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Illegal gold mining in La Pampa and Tambopata National Reserve, Peru


La Pampa is Peru’s largest illegal open mining area and still rapidly expanding. Mining in the area, which is located in the south  of the Amazonian Madre de Dios region, approximately 100 kilometers from Puerto Maldonado, started in the 1970s but for a long time mostly remained a small-scale activity of artisanal miners. More recently, however, the area of La Pampa has experienced a dramatic expansion of illegal mining and also in nearby areas further mining zones have popped up or expanded, for example in the north of the highway and further south along the Alto Malinowski, subsequently threatening the Bahuaja Sonene National Park and the Tambopata Natural Reserve, two particularly fragile ecosystems with one of the highest biodiversities in the Amazon. In neither of these areas official mining concessions exist. [1][2][3] Thus, the La Pampa area has become the epicenter of the region’s recent gold rush and caused massive deforestation and environmental pollution as well as rapid inward-migration along the corridor of the recently opened Interoceanic Highway and a proliferating social crisis.

Illegal mining in the region is the main driver of deforestation. A mapping project initiated by the local NGO Conservación Amazónica (ACCA) has been monitoring the progressing of deforestation caused by illegal mining in the Southern Madre de Dios region over the last years and frequently alarmed over newly detected hotspots. It estimated that gold mining operations in the area have caused a total deforestation of 62,500 hectares until October 2016, about 12,500 hectares only since the start of the monitoring in 2012 and the previous numbers estimated by a study of Asner et al. (2013). La Pampa and surrounding areas have experienced the most dramatic increase in illegal mining in recent years. The deforestation frontier pushed forward from the south of the Interoceanic Highway - which was recently opened and has accelerated the increase in mining activities after 2010 – over the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve toward Rio Malinowski. Between 2012 and 2016, this caused the deforestation of alone nearly 4,000 hectares within the Tambopata reserve, a part of that already within the core of the reserve across the river where mining activities have been taking place since 2015. [4][5] Numbers of 2017 showed a further increase in deforestation in Tambopata and the moving of mining camps along with the advancing activities, but a slowing down of illegal activities in the core of the reserve after some state intervention. [6][7] A similar development was observed for another nearby area further upstream the Rio Malinowski, where illegal mining activities have reached Bahuaja Sonene Park, and an area further northwest, where illegal mining has rapidly entered the Reserva Comunal Amarakaeri (causing deforestation of about 1,500 hectares in 2014 and 2015), until the advancing was slowed down through the intervention of local residents and state forces. Next to these hotspots, further smaller, and often new mining zones were detected by the mapping project in the middle of the rainforest. [4] Numbers of 2018 show an additional mining deforestation of another 1,700 hectares just in the first half of the year, with La Pampa and the upper Malinowski areas again being the most critical hotspots. The project authors note these recent mining deforestation activities primarily took place in areas within forest concessions and the Comunidad Nativa Kotsimba, both located within the Tambopata and Bahuaja Sonene reserve buffer zones and outside the legal mining corridor. Concessions only exist further up from Kotsimba and mining there used to take place in a more controlled way. [8][9] In addition to the ACCA monitoring, also research by Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA) confirmed the devastating impacts of mining in the hotspots around La Pampa and estimated that gold mining has caused a third of the total deforestation in the past 32 years in the whole Madre de Dios region, and even more in 2017, which indicates that the problem is also of wider significance. Two thirds of this mining deforestation took place between 2009 and 2017, with the largest part being illegal and in the La Pampa area, although the gold price in this period has significantly dropped. The CINCIA researchers however emphasize the impact of the 2011 opened Interoceanic Highway, which has caused massive in-migration from southern Peru and the creation for most parts of today’s illegal mining zones in and around La Pampa. [2] [10]

Besides deforestation, illegal mining in the region has caused further drastic environmental and social impacts. Environmental pollution has been enormous, especially through cyanide and mercury which is massively used to extract gold and contaminates local water resources, those working at the mining sites as well as nearby populations. Moreover, in a third of all omnivore animals in the whole Madre de Dios region, mercury above the limit value was detected, particularly in fishes in the mined regions. The Madre de Dios government alarmed several times about extremely high mercury contamination and threats for the population in several districts, particularly to pregnant women and children. An annual 180 tons of mercury are estimated to be emitted annually in the whole region. Mining activities also heavily interfered the natural river course of Rio Malinowski which disturbed fish migration and the increased sedimentation and reduced river stream velocity had further adverse impacts on biodiversity and a number of species depending on the river biosphere. The use of suction pumps instead of artisanal or mechanic methods has augmented the damage, as high pressure on the subsoil is created and as a consequence nutrient cycles in the soil can hardly recover after the mining has moved on. The loss of forest cover and mining activities have degraded the soil and triggered erosion and, as a consequence, the desertification of vast parts of the mined areas. Mining activities are continuously moving forward, whereas mining pools contaminated with mercury pools remain left without closing treatment. [2][3][11][12][13]

