Operación Mercurio 2019

Illegal Gold Mining

The Madre de Dios region of Peru is rich in biodiversity. It is also rich in gold. In the soil of the forest and riverbeds of the Madre de Dios, Tambopata, Inambari, and Malinowski rivers gold particles are abundant. The prospect of income from mining this gold has attracted a large influx of poor migrant workers from the Andes to the Amazon forest, especially to the large illegal mining area known as La Pampa, adjacent to the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve. Most of the gold mining in the region is illegal and informal, unregulated by the state. But it can be profitable. When the global gold price surged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, mining became even more profitable, while the completion of the Inter-oceanic Highway in 2012 made these remote areas more accessible. Consequently, mining activity and the accompanying deforestation have surged, peaking in 2018. Unfortunately, the methods used to extract the gold wreak havoc on the environment, the watershed, the health of locals, and the miners themselves. And mining activities have expanded into the buffer zone, the Tambopata Reserve, and indigenous lands. In response, in February 2019, President Martín Vizcarra and 13 ministries began an unprecedented intervention in the mining areas called “Operación Mercurio 2019” with the intention of ending illegal gold mining in La Pampa and elsewhere in Madre de Dios once and for all.

Social and Ecological Problems from Illegal Gold Mining

The technique used by the miners, known as alluvial gold mining, begins with removing large areas of vegetation, usually starting along the riverbed. This contributes to deforestation, habitat and species loss, and higher levels of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. In La Pampa alone, up to 11,000 hectares (27,182 acres) of rainforest have been damaged or destroyed. Mercury is then used in the extraction process, contaminating the environment and local waterways. This neurotoxin has been found at unsafe levels in 9 out of 15 fish in local markets. More alarming still, 78% of residents have been found to have dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood. Women of childbearing-age are affected the worst (1).

Significant economic activity pops up around mining operations. This includes the sale and rental of mining equipment, logistical support,  motorcycles, and cell phones. Other economic activities can be as innocuous as restaurants or as nefarious as child labor and sex trafficking. Women are often told they will find work in restaurants in La Pampa, only to be coerced into sex slavery upon arrival in the mining camps. Organized crime manages the industry.

The Plan (In Theory)

The Vizcarra administration and the Council of Ministries adopted a plan for intervention that entered its first phase in February of 2019. It is intended to end gold mining in La Pampa in the near term and invest in sustainable alternatives in the longer term. The formal name of the plan can be loosely translated as the “Integral Plan Against Illegal Mining in Madre de Dios.” It’s known more commonly as “Operación Mercurio 2019.”

The plan has four priorities:

  1. Eviction of illegal mining operations.
  1. Formalization of legal mining in limited areas with cleaner practices.
  1. Addressing social problems like human trafficking and child labor.
  1. Investment and development in sustainable alternative livelihoods.

There have been attempts to mitigate illegal gold mining in the past. Efforts in 2014 and 2018, for example, focused on destroying mining equipment. While encampments were destroyed, it is thought that because miners had previous knowledge of the police interventions, they temporarily removed their equipment, leaving less valuable items for destruction and returning after the interventions were over. Despite government efforts, mining actually increased during this period. The current administration wants to differentiate Operation Mercury from previous efforts not only in terms of its scale, but also by emphasizing that immediate action will be followed by long-term investment in ecologically sustainable alternatives. It will also focus on the formalization and regulation of cleaner mining practices in pre-approved areas. This will theoretically allow gold mining to continue in a limited and less destructive form while developing more sustainable industries in agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, Brazil nut trade, and ecotourism.

The basic message from ministers like Fabiola Muñoz, who spearheaded Operation Mercury, is that this time the government is here to stay. The goal is not just to dismantle illegal mining operations and the human trafficking closely associated with it, but to support sustainable development that can provide the local people with safer livelihoods that protect the vitality of the Amazon Rainforest and the Madre de Dios and Tambopata watershed.

Nonetheless, the intervention is seen by many as a lost cause and there is good reason to be skeptical. The economy and Peruvian politics are entrenched with mining interests.

