In the spring of 2010, a conversation I had with Jason Scullion, a near stranger at the time, sparked intrigue of a “shiny” story of gold mining in the heart of the earth. Two weeks later we booked our plane tickets to the Peruvian Amazon in order to investigate what impacts the newly completed Interoceanic Highway had on the surrounding natural wilderness and communities who lived there.

 At the time, I had no idea where this experience would lead, but since 2010 I’ve found myself drawn back to the region multiple times. This has been in part due to sheer curiosity, but I’ve also felt drawn to the emblematic nature of the region’s inherent struggle between economic development and conservation.

Madre De Dios, known as the biodiversity capital of Peru, holds records for richness of species for butterflies, birds, amphibians – you name it, it abounds. The Interoceanic Highway, constructed as a trade route linking Asia to Brazil and motivated by the need to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty among its member nations, now pierces straight through this once inaccessible part of the Amazon. The high price of gold and promise of better economic opportunity led to a migration of workers on an unprecedented scale. For example, unskilled miners can earn $40-$100/day with an inexpensive and illegal mining set up. “You go out to these communities that are so incredibly poor and there is money buried in the dirt,” says Jason, quoted in Nature Magazine. “It is not surprising that they want to go out there and dig it up.”

Aerial of mining destruction in Peruvian Amazon

Now gold mining is deforesting Madre De Dios faster than any other activity, as found by a 2011 Duke University research study. Aerial footage, captured by Rhett A. Butler (Mongabay)  reveals the devastating effects of the 400% increase of mining in the area since 1999.

During one particular adventure-filled day in Madre De Dios in 2010, Jason and I were offered a ride on the back of two miners’ motorcycles to explore and film inside a mining camp. Upon entering, Jason passed rows of poorly constructed tents serving as stores, bars, and even brothels until finally arriving at a large giant desert pit stretching as far as the eye could see.  The trees that did remain were decimated from the roots upward due to the high levels of mercury used by the miners to separate the gold from the ground. These miners were about our age, modernly dressed and pretty friendly to us. Despite the fact that they were destroying the rainforest, I also saw that we had some things in common. Like me and perhaps most Americans, they wanted similar things out of life: access to education, opportunity, technology, and fun.

As I became familiar with these Peruvian miners, I gained empathy for their situation. While they were extracting gold illegally, they could not bear all the responsibility for the deforestation. The system problem was much larger. Peru’s economy was growing at a rate of 8-12% in a time of global recession (2008-2010) due to heavy resource extraction, yet the benefits often did not trickle down to the common citizen.

I met with a local community whose land was near the highway and mining concessions. Due to the lure of a better wage, many small-scale farmers were worried that ultimately their cacao farms and other crops they relied on for income would be encroached upon, sold and destroyed.

Mining not only degrades forests and natural capital, but the resulting deforestation strips critical value from the rural communities who rely directly on nature as their life support for essential resources such as food, water, fuel and medicine. As subsistence and small-scale farmers and fishermen, they are uniquely vulnerable and often powerless.

Basic survival on the frontier is rooted in the fear of not having enough. The mentality “Every Man for Himself” often prevents basic resource sharing and collaboration. Trying to unravel the magnitude of social, environmental and economic knots makes life in Madre De Dios “an interesting challenge,” says Chris Kirkby, President of ARCAmazon.

Cacao as an alternative to gold mining in Madre de Dios from Inti Media on Vimeo.

There are glimmers of hope emerging. The APROCCI cooperative of Madre De Dios harvests cacao as an alternative to gold mining, illustrated by Inti Media in this video. Similarly, Perennial Plate brilliantly relates the story of how a small producer in Mexico uses cacao as an “Act of Resistance.” The story reminds us that cacao “brought our planet together as brothers.” My heart knows that Madre De Dios needs a collaboration success story. Perhaps cacao – a sweet and tangible vehicle towards understanding the value of connection – is the real gold of the Amazon.

HCD Connect Project

If you are curious to learn more about my process ideas and learning notes from the early stages of the project’s roots, you can view blog posts via “Searching for ‘Yes, And’ approaches to conservation and economic development published on IDEO’s Human Centered Design (HCD) Connect platform.


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