Peru's Minister For The Environment Discusses Amazon Challenges
Rainforest Cruises attended a press conference at Peru’s Ministry of the Environment in Lima on Thursday, 19th January, at which the Minister of the Environment, Dr. Manuel Pulgar-Vidal Otárola, discussed various ongoing issues and projects.
The Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) was only established in Peru in 2008 – as a condition of a trade agreement with the USA – and is therefore very much in its infancy. The size of the tasks it is faced with in fulfilling its mission to ‘preserve environment quality and ensure present and future generations their right to enjoy a balanced and suitable environment for the development of life’ was apparent in the Minister’s opening address and answers.
Most of the conference focused on mining. Peru’s spectacular geology is also the source of its enormous mineral wealth, with huge deposits of copper, gold and zinc, among many other minerals. Mineral wealth has been a key component of the country’s economy ever since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, but the extraction of these minerals has well-documented negative impacts on the environment. For example, the proposed open-cast Conga gold mine in Cajamarca would involve the removal of four high mountain lakes; while the city of La Oroya, which mines and smelts copper, zinc and lead, has been dubbed one of the world’s most polluted places, owing to the high level of metals found in both the air and water supplies.
These large, official mining projects are all to be found in the sierra, the Andean mountain region of Peru. However, of great concern to Peru’s Amazon is the informal mining sector, which operates along the tributaries of the Amazon River, dredging the river beds for gold. The current high price of gold has made these small-scale, unregulated enterprises profitable, and fuelled a gold rush, especially in the province of Madre de Dios, which is also home to a number of Amazon jungle lodges.
Mercury is needed to extract the gold from the ore it is in: it is heated and the vapor produced enters the atmosphere; when it rains, this poisonous mercury then enters the river system, affecting fish stocks, destroying plant life, and working its way up the food chain, so that residents gradually accumulate a dangerous level of mercury in their bloodstream.
Luckily, the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, near Iquitos, where Rainforest Cruises’ riverboat tours operate, does not have the required concentration of gold in its riverbeds to make mining worthwhile. Nonetheless, the integrity and bio-diversity of the Amazon jungle in the area is still under constant pressure from other economic activities, such as logging and oil exploration. So, the press conference was a reminder that the tourism industry is one of the few economic activities with the desire and influence to maintain the Amazon Rainforest in its current state, and reconfirmed our core belief that tourism can bring positive change to the Amazon region, by allowing the local residents to live profitably while protecting the jungle.