Operación Mercurio

The plan currently in motion has significant support from 13 ministries, the president, the judiciary, the office of the attorney general, and the regional and local governments of Madre de Dios. The government has allotted 500 million PEN (151 million USD) to the effort. The first phase began on February 19, 2019 and lasted 14 days. Approximately 1,200 police and 300 military personnel were deployed to evict illegal miners in the buffer zone adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve (3). This is no easy feat, as there are around 4,500 miners working directly in the area and up to 25,000 workers in related fields. During the first 14 days, 51 trafficking victims were rescued, 80 miners were arrested, and S/53 million worth of goods were confiscated (2). A state of emergency lasting 60 days was also declared in several affected areas.

After the first 14 days, the second phase, “consolidation,” began and is expected to last 180 days total. This phase involves establishing military bases to maintain long-term police enforcement against illegal gold mining, human trafficking, and child labor. The use of force is not intended to be permanent, but is meant to maintain order during the restoration of local ecosystems and investments in sustainable livelihoods. A major part of the initiative involves formalization of artisanal mining. To be recognized as a legitimate miner, miners will have to prove they are not dealing in human trafficking, child labor, or using mercury during the process.

The plan then involves ecological remediation by planting trees in areas that are recuperable. Some tree plantations will be purposed for productive timber while others will be planted for reforestation and conservation. The local government is also considering installing solar panels on degraded lands.

Perhaps the most important focus in the plan, theoretically, is investment in alternatives. The Minister of Production, Rocío Barres, recently announced an investment of 25 million PEN (755,000 USD) in local projects related to timber, Brazil nuts, cacao, fishing, and aquaculture. PEN 8.8 million will go to the Centro de Innovación Tecnológica (CITE) and 8 million PEN (242,000 USD) will go to strengthening its infrastructure and equipment. The center is administered by the Instituto Tecnológico de la Producción (ITP). The rest of this money will go to the Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Pesquero (FONDEPES – National Fund for Fishing Development). This will provide financial support for aquaculture up to 233,500 PEN (71,000 USD), capacity building and technical support for 340 producers, and possibly the construction of fishing docks valued at 9 million PEN (2,700,000 USD) (5).

These investments are a noble first step, but they are likely minimal compared to what needs to be done to transition from illegal gold mining to sustainable livelihoods. As this is a long-term priority and the second phase, consolidation, is still underway, it makes sense that investments in sustainable development are still in their infancy. However, it is likely that further investment in and planning of sustainable production will need to be increased and investments in ecotourism should be made as well in order to implement this plan effectively.

Systemic Obstacles

This plan, still underway, faces harsh and stubborn realities, including corruption, market forces, and the dynamic between Andean poverty and Amazonian resource extraction. These dynamics are not immovable, but they must be addressed and understood in their full complexity and power.

The economy of Peru is tied to mining interests of all types, and extractive industries account for the country’s largest exports. Consequently, there is a powerful incentive for politicians to appease these industries. Coziness between government and mining interests manifests at national, regional, and local levels. The last two presidents were ousted from office under accusations of corrupt dealings with the Brazilian mining company, Odebrecht. The opposition Fujimori family, who have a decidedly pro-mining agenda and a history of supporting state-sponsored violence, wields significant power within Congress. Also, illegally mined gold often ends up in the international market through legal mining operations that launder the gold. Thus, it is apparent that corruption and market incentives are a strong force.

Given these stubborn power dynamics, it may be surprising that there is such an unprecedented push by the current administration and ministries to crack down on illegal gold mining and invest in sustainable alternatives. However, given the increased severity of mining’s local effects, the recent surge in perceived urgency of climate change due to the UN’s recent IPCC report, and the importance of rainforests to carbon sequestration, perhaps it is not so surprising. If this effort is to have any degree of success in the face of corruption and market pressures, ministers have to be resolute in their ongoing support, including military force and continuous investment and technical support. Government officials will have to execute the plan despite significant pressure.

