Illegal mining has contributed to deforestation in the Amazon region of Peru, and the country wants to engage its military to stop it.
Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra is calling on the military to combat illegal mining and its side effect of deforestation in the Amazon, setting up a series of four military bases along its shared border with Brazil.
"The government has made the political decision to eradicate illegal mining in this area," said Defense Minister Jose Huerta referring to the Madre de Dios department that contains at least five major national parks, reserves and a conservation concession, including the Tambopata Reserve near where the bases will be located.
The minister announced the first base opened Tuesday. All four bases will house 100 soldiers, 50 police members and a special prosecutor for “as long as necessary” Huerta told the press.
The military and national police fight illegal mining in Madre de Dios
Operation Mercury, as the government is calling the plan, is supposed to root out the illegal mining in the area that has been going on for at least 15 years, but with increased intensity after the price of gold rose in 2009 just after the global financial crisis.
"It's been growing for better part of a decade," said Luis Fernandez, a Wake Forest University ecologist who has been studying the illegal gold extraction in Tambopata since 2007.
Illegal gold mining in the region over the years has destroyed 9,280 hectares of forest in the biodiverse and environmentally sensitive area last year, and 9,160 hectares in 2017. In addition, mercury used to mine the precious metal has contaminated the land and water.
"In every town there are little shops that buy gold from miners that emit levels of mercury from coal-fired power plants," Fernandez said. "We're just starting to learn what the impacts will be on the population."
Like most black market trades, illegal mining in the region has spawned other illicit businesses including human trafficking, slavery, mercury trafficking, hired killers and prostitution, authorities tell AFP.
In a surprise operation last month 1,200 police and 200 Peruvian military personal raided the area of La Pampa where they discovered 51 enslaved workers and detained 80 suspected criminals.
If successful it would be the first time Peru would have stopped such a large and far-reaching illegal industry that accounts for about 40 percent of residents' income in the area. However, it could simply fracture the operation as it has in the past when police crackdowns against mining in Madre de Dios simply sent smugglers over the border into Bolivia.
Minister of Environment Fabiola Muñoz says that tourism in Madre de Dios has the potential to be a and that visitors who go to Tambopata National Reserve "spend more money than they do at Machu Picchu."
Huerta added: "President Vizcarra is committed to being present here until the last day of his mandate (in July 2021), so that we can deliver this area to Peru and the world fully reforested." He added that the military will rely a lot on drones, a satellite and military aircraft to patrol the area.