It's on us. Share your news here.

Illegal gold mining devastates Peruvian Amazon river and communities

Posted on January 3, 2024

Drenched up to his thighs, while crouching at the end of our small boat as it cuts through a dizzying collection of waves, our boat captain lifts his hands and shouted a warning: “No more photos — they’re watching us.” Along the left bank of the Cenepa River in the Peruvian Amazon, motors roar from underneath plastic roofs on dredging rafts. Enormous suction tubes penetrate the riverbed from these rafts. There are at least eight dredges that groups of between 15 and 20 illegal miners are using to extract gold, day and night, from the shores of the Indigenous community of Pagki, here in the Peruvian department of Amazonas.

We’re almost halfway down the 38 kilometers (24 miles) of the river that shares a name with the jurisdiction that it passes through, El Cenepa, to the border with Ecuador. It’s not the stretch with the most dredges in the entire river basin, but it is the most dangerous. “Don’t even try to look at them; we just have to pass through very quickly,” the captain instructs us.

The greenish shade of the river changes to an intense ochre color on the side where the dredging rafts are rattling away. With his body half underwater, a man appears to hurriedly direct the operation of one of the dredges. He swims, waves his arms and signals his approval to another man at the base of a handmade ramp installed on the eroded riverbanks of Pagki.

All the material that’s sucked from the bottom of the river will end up in a structure like this, where rocks and mud are deposited onto a carpet before being processed to extract specks of gold. To gather the gold and separate it from the mud, the illegal miners use large amounts of mercury, a heavy metal that now contaminates the Cenepa River. This endless contamination has given the river a swamp-like appearance in several places. This process is repeated at all the points along the shore where the rafts are found.

From somewhere in this hotspot of devastation, a peque peque, or canoe with a motor, with three miners on board speeds up in an apparent attempt to follow us. We’ve been following the captain’s guidelines rigorously, but it’s clear that we’ve arrived in an area dominated by crime.

“There is an armed group that always watches,” the captain shouts while looking straight ahead. He accelerates, weaving past rocky islands and the deformations that the constant extraction of ore has left in the middle of the riverbed. About 60 meters (200 feet) of river separate us from our pursuers. What throws the peque peque off course, ironically, is a new group of dredges operating on either banks and in the center of a part of the river, which corresponds to the Indigenous community of San Antonio. A deafening sound comes from the 24 scattered dredging rafts. Each raft is a small underworld of its own: miners in charge of children, immersed in work, and of women — including some teenagers — cooking or washing clothes.

“They are being exploited and they cannot leave. The miners sleep for a while on the rafts and extract gold until dawn,” says an Indigenous Awajún leader. The captain slows down and we see the teenagers’ faces pass by as if in slow motion.

A dredge operates constantly under the watch of a stealthy illegal miner in the community of Tutino. Image by Luis Taijin.

It’s been five hours since we left on the small boat from Puerto Imacita, in the province of Bagua in the northern Peruvian jungle. We’d traveled along the Marañón River toward the point where it meets the Cenepa, then passed beside the Indigenous communities of Wawaim and Mamayaque. Even without the fleets of dredges we would later encounter, there were already indications in both communities of a serious environmental and safety crisis reverberating throughout the entire river basin. The tree lines that once enveloped this river are now expanses of dead land, covered with hundreds of stacked drums full of mercury.

If there’s an epicenter for the destruction being wrought on the Cenepa, then it’s probably the part of the river that the communities of Tutino and Nuevo Tutino are situated along. Here, the dredging rafts have taken over almost the entire stretch of river. They operate side by side, forming an enormous flotilla that blocks the passage of other boats. Due to the danger and the number of dredges, the harsh reality shared by Tutino and Nuevo Tutino is similar to what we later found in Pagki and San Antonio, located 6 km (less than 4 mi) away.

