrots and macaws that feed at clay licks such as the huge Colpa de Colorado. In the east, Sandoval Lake is surrounded by tall palm trees and wetlands, home to river otters and black caimans’.

Next a Simple Google search of ‘Illegal gold mining Peru’ identified the following links which we strongly recommend exploring in detail:

Here is a recap of the headlines (these were a month before our visit):

The magnitude of the crisis is summarized by USAID:

‘Illegal gold mining is the most lucrative illicit activity in Peru, surpassing coca and cocaine production in recent years.  Illegal gold mining involves destructive processes that are devastating Peru’s Amazon communities and environment. USAID works with local communities, Peruvian research organizations, and U.S. universities to help address this critical threat to the Amazon’.

‘Over the last decade, Peru’s fast growing economy was fueled by high prices in the mining, oil, and gas sectors. As gold prices climbed, illegal alluvial gold mining expanded into Madre de Dios, a region located in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. Over 60,000 hectares of land in Madre de Dios has been destroyed, and the health of communities living in the region is endangered due to the unregulated use of mercury. Furthermore, the explosive growth of illegal mining is linked other criminal activities including transnational organized crime, child labor, human trafficking and land grabbing. USAID works with affected communities to address social conflicts and rehabilitate affected land’.

Another robust summary is provided by the Amazon Conservation Association: Fact Sheet: Illegal Gold Mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.,The situation and the impact is described:

‘ The uncontrolled spread of illegal mining has rapidly deforested wide swaths of lowland Amazonian rainforest in the department of Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru. The worldwide surge in gold prices – a 360% price increase in the last decade‐ following the financial crisis, draws new miners daily. Recent completion of the Interoceanic Highway has increased access to the area and today more than 30,000 miners are estimated to be operating without legal permits.’….Destructive mining methods raze trees, devastate habitat, contaminate waterways used by communities and fauna alike, and endanger public health. Worldwide, small‐scale mining accounts for one‐third of all mercury pollution; in Madre de Dios alone an estimated 30 to 40 tons of mercury are dumped into the environment annually. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, is used to amalgamate gold particles and then burned off – generally without even rudimentary technology to protect workers’ health or capture waste or fumes. Carnegie Institute for Science researcher Luis Fernandez, who received Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) support, recently conducted a major mercury study which found that:

  • 9 of the 15 most consumed fish species for sale in markets have mercury levels exceeding the safe limit set by the US EPA; and,
  • 78% of residents of the capital of Madre de Dios have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies, with women of childbearing age the most affected’.

What’s the secret?

The rivers have been poisoned by mercury entering the food-chain and killing marine life, with downstream consequences for bird-life and wildlife generally, plus the risk of mercury poisoning in the indigenous human population.

4. CONCLUSIONS

This blog totally endorses the recommendations of experts, like the Amazon Conservation Association. But we feel that both travelers and the travel industry need to revisit their  commitment to responsible travel.We recommend that travelers challenge the travel industry to justify their commitment to responsible travel with hard evidence.
Most importantly, we encourage responsible travelers to seek out local travel agents in their country of destination, who will be familiar with the latest challenges on the ground. For example, Amazonia is a vast area, and travelers need to choose areas where responsible travel prevails. Travelers are visitors and need to be removed from local politics. Finally, spare a thought for the wildlife before it all poisoned and there is none left. Act responsibly, now.

 

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