On pilgrimage in Madre de Dios: starting a journey to sustainable artisanal mining

During his recent visit to Peru, Pope Francis met with indigenous leaders and condemned threats to the Amazon's peoples and forests. He singled out illegal gold mining, a major driver of deforestation. The world's media has moved on – but what is next for those working to improve the artisanal mining sector?

Gabriela Flores Zavala's picture
senior associate, Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
07 February 2018
Pope Francis met with indigenous leaders, including Yesica Patiachi who is from the Harakbut people, one of the three main ethnic groups in the Madre de Dios region

Pope Francis met with indigenous leaders, including Yesica Patiachi who is from the Harakbut people, one of the three main ethnic groups in the Madre de Dios region (Photo: Presidencia Perú, Creative Commons via Flickr)

"Francis, our friend, you are Amazonian, too" chanted a crowd of nearly 80,000 people gathered in the searing 36-degree heat.

They were celebrating the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian city of Puerto Maldonado. The city lies at the heart of the Amazon jungle, in the region of Madre de Dios, and is known in Peru as the 'capital of biodiversity'. Local people and indigenous groups from Peru, Brazil and Bolivia welcomed Pope Francis with open arms and uncontained emotion. 

As the townspeople cheered in the local arena, the Pope held an audience with some 3,500 Amazonian indigenous leaders. During their unprecedented meeting, Pope Francis and indigenous people discussed issues affecting the Amazon's peoples and environment. 

We must break with the historical paradigm that sees the Amazon as an inexhaustible larder for other countries without taking into account its inhabitants – Pope Francis

The 81-year-old Pontiff, who has previously spoken out on environmental issues, spoke many hard truths. He said that Amazonia is being contested by powerful interests, including extractive and forest industries seeking to exploit its resources or deforest its lands to pursue large-scale agriculture.

He condemned the distortion of conservation policies that do not take into account the people who inhabit the forests. He spoke of the heartbreak of girls and women enslaved at the hands of mafias that run Amazonian mining towns and camps with impunity. 

And, ominously for those of us who work in the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector, he denounced illegal mining as the cause of both environmental degradation and people trafficking in the Madre de Dios region, whose name paradoxically translates as 'Mother of God'.

Big problems, big business

Illegal gold mining is indeed the source of major environmental and social problems in Madre de Dios. It drives massive deforestation and pollutes soil and water with toxic chemicals such as mercury, affecting even the most isolated communities

Peru's Energy and Mines Ministry reports that the Madre de Dios region produced 12 million grams of gold in 2017. This is roughly nine per cent of the country's gold production, which is not insignificant as Peru is the world's sixth-largest producer. As the Washington Post reported recently, mining in Madre de Dios is big business.

The Pope travelled to the Madre de Dios region (the red pin), in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Click on the image to expand it (Image: Google Maps)

While the government has destroyed hundreds of illegal camps and launched investigations to combat people trafficking, the authorities have not been able to stop illegal operations, nor the damage they cause.

There is a global community of people that believes that ASM can be the opposite of what we see in Madre de Dios: an engine for local sustainable development. We work towards this through dialogues, policy, technical support and many other ways. 

But the reality of the illegal gold mining challenge in Madre de Dios is daunting, even for the most optimistic ASM supporter.  

"He really heard what we said to him"

It was against this backdrop that Pope Francis arrived in Madre de Dios to meet with indigenous leaders. 

There was much anticipation of his visit. Indigenous leaders had prepared letters (Spanish text) and videos outlining their main worries, including how illegal gold mining is harming the wellbeing of peoples and forests.  

Many had come with little hope of being heard; the poignancy and breadth of Francis' discussions with them took them by surprise.

IIED and partners the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), the UN Development Programme and UN Environment, as well as several indigenous organisations, co-hosted a workshop with indigenous leaders the day after the Pope's visit. The aim was to reflect on the Pope's message and draw insights and priorities for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the Amazon. 

Throughout the day, it was clear that participants were still affected by the previous day's events.   

"He really heard what we said to him," said Yesica Patiachi, a leader from the Harakbut people, one of three main ethnic groups in Madre de Dios.

People said the combination of being heard and having someone so influential voice their concerns so comprehensively, and with such care, had strengthened them. It was clear that something hugely meaningful had happened. But will anything change? 

What happens next? 

Despite coverage across Peruvian media and the many speeches that followed, the risk is that enthusiasm for creating change will fade, people will feel disheartened and damaging practices will continue unchallenged. 

But there is reason for hope too. 

Recognition and dialogue will be the best way to transform relationships whose history is marked by exclusion and discrimination – Pope Francis

Our workshop benefited from the openness and willingness to collaborate and set common priorities that indigenous leaders brought with them. There is no doubt that their renewed energies were a result of the major global exposure that the Pope created for them. 

After our workshop, we visited Amarakaeri – a nature reserve jointly managed by native communities and the Peruvian government. Indigenous peoples live in the reserve, protect it and run small enterprises, such as harvesting brazil nuts, to earn an income.

As we travelled up the Madre de Dios river towards the reserve, I told our hosts about IIED and partners' plans to convene an Amazon-wide ASM dialogue that could help mobilise stakeholders to deal with the damage caused by illegal gold mining. I also rather tentatively said that while there is illegal and criminal activity linked to gold mining, there are also many people involved who are only trying to make a living. 

To my surprise, they responded with a flurry of ideas and insights: learning from ancestral mining techniques; taking care of communities' social fabric so they are not corrupted by gold; and setting up a fund so that mining revenues benefit communities. As someone at the workshop said, we have shifted from protest to proposals.

It feels to me that if those hurt most by illegal gold mining are already bringing their best to a dialogue that is barely beginning, we may be off to a good start. 

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About the author

Gabriela Flores Zavala ([email protected])  is senior associate in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group.

Gabriela Flores Zavala's picture