The community of Huampami is the last stop on the trip that our team from Mongabay Latam and the NGO Paz y Esperanza (“Peace and Hope”) takes along the Cenepa River. The date is Sept. 8, 2023, and we find a mind-boggling 70 illegal gold mining sites. At 60 of these sites, dredging rafts are in use on the water; at the other 10, the dredges are on land. These mining hotspots are mostly in the communities of Wawaim, Mamayaque, Tutino, Nuevo Tutino, Pagki, San Antonio and Huampami. These are just seven of the 63 Awajún communities that are part of the Organization for the Development of the Border Communities of El Cenepa (ODECOFROC). Last year, Mongabay Latam published a story on the growing chaos in the area. At the time, Paz y Esperanza estimated that 30 dredges were operating throughout the entire river. The leaders of ODECOFROC projected that there were twice as many. Today, the problem has already surpassed even the worst-case projections.

Seven Awajún communities are being affected by the mining dredges in the Cenepa River. This is the view of one area from the air. Video by Luis Taijin.

Living in terror

Agostina Mayán, the former president of ODECOFROC, returned to the community of Nuevo Kanam, an annex of Tutino, in September. The last time she was here, in July, she’d rescued her father from the confinement that the illegal miners had imposed on him inside his own home. The 80-year-old had gone without food for three days and was unable to leave or let anyone into his home after his daughter reported the presence of 15 dredges along the shores of the Cenepa near their cassava and cacao plants. The Mayán family home was suddenly surrounded and the patriarch of the family was alone, left to fend for himself. Agostina Mayán says a mob of miners and community members from Nuevo Kanam with ties to the mining industry even destroyed her brothers’ boat when they arrived to help their father.

“We managed to get [him out] with help from members of other communities. We had our [own community] against us,” Mayán says.

Upon her return in September, there’s only a single dredge at the port in Nuevo Kanam, where her family was attacked. It’s occasionally guarded by an Awajún teenager. Mayán says she’s convinced the other dredging rafts that devastated her community aren’t gone because the miners feared their complaints, but because they ran out of gold in this area and are now mining in other places in Tutino. Mayán is one of the leaders on the frontlines of the fight to conserve the Cenepa River. The true cost of her fight is the intimidation that pushed her to leave her community.

Armed men in Pagki watch for strangers looking into the illegal gold mining in the region. If strangers arrive, the men will fend them off. Image by Enrique Vera.

On the hill that leads to the community of San Antonio, Leonardo Ujukam, an agronomist, snorts and points out a store that the illegal miners have turned into a bar that’s open around the clock. Between June and August, the bar was the scene of fights, drug use and general rowdiness from the miners working in the stretch of the Cenepa closest to San Antonio. For a community that has always lived in peace, Ujukam says, these daily scandals were a low point that forced many residents to stay quiet. This caused them to become the target of intimidation tactics, unable to react. On some occasions, financial needs also forced them to accept whatever the illegal miners imposed on them. Some teenage girls and adult women were drawn into this illicit economy, voluntarily or otherwise.

“The miners’ strategy is to turn into community members, such as by becoming the partners of the Awajún women, to avoid being expelled. With money, they get the families of these women to accept and protect them. That way, they get stronger within the communities,” Mayán says.

The dredges that had been operating on the riverbank near the entrance to San Antonio have moved closer to the edges of Pagki and Tutino, which is where Awajún communities have experienced an increase in school dropout rates. According to a recent assessment by Paz y Esperanza, which works with various Indigenous communities in El Cenepa, many school-age children from both communities have chosen to help the miners with their daily tasks to earn money.

A teacher who asked to remain anonymous says the teenagers employed as cooks on the rafts are sometimes victims of sexual exploitation. The report by Paz y Esperanza suggests the situation is already out of control. According to the teacher, the students who left school work for the miners by monitoring whether motors are running out of fuel or by warning others if strangers appear at a mining site.

“For any of these tasks, the payment that they receive is between 80 and 100 soles [$22 to $27] per day,” Ujukam says.

The 70 illegal gold mining sites in the Cenepa River Basin. Image courtesy of Paz y Esperanza.

An hour from Huampami along the Cenepa and Comaina rivers, toward the border with Ecuador, is the community of Kusu Kubaim. Many of the rafts crowded around Nuevo Tutino and Pagki in September originated here. As with those other communities, during the two months that the illegal miners were in Kusu Kubaim, the territory was riddled with crime.