The government estimated in 2015 that about 30.000 families were present in the Tambopata buffer zone and 80 percent of them came from other Peruvian regions than Madre de Dios. In 2016 the number of miners only was estimated to be 20.000. One miner that had arrived to La Pampa several years ago reported that the daily income is usually between 40-70 soles but in some occasions he would work for several days without finding any gold; he also noted that accidents happen frequently and that they would be aware of the environmental damage but there is no alternative income possibility. Their families work in the household or as street vendors along with other people who just settled to the area to work as merchants. Along with the mining sites, informal settlements, hotels and other infrastructure to supply miners have popped up, for example bars and canteens but also brothels. [2] [3] [10] [12] [14] This has especially triggered the sex business and associated human trafficking, which has become a major issue in the mining region. The NGO Promsex has raised awareness for the problematic and launched a campaign (#NoMásNiñasInvisibles) including a documentary with testimonies by affected women. According to the organization, 38 percent of the women in La Pampa are sexually exploited; a third of them became alcoholic and most of them are of poor health. Often initially promised a well-paid job, especially underage women from other rural parts of Peru are brought to La Pampa where they get taken away their documents and become sexually abused in brothels. Some of them maintain autonomy but still work more than 12 hours per day, others are detained under slavery-like conditions. Some try to flee or resist and become assassinated. In fact, the homicide rate is three times higher than in the rest of the country and more people simply disappear; violence, organized crime and heavily armed gangs are common-place. In 2017, 20 dead bodies were found in the area and until the beginning of 2018, 48 people were reported missing in just the past year. The La Pampa settlements are a lawless zone where the state does not interfere and crimes remain with impunity. Even doctors who come to the area to help report about receiving death threats. Along with the problem of human trafficking there are also cases of disappeared children; locals report that due to the absence of the state children are de facto invisible and become an easy target of criminals. [15][16][17][18] Impunity and violence has further caused the assassination of the environmental activist Alfredo Ernesto Vracko Neuenschwander, who was found shot down at the Interoceanic Highway in 2015, assumingly by gold miners. He was a woodworker, holding one of the forest concessions affected by the La Pampa expansion, and also founder of the reforestation association FEFOREMAD which formed a movement against forest invasions in the Tambopata reserve. Before the assassination, he had filed a formal complaint against an invasion of miners; a year before another member of the association was killed under similar circumstances. In an interview after, his son highlighted the problematic legal situation: Concessions holders who do not report the entry of miners make themselves chargeable, whereas those who report put their life in danger while authorities rarely show up or provide support. [18][19]