Another systemic obstacle is poverty among local populations in the Andes and the Amazon. While the Peruvian government has made great strides in increasing access to schools and healthcare in mountainous regions, poverty and malnutrition are still major problems. Because of this, people seek work in the Amazon in order to maintain a better quality of life. Thus, stemming poverty and malnutrition, already an intrinsic end in itself, is also instrumental in stopping the supply of labor to gold mining sites.

This reveals a potent weakness in the plan against illegal mining that should be addressed. The plan currently appears to focus on economic development in the Amazon. Attempting to offer sustainable and more healthy alternatives in the area directly affected by mining is of course a positive step, but it does not address the issue at its source. The increased labor for mining is largely a secondary effect of poverty in the Andes. Thus, it is reasonable that investing in sustainable production in the surrounding Andean communities may be just as vital, if not more so, than in the Amazon.

A Path Forward

Stemming illegal gold mining and the environmental, health, and social problems that come with it is a difficult task. Past interventions based mostly on force have failed to produce lasting changes. The current intervention is different in that it includes development of long-term sustainable alternatives in addition to force. The near-term goals of shutting down local mining and rescuing victims of trafficking and child labor appear to be being reached in some capacity. However, declaring a 60-day state of emergency raises ethical questions as certain civil liberties are curtailed.

Formalizing mining is a realistic step, because gold mining will not completely disappear overnight. However, it can only happen if the process is simple enough for the average artisanal miner to complete. The proposed new rules, if properly enforced,  would help quite a bit — no human trafficking, no child labor, and no mercury. In light of these rules and the emphasis on formalization, the extended use of military occupation in the region appears more warranted. Permitting limited gold mining in nearby regions will only shift the same problems to a different area if there is not strict enforcement. After previous short-term interventions, these problems have only increased. There seems to be sound logic for establishing military bases in the medium term alongside mining formalization, ecological restoration, and rescuing victims of human trafficking and child labor. Whether the military and police force respect human rights during the state of emergency remains to be seen. If they do not, it is not only wrong in itself, but it also puts in jeopardy the legitimacy of Operation Mercury as a whole.

The investments in sustainable timber, Brazil nuts, and fisheries in Madre de Dios demonstrate early commitment to later parts of the plan, but they are not enough at present. If these investments are merely the first of many more significant investments, then there is a better chance they will have the intended long-term effects. It will take significant planning, effort, and funding to transition to sustainable alternatives, so national and local governments should continue to invest accordingly. Investments in ecotourism will also improve conservation efforts and perhaps detract from gold mining labor.

Overall, the more difficult systemic obstacles pose the greatest threat to this plan’s success. Continuing with the plan in spite of pressure from wealthy mining interests will be a major key to success. Also, investment in sustainable production in the local Andean regions would improve the plan because it is poverty that drives people from the mountains to the jungle for gold. If their quality of life is supported and improved through increased opportunities in their communities, there will be less incentive to move to the jungle to work in dangerous mining operations.

By Stephen Leas


1. https://www.amazonconservation.org/pdf/gold_mining_fact_sheet.pdf

2. https://peru21.pe/amp/peru/madre-dios-inician-segunda-fase-operacion-mercurio-2019-mineria-ilegal-463719

3. https://www.gob.pe/institucion/mininter/noticias/25760-gobierno-inicia-operacion-sin-precedentes-contra-la-mineria-ilegal-en-madre-de-dios

4. Interview with Min. Fabiola Munoz http://www.actualidadambiental.pe/?p=54623

5. https://www.gob.pe/institucion/produce/noticias/26595-produce-invertira-mas-de-s-25-millones-en-madre-de-dios-para-los-sectores-de-pesca-acuicultura-y-produccion

Dallas link, companies https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-ceo/2017/october/dallas-links-gold-smuggling-scheme/

NBC https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/ncna973551

Peruvian News https://rpp.pe/columnistas/pedrosolano/mineria-ilegal-la-pampa-es-tambien-el-peru-noticia-1182796

The Ancient Spiritual Undertones of Peru

Having seen the Sacred Valley and the seemingly endless Andes mountains first hand, it is no wonder that the Incas regarded the mountains as gods.  In a landscape where you can see glacier-capped mountains, rushing rapids, lush wildflowers, and cacti the size of cars all in one frame, worship, idolatry, and profound respect feels like the only appropriate response.

