February 5, 2013 6:44 pm

The illegal miners pillaging Peru’s land

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Unregulated extraction has become an industry of its own

Compounding the challenges for Ollanta Humala, Peruvian president, is the huge increase in illegal and informal mining and how best to deal with it. Unregulated mining has moved from artisanal methods of extracting metals into a far more industrial process.

Last year the government passed decrees against illegal mining. Initially it targeted unlawful activities in the Amazon, where more than 20 tonnes of alluvial gold, with a value of about $20bn, is mined every year. The move sparked violent protests, with three people killed and numerous buildings burnt.

In response to the violence, the administration offered a means for certain illegal operations to claim that they were “informal” with a desire to “formalise” in the near future. Peru has 100,000 “informal” miners but, according to the mining ministry, 70 per cent of them are already abiding by the new rules.

“We have to differentiate between informal and illegal mining,” says Jorge Merino, the mining minister. “The informal miners are those who have found in mining a way of making a living at their own risk, and we have to formalise them so they can get state support.” Speaking at a forum on illegal digging in December, he said: “The illegal ones use heavy machinery and infrastructure to pillage and destroy [the environment] and we cannot let that happen.”

Unlawful mining has expanded from the Amazon into other mineral-rich areas, such as Apurimac, where about 10 tonnes of copper is extracted illegally every day in and around Xstrata’s Las Bambas copper concession, by 2,000 illegal miners.

“This is not artisanal mining that feeds a handful of impoverished families any more. This feeds mafias,” a senior Xstrata executive says. “They compete with legal mining now.”

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