Gold extracted illegally from regions of the Amazon rainforest, causing deforestation of thousands of acres and contributing to social ills such as child labor and prostitution, may be ending up in nations outside of the Amazon region, such as the U.S. and Switzerland, an official from the Peruvian Society of Environmental Rights said recently.
"In the case of Peru, there are strong indications that a large part of the gold extracted in the south of the country is not being exported from Peru, but channeled through Bolivia to be processed in refineries in Miami," Carmen Heck, an official from the Lima-based institution, said by phone.
Tracing the route of the gold produced in regions such as Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian rainforest, as well as the actual volumes involved, is difficult, as a large part of that gold production is illegal, Heck said.
Studies by Peruvian organizations, including Macroconsult, such as one dating back to 2012, estimated that the revenue in Peru from the export of illegally obtained gold, which is gold mined without any permit, has created a $1.8-billion-a-year business. Heck said that in Peru alone, some 150,000 people are dedicated to illegal mining, compared with 10,400 in Ecuador.
Heck said that in some cases, the gold is not shipped from Peru, but instead is being routed through Bolivia, as there are areas with little control along the border. Once in Bolivia, it is shipped legally.
Other gold is exported directly from Peru, where, like in Bolivia, the volume of gold exports has been bigger than declared production, Heck said.
The gold from the Madre de Dios rainforest is normally obtained through the use of dredges that can be brought from neighboring countries through rivers, Heck said. Similar situations occur in Colombia, where dredges from Brazil do penetrate the country, Heck said. The Peruvian navy has carried out operations in recent years to destroy some dredges.
In Peru, it is difficult to fight illegal gold mining. "The money that illegal gold mining generates produces incentives for corruption all along the chain," Heck said.
"Until 2013, we had over 50,000 hectares of deforestation in the Madre de Dios region in Peru," Heck said. In addition, there is damage from the use of mercury. The use of dredges also changes the course of rivers and affects lives there at different levels, from killing fish to poisoning populations, Heck said.
"Between Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, there are over 65,000 children involved in illegal mining. Some women and children are taken to illegal mining camps from poor areas with the offer of formal jobs, but are then forced into prostitution," Heck said.
In Peru, not all the gold miners in Madre de Dios are illegal. Several thousand miners have entered a process to become formal, which started three years ago. The program was initially intended to be completed by 2014, but has since been extended to 2016, Heck said.