I was warned not to post this while I and my team were still in the Amazon, for fear of reprisals from the mafia. Now that we have finished the expedition and are safely away, here is the post unedited …
I know I need to write about today, but I don’t know if I can find the words. My hands don’t want to type; they just want to cradle my head in despair.
Puerto Maldonado, where we arrived last night, will be our base for the next few days. It’s a dark and seedy town, characterised by under-age prostitution, human trafficking, forced labour, and violent crime. One cause under-pins it all: this is the centre of Peru’s gold-mining.
We had arranged to book an interview with Maruja Goya – the daughter of one of the most powerful gold-mining mafia-bosses in the entire country. Driving out of the town towards her home in Huepetuhe, all we could see was shack after shack, all made from the same corrugated iron and blue tarpaulins. Even at 9 in the morning, most of the men who ambled about were drunk; most of the women were prostitutes. Peiman took his camera out, but was stopped by Aldo.
“Absolutely no filming,” he hissed, “if you want to continue living.”
At Mazuko, we crossed the river and then chartered a pick-up truck taxi. The driver, Sebastian, told us his life-story as we pushed on. Before driving, he had worked in an illegal gold mine. Though he earned a decent amount (enough to save and eventually buy this taxi – his ticket out of the mines), he was actively encouraged to drink excessively (was even threatened with redundancy if he refused). He soon developed a drinking problem, and this in turn led to an addiction to prostitutes. He explained that this happened to most of the miners here – enforced addictions were a form of employee-control – and that the only uncommon thing about his experience was that he got out.
As we climbed the hills towards Huepetuhe, the sheer scale of destroyed forest left us numb. In its place were mountains (and I do not use that word lightly) of rubble created by the mining.
We passed through another shanty-town and then, suddenly, we were at Maruja’s house: a brand new and gleaming building with automatic gates, expensive furniture and a pristine swimming-pool. It did not seem plausible that such extremes of wealth and poverty could exist so close to each other.
Maruja came to meet us. She was friendly and charming and hospitable and all the other adjectives one tends to use when meeting a politician for the first time. For this is what she was: a politician, in all senses of the word. We sat down, and she explained that she wanted to tell us about her company: Green Gold.
Green Gold is, she told us, a new and environmentally-friendly way of mining. Instead of using mercury, it separates the gold from the soil with a form of power-washing, using only water. It all sounds well and good, but there was something about the whole thing I found hard to trust (and perhaps Pip did too, for at one point she leaned over and whispered “Green-wash” to me).
Maybe it was the sheer juxtaposition of this house and the shanty-town which surrounded it; maybe it was the fact that Green Gold still requires the miners to work under dangerous conditions (while, based on what Sebastian told us, drunk); maybe it was that when we asked to see the Green Gold machines in action, we were told that it would not be possible, and that, rather miraculously, all the managers happened to be away at this present moment; maybe it was that every time Pip tried to pin her down on what social responsibility she felt for the area around her, she continually blamed it all on the illegal miners and refused to acknowledge her own company’s part in it.
I don’t know. Maybe Green Gold is a viable and sustainable future for gold-mining in Peru. All I know is that, as we drove back down to Puerto Maldonado, all I saw was destruction. All I saw was poverty. All I saw was an environment where slavery, human trafficking, alcoholism and prostitution thrive.
And, for me, all the gold in the world, green or otherwise, isn’t worth that.