The state response to this dramatic development has been ambiguous. First the issues were widely ignored. Back in 2011, illegal miners operating in La Pampa even financially supported the election campaign of Ollanta Humala, who then became Peru’s president. [14] Peru, as one of the world’s major producers of gold, has been found to have particularly high numbers of illegally smuggled and exported gold (e.g. about 40 percent of its annual production of 2010, according to an investigation by OjoPúblico), which lets assume that gold extracted in illegal areas such as La Pampa ends up at the international market via a number of informal channels. [21] In 2012, illegal miners of La Pampa together with the miners federation of Madre de Dios mobilized against the proposed legislative decrees 1100 and 1101 to formalize their activities and announced a general strike (also outside the area). They feared too much intervention, as for example the use of dredgers and other equipment would be prohibited which, as they argued, would complicate the work and cause more deaths. In 2015, thousands of illegal miners mobilized against the renewed 1220 decree which aimed to control illegal mining and logging, including the prohibition of chemical compounds. As the government also announced to set quotas for gasoline use (to limit fuel supply for the machinery at the mining sites), even parts of the population joined the protests, altogether leading to a week-long general strike and street blockades along the Interoceanic Highway and in the city of Puerto Maldonado. [22][23] From 2014 onwards, the state also increasingly confronted the miners with military operations, usually with the aim to close down certain sectors, for example by destroying camps, facilities, machinery and further equipment. Several times during the last years, regional emergency state was declared after escalations in violence, river contamination or the destruction of the protected areas. After a number of failed interventions, a mega-operation even combined army, airforce, navy, and police troops to combat illegal miners – which, as the mapping project showed, did not seem to have a long-lasting effect, apart from an intervention in 2015 against advancing mining camps into the core of the Tambopata reserve. Alone in 2016, a total of 26 police raids against mining in the La Pampa region took place, led to the destruction of infrastructure and the escape of most miners who, however, turned back soon after. In just one of these operations, for example, authorities reported to have destroyed a camp of 300 houses built of sticks and plastic, 15 bars and five informal lodgings used by the sex business, including about 200 women affected by sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Another small success was the capturing of an arsenal of firearms and a few gang members that brutally killed a number of people in the area. Since 2016, the Peruvian army also has a permanent air force base in La Pampa. However, a local Sernanp administrator in the Tambopata area reported that despite that, miners often easily return the next day to the continue the activity. Local park rangers are understaffed and lack resources to exert the interdictions and even if miners are successfully managed to be driven out, the areas remain destroyed. Sernanp has therefore started to provide resources and trainings to indigenous communities in Tambopata to make them help protect the area. An NGO representative notes miners often get warnings from friends in the police, allowing them even to hide machines in abandoned holes before a raid. Given the problems of executing prohibitions, an alternative government proposal has been to compel miners to formally register in order to at least maintain control over the area of activity and at the same time provide them alternative economic opportunities in the region, e.g. in agriculture or tourism. In 2016, a bill was presented to the Peruvian Congress to remove illegal mining delicts from the list of organized types of crime, which, as the authors of the ACCA mapping project noted, was in contrary to all observed evidence. The government also announced special efforts against human trafficking in La Pampa and health assistance for affected women. However, still in 2018 the situation remained out of control, illegal mining continued, as did the escalation in violent crimes which made local authorities once again urge the government to declare emergency state and to undertake more effective measures. A root cause of the conflict is of course the high international demand in gold. [2][6][10][14][24][25][26][27][28]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Illegal gold mining in La Pampa and Tambopata National Reserve, Peru
State or province:Inambari (Tambopata)
Location of conflict:Alto Libertad
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mining exploration and/or ore extraction
Tailings from mines
Specific commodities:Gold

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Project area:min. 62,500
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/07/2006
Relevant government actors:Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado (SERNANP)
Ministerio del Ambiente
Peruvian authorities, e.g. Marina de Guerra del Perú (DICAPI), Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas and Dirección General de Capitanías y Guardacostas
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Asociación de Conservación Amazónica (ACCA)
Asociación Huarayo
Amazon Conservation
Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica (CINCIA)
Fundación Pure Earth
Federación de Concesionarios de Forestación y/o Reforestación de Madre de Dios (FEFOREMAD)
Consorcio Madre de Dios
Promsex (Human Rights)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Land occupation
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Threats to use arms


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Mine tailing spills
Potential: Noise pollution, Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases
Potential: Malnutrition, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
New legislation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Assassination of environmental activist Alfredo Ernesto Vracko Neuenschwander
Proposal and development of alternatives:Although the impacts on biodiversity and the loss of primary forest are irreversible, there are also projects to reforest areas degraded by illegal mining, for example one operated by the local CINCIA institute and the Fundación Pure Earth, often including international partner organizations that engage in local community or wildlife projects. In one of the affected areas, CINCIA also holds trainings for local communities to engage as park rangers and detect mercury pollution. Reforestation initiatives were also started by local organizations such as the Consorcio Madre de Dios which together with local artisanal miners of the Manuani community. They have been working in La Pampa for more than 20 years before the mass arrival of the illegal miners, but with knowledge of the Ministry of Environment and without heavy machinery. [3][11][26][27]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

4. Finer, M., Olexy, T., Novoa, S. (2016): La Minería Aurífera Deforestó 12,800 Hectáreas en la Amazonia Peruana Sur desde el 2013 al 2016. MAAP: 50.

8. Finer. M., Villa, L., Mamani, N. (2018): La Minería Aurífera continúa devastando la Amazonía Peruana Sur. MAAP: 87.

6. Finer, M., Novoa, S., Olexy, T., Durand, L (2017): La Minería Aurífera se Incrementa en la Zona de Amortiguamiento de la Reserva Nacional Tambopata. MAAP: 60.

