Ernesto Benavides

2015 - 2021

Seen from above, the Amazon resembles a huge billiard table, a field of intense green, pockmarked by brown stains. These stains are the sites of illegal mines, and they reveal the scope of a gold rush that threatens the lungs of the planet.

The sites shown here are in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, where approximately 150,000 acres of forest have already been lost due to illegal mining. Each lost hectare represents unique flora and fauna species.

Peru leads South America in gold production and ranks fifth globally, but authorities say that 20 percent of its exported gold comes from these clandestine mines. But this mining, which first began in the 1980s, extends beyond Peru. In every Amazon country, the largest forest in the world is being slowly eaten away by an explosion of tiny unreported mines.

The process of gold extraction using mercury is an open-air operation: All its stages are plainly visible from the air. Dredging for gold alters the territory to the point of making it unrecognizable. It produces enormous holes where water gathers, either from filtrations or collected rain. There is no life in that red muddy water, it is dead.

These areas are the lungs of the planet. The energy resource in this ecosystem concentrates on the canopy. The soil is not rich in nutrients but it supports life. The disruption of the balance in this life chain cannot be reversed.

This form of gold mining grows like cancer in the amazon basin and spreads uncontrolled despite government efforts. The Peruvian government has been trying to eradicate the illegal gold mining fields through military operations. But as soon as the special operations police leave the site, the miners return, blinded by gold fever. The price of gold is so temptingly high that they disregard the health hazards to their life.

I flew over this landscape for the first time, in a military helicopter on a mission. Normally from the air, you cannot see the soil because of the trees. But I could clearly see an infected open wound in the greenery. Coming closer to the ground, just before landing, my visual experience was one of emptiness. I immediately felt that there was no escape from the heat. There is no shade, the trees are gone, and this is a man-made desert.

In the last few years, I have visited these illegal mining sites in the rainforest of the Peruvian department of Madre de Dios. In the beginning, I managed to have privileged access with the Peruvian army, during the military operations to try to eradicate the miners' camps.

In January last year, I was able to enter, thanks to the contacts of the local correspondent, Manuel Cayo Quispe, one of the members of my team, to witness the normality of everyday life in the mining areas. I witnessed the start of the drilling within a protected area, when I was invited by members of a local community to help them photograph to collect graphic evidence, in order to make a formal complaint to the government against a group of illegal miners invading a concession for reforestation.

I got to know the direct victims of this devastation, we talked, we walked in the forest, and for a moment I was able to share and directly experience the constant threat of living there.

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