Felicio Sakash, the former leader of the community, takes a long sip of masato, a fermented corn drink, and says that threats and a lack of income forced many community members to accommodate the illegal miners in their houses. This coexistence put the Awajún residents of Kusu Kubaim at the center of fierce disputes between miners over the women of the community or their earnings for the day. Sakash says that unlike in San Antonio, the chaos wasn’t restricted to a bar; it was prevalent inside homes and on the streets at all times.

“The population endured so much pressure. All day, there were fights, threats [and] disaster. Several young women from here also joined the miners and were later abandoned, [while] others went away with them,” Sakash says, seated under a thatched roof that shielded him from the relentless sun of the Peruvian Amazon. The violence that Kusu Kubaim experienced, according to Sakash, is the same type of violence now being inflicted on communities like Sua Panki, an annex of Pagki, and Nuevo Tutino. These communities are now cut off because of the number of miners and their armed staff.

Miners without names

Elías Autukai is the prosecutor in charge of protecting women and children for the municipal government of El Cenepa. He tells Mongabay Latam that throughout 2023, his office, known as DEMUNA, has received requests for food from eight young Awajún women, including teenagers, who have been abandoned by men they considered their partners. In their requests, the women listed the names and occupations (farmers, in most cases) that their partners had given them. However, Autukai says investigations later confirmed that they were mostly non-Indigenous illegal miners with false identities; some were Awajún community members involved in gold mining.

“We looked for them in the National Registry of Identification and Civil Status and they do not exist,” Autukai says.

Until very recently, the streets of Kusu Kubaim were ruled by crime, with threats and violence forcing members of the community to retreat. Image by Luis Taijin.

Wielding a sheaf of papers, Autukai says that in these eight cases, his office was able to accept the complaints and initiate investigations. However, there are women who come to DEMUNA with only a first name or nickname of the father of their children. According to Autukai, this makes it impossible to even begin an investigation. Even so, the number of community women who come forward to file these formal complaints is a tiny fraction of the total number of Awajún women — estimated in the dozens by Autukai — who have likely experienced similar situations but haven’t reported their cases.

It’s not just the affected women who lack information about these men. None of the Indigenous community members or leaders we speak to knows the first and last names of the illegal miners who had proliferated in their communities. In referring to a miner in the context of a specific event, they often use an alias, a first name or a diminutive, like Maquisapa or Betito.

Dante Sejekam, the current president of ODECOFROC and a staunch defender of the Awajún territory, says not even the leaders of the communities where the illegal miners operated have registered them. Many residents seem to agree that they’re not from Amazonas department, with most believed to hail from Pucallpa in the department of Ucayali, Puerto Maldonado (in Madre de Dios), Iquitos (Loreto), Puerto Inca (Huánuco), and the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM). These areas experience frequent environmental crimes that affect members of local Indigenous communities, as Mongabay has reported on over the past few years.

The shores of the Cenepa River are being eaten away in several areas where miners are extracting gold. Image by Enrique Vera.

For two days, we travel across the Cenepa River Basin to document the illegal mining hotspots destroying the riverbed.

A spike in the price of gold around 2010 and 2011 triggered the expansion of mining in the departments of Madre de Dios and Puno, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the first illegal miners appeared in the communities that border the Cenepa River. Awajún defender Zebelio Kayap, another leader who has been threatened for opposing gold mining in the river, says the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the government’s already weak presence and protection of Indigenous communities in the river basin. This gave rise to the growth of mining enclaves. Additionally, the struggles of each community have been a decisive factor in the territorial dominance that the illegal miners have managed to achieve.

Exploitation of need

Sakash’s house is one of the few homes in Kusu Kubaim equipped with a solar panel to charge a battery that, for two or three hours per night, allows his family to have light. There’s no electricity in Kusu Kubaim, but that’s not the biggest problem, according to Sakash; that would be the fact that there’s no sewage service here in a region where the river has been contaminated with mercury.

“When we eat fish, we get strong allergies and stomach issues,” Sakash says.