7. Finer, M., Novoa, S., Olexy, T. (2017): La Minería Aurífera se Reduce en la Reserva Nacional Tambopata. MAAP: 61.

5. Asner G., Llactayo W., Tupayachi R., Ráez Luna E. (2013): Elevated rates of gold mining in the Amazon revealed through high-resolution monitoring. PNAS, 110 (46) 18454-18459.

26. Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica Website

20. Fraser, B. (2015): Grassroots leader’s murder in Peru is a signal to opponents of mining, son says. Mongabay News, 27.11.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

21. Castilla, O., Luna, N., Torres, F. (2015): Oro sucio: la pista detrás del London Bullion Market. OjoPúblico, 09.06.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

9. Romo, V. (2018): Peru’s Bahuaja-Sonene National Park at risk over illegal mining. Mongabay News, 19.06.2018. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

3. Romo,V. (2018): Perú: deforestación por minería de oro en Madre de Dios es la más alta en los últimos 32 años. 05.09.2018.(Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

2. Pighi-Bel (2016): Tambopata: la reserva natural de Perú que empieza a convertirse en un desierto. BBC Online, 15.10.2016. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

1. La Prensa (2017): Perú: así es deforestación minera en nueva zona crítica de Amazonía-.La Prensa, 31.10.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

14. Perú 21 (2014): Madre de Dios: Minería ilegal ha destruido más de 40 mil hectáreas de bosques. 11.12.2014. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

16. Reaño, G. (2016): Madre de Dios: la desaparición de una mujer que rescató a una niña de los prostibares de La Pampa. 31.03.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

18. Alayo, F. (2017): La Pampa: 38% de las mujeres de la zona son explotadas sexualmente. El Comercio, 14.10.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

19. Butler, R. (2015): Environmentalist gunned down by illegal miners in Peru. Mongabay News, 20.11.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

11. Pro Activo (2018): Sembrando bosques donde hubo minería en Madre de Dios. 24.09.2018. (Online, last accessed: 30.09.2018)

22. El Comercio (2012): Mineros informales de Madre de Dios amenazan con ir a un paro en agosto. 24.07.2012. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

17. Trome (2017): Macabro hallazgo en Madre de Dios: Hallan fosas donde delincuentes quemaban restos de mineros ilegales [VIDEO y FOTOS]. 28.02.2017. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

24. SPDA (2018): Defensoría pide declarar estado de emergencia en zona crítica de minería ilegal. 23.01.2018. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

27. SPDA (2014): Madre de Dios: mineros artesanales de La Pampa reconocen daño ambiental y trabajan en reforestación. 20.01.2014. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

10. La República (2016): Madre de Dios: el azote de la minería ilegal no se detiene en “La Pampa” | VIDEO. 20.12.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

28. van Eerten, J. (2017): The Road That Exposed Peru’s Amazon. Earth Island Journal, 24.02.2017. (Online, accessed 15.08.2018)

23. Guidi, A. (2015): Illegal gold miners in Madre de Dios, Peru, paralyze the region with protests. Mongabay News, 04.12.2015. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

13. Escobar, R. (2018): Perú: informe arroja alarmantes niveles de mercurio en Madre de Dios. 22.08.2018. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

25. Ministerio del Ambiente (2016): Se recuperan 250 hectáreas de la Reserva Nacional Tambopata de manos de la minería ilegal. 26.10.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

12. SPDA (2016): Mineros ilegales desviaron curso natural de río Malinowski en límite con RN Tambopata. 12.10.2016. (Online, last accessed 30.08.2018)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Video about La Pampa (2014): La maldicion del oro amaznico Mineria Ilegal Peru La Pampa Madre de Dios.

15. Promsex (2016): #NoMasNiñasInvisibles Contra la trata de personas en Madre de Dios. 22.06.2016.

Interview with son of assassinated environmnetal activist (2015) - “ENTREVISTA FREDDY VRACKO SOBRE ASESINATO DE SU PADRE DON ALFREDO VRACKO NEUENSCHWANDER”

Meta information

Contributor:Max Stoisser
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3830



Rio Malinowski


Rio Malinowski after mining invasions


A reforestation initiative

A police raid in one of the settlements

La Pampa has become a center for human trafficking and violence against women


Another aerial image showing the rapid advancing of La Pampa in several months

One of the mining strips in La Pampa

One of Peru's deforestation hotspots: Illegal gold mining areas in La Pampa and along the Rio Malinowski

The advancing of La Pampa towards the Tambopata reserve