In San Antonio, Ujukam says no one in his community uses water from the Cenepa River like they used to. Instead, they now use the water that flows through nearby ravines and comes out into catchment areas in small amounts. A recent study by the Bagua-Santiago Local Water Administration on the Cenepa River indicates that the concentration of lead in the water exceeds the safe limits established by the Ministry of the Environment. The study points to mining in the higher part of the border with Ecuador, and wastewater from some types of manufacturing process, as possible causes of the high concentration of lead.

The grim situation in Kusu Kubaim and San Antonio plays out across all the communities in the river basin: none have basic services, adequate educational infrastructure or medical facilities with enough supplies. When a community member suffers a medical emergency, it becomes a crisis. Sejekam, the ODECOFROC president, says that due to a lack of personnel and medicine, the patient often needs to be taken to Huampami, the capital of the district of El Cenepa, where a nursing technician must fill in for the lack of a doctor, obstetrician, dentist or even psychologist.

“In a serious situation, the technician needs to accompany the patient [while being] transferred to Nieva or Bagua, which is a five-hour trip, although this only happens if there is a boat available,” Sejekam says. That leaves the medical well-being of the Awajún people just as fragile as the safety and daily living conditions in the territories where they live.

Teenagers have dropped out of school in the Awajún communities to earn money working for the illegal miners. Image by Luis Taijin.

An atmosphere of need and the Peruvian government’s lack of attention was the perfect storm that allowed these groups of illegal miners to invade the Awajún communities, attempt to negotiate longer stays, and mine in the river with impunity. According to meeting minutes signed in August 2022, the then-leaders of Nuevo Tutino, Tutino and Mamayaque acknowledged receiving a monthly income from mining for the construction of community buildings, schools and other urgent infrastructure in their communities. Many of these projects have not yet been completed, but those that are were meant to compensate for what those same mining operations had made unusable. A case in point is the primary school in San Antonio, whose foundation was weakened because of the erosion caused by the dredging. A new schoolhouse was built on a hill in the community.

The use of funds from this illegal activity has caused disagreement among members of ODECOFROC and exacerbated the social conflict that has been on the rise in these communities since 2022. Hortez Baitug, a former president of the Awajún organization, resigned after being accused of encouraging the mining.

Sejekam, the 25-year-old environmental manager, took over in July and explains why these divisions are being reported within some communities: “Large families have the power and their interests are prioritized. If, in a community, the big families want mining, then it happens.”

There are also threats and pressure from the illegal miners, who even managed to force the resignation of a leader opposed to gold mining. The social crisis driven by the differences between community members is a schism that has been deepening gradually. In Kusu Kubaim, for example, three leaders have been removed since 2021 — a period that, under normal circumstances, would mark a single leadership term.

“There is a narrative that the communities accept the illegal mining, but this does not take into account [the fact] that behind it, there are large amounts of money and violence that shift the Indigenous leaders from one position to another in realities of extreme need,” says Rubén Ninahuanca, the coordinating lawyer of the governance program at Paz y Esperanza.

The constant dredging has eroded the land under the primary school in San Antonio. The building is now unusable. Image by Luis Taijin.

A sinister business on the rise

On Sept. 11 this year, during the first meeting led by Sejekam as the new president of ODECOFROC, community members and leaders specifically discussed how the damage had gotten worse.

The high profits generated by mining in the Cenepa River correspond to the large amount of gold that each dredge can collect per day. A day’s worth of mining can yield at least 200 grams (6.4 ounces) of gold; the miners can sell this at the equivalent of $49 per gram, or about $1,500 an ounce.

We get these figures from miners, one hailing from Loreto and the other an Awajún community member who left his job in agriculture after being drawn to the mining industry. Both say that this year, each dredging raft has generated an average of 36,000 soles ($9,700) per day in profit. Of this, 10-20% is set aside for the communities where the dredges operate.

One of the miners says he’s tasked with moving the rocks that the dredges suck up from the riverbed, for which he’s paid between 1,000 and 2,000 soles ($270 and $540). The other works underwater, positioning the tube to vacuum up sand and rocks. Breathing apparatus allows him to stay underwater for two to three hours at a time. On a given day, he’ll make about six dives, he says. He declines to say how much money he makes, but adds that it’s much more than what other jobs on the raft pay.

He then looks down and clears his throat: “About 10 [people] have died doing this. There were landslides at the bottom and they were buried.” No one claimed their bodies, he says, so they were left at the bottom of the river.

Awajún teenagers are often employed as cooks by the miners, but they’re also sexually exploited. Image by Luis Taijin.

Prosecutors in Amazonas department have opened various investigations into the illegal mining problem, but most have been halted, according to Ninahuanca from Paz y Esperanza. There’s a record of an investigation begun by the environmental prosecutor in Bagua from Oct. 30, 2022, about an alleged shooting by miners against a group of prosecutors and police in the community of Pagki. Another, from November 2021, records the presence of 20 dredges in the river basin. The most recently recorded investigation, which details the first important pieces of evidence of the expansion of mining in the Cenepa River, was archived by Elva Amenero, the deputy environmental prosecutor. We managed to gain access to the document, which stated that prosecutors had decided not to continue with the investigation.

Ninahuanca says the approach by Amenero, who was also responsible for shelving the investigation into the 20 dredges and their suspected owners, is “absurd and impertinent for the context of where the mining activity occurs.” He says her office “searches for information on social media, or data from the Integral Registry of Mining Formalization, to find out whether these illegal miners appear in records — when it is clear that alluvial mining was prohibited in Peru since 2010.” We submitted a request to interview Amenero and searched for her in Bagua, but did not receive a response.

Ruth Luque, who heads the Peruvian Congress’s commission on Indigenous peoples, also expresses dismay at the lack of justice for the Awajún people. At a meeting with community members and leaders from the Cenepa, Santiago and Nieva river basins, she said: “In our face, they [prosecutors] clean up the corruption; [that] was their complaint.”

Luque has also collected official data on another never-ending scourge of the Indigenous residents of the three river basins: “There are 189 cases of HIV detected just between January and August 2023, of which 35 are pregnant [women] and 12 [are] girls and teenagers.” According to Luque, sexual exploitation and rape — in a situation already plagued by open illegal activity — play a role in the increase in infections and in teen pregnancies. Luque says these pregnancies are one of the main issues drawing attention to the lack of health care for the Awajún people.

On Sunday, Oct. 1, following the first meeting convened by Sejekam, 200 Awajún community members along with patrols from the environmental police confiscated and destroyed a raft and 11 dredging pumps during raids in four communities across the Cenepa River Basin. Sejekam says the remaining pumps and dredges were hidden in ravines or deliberately sunk to the bottom of the river to be recovered later, since the miners had received a tipoff about the impending raids. No one was arrested.

“We did not even have the time or resources to enter more areas. We need the police to install a base here,” Sejekam says. Two days after the raids, the dredges began to reappear in the river.

Every 40 to 50 meters (130-160 feet), mining dredges suction material from the riverbed. In the most intensively dredged areas, they even block the free movement of river traffic. Video by Enrique Vera.

“It’s the same thing as happened after previous raids. In need, without the presence of the government and without constant control, the door will stay open for illegal miners,” Zebelio Kayap, the Awajún defender, says in an angry tone.

Gregorio Villalón, the head of Peru’s environmental police, tells us his personnel are conducting ongoing work in the Cenepa and Santiago river basins despite a shortage of logistical, human and financial resources. During the Oct. 1 raids, according to Villalón, the illegal miners tried to undermine their efforts. Villalón acknowledges that about 70 dredges are currently devastating the Cenepa River and that he faces a robust illegal economy capable of quickly recovering its losses.

“We can destroy one or 10 pumps, but they install them again within a week,” Villalón says. It’s more important, he adds, to make antimining actions more sustainable and to strengthen the joint work of the parties involved: prosecutors, local governments, and community leaders. “This is not about going once, intervening, and then not going back, because everything then goes back the same [way],” Villalón says. This certainly appears to be the case during our visit to the region.

As we were finalizing this report for publication, we heard from Awajún leaders that the dredges were operating again, in different locations. The Cenepa River continues to be subjected to the same destruction and ruin that we found there in September.


It's on us. Share your news here.
Submit Your News Today

Join Our
Click to Subscribe