Richard Webb, professor and head of the Institute of Peru at the University of San Martín de Porres in Lima, talked about the “newness” of Peru; how, in many ways, Peru is a young country.  The population in Peru has grown tremendously in the past century: from two million people 150 years ago to three million 100 years ago to over thirty million today.  While in terms of development, technology, and population Peru might appear very “new,” the ancientness, richness, and history of Peru is omnipresent in Cusco and Madre de Dios.

Terraces from the Inca empire paint the mountainsides, many of which are still in use, and remnants of Inca and pre-Inca religion are woven — often quite literally — throughout Peru in the artwork, traditions, culture, and language.

One need look no further than the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin located in the heart of Cusco to see the lasting ancientness.  The basilica, like many churches in Cusco, is built upon the masterful stonework of an Inca temple.  When the Spanish conquered the region they sought to impose Christianity throughout the land.  Unable to dismantle the stonework, it became the foundation for many colonial structures intentionally built upon sacred sites.  Much of the artwork and construction inside the church was completed by indigenous people during Spanish colonial rule and imagery from Inca religion and culture is cleverly hidden throughout the otherwise traditional Catholic statues and paintings.  During our tour of the cathedral, our guide Maria talked us through some of the nuances of the imagery throughout the church.

The representations of the Madonna were striking.  Depicted throughout the church in both paintings and sculptures, she was always lavishly dressed, gown flaring out at the bottom and narrowing to a point where a brilliant crown adorned her white veil.  This triangular imagery was representative of the mountains with the white veil as the snow capped peak and the glorious (often gold) crown representing the sun.  At these altars, the Catholic Spaniards saw their Virgin Mary and the Incas saw what was sacred to them, the mountains and the sun.

Maria explained that the Incas recognized three distinct realms: the upper world (hanan pacha), this world (kay pacha), and the inner Earth below (ukhu pacha).  The upper world, or what many would understand as the heavens, was the world of the deities: the sun, moon, stars, etc.  This world represented the past and is depicted as the condor.  This world or outer Earth was the realm of humans, folklore heroes, and Pachamama (Earth Mother). It represents the present and is portrayed as the puma.  The final realm, depicted as a serpent, was the inner Earth, representing the future and afterlife.  The Incas mummified and buried their dead in the dry mountain earth with ornate jewels and dress so that they would live on in this final realm.

The condor, puma, and serpent imagery is abundant in Cusco, featured in figurines, tapestries, and even carved into the courtyard at Qorikancha, the most important Inca temple.  The realms are also referenced more subtly in places like the Cusco Cathedral and the church in Chinchero in the gaze and orientation of religious figures.  In many of the depictions of the Madonna, Mary’s eyes and palms are cast downward towards the Earth — towards the inner Earth and afterlife below (unlike more traditional Catholic imagery which generally shows her focusing on the heavens above).

While the imagery within the churches and the artwork lining the city streets are the most tangible manifestations of ancient Inca beliefs, if you listen carefully, you can glimpse these beliefs in the words and actions of native Peruvians.  The connection to nature is powerful and palpable.

In Madre de Dios, it was pouring rain as we departed from Posada Amazonas.  When I expressed my sadness at leaving the Amazon to our guide, Cesar, he told me that the sky was crying for me.  A short while later, another student expressed sadness and our other guide, Ines (who had not be present earlier), said that their sadness was causing all the rain.  Hearing both guides separately explain the rain as manifestations of our sadness just moments apart as  we sailed down the Tambopata river, I felt profoundly connected to the world around me.  During some of our previous outings, Cesar had attributed our good fortune in seeing wildlife to our good energy and happiness.  The casual tone with which they expressed these thoughts felt absolute, factual even.  We had brought the wildlife and we did cause the rain.

Later in our trip we met with Efraín Samochuallpa, director of the Cusco office of the Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin (ACCA).  Efraín explained that cultural understanding played a huge role in their conservation work.  Since the majority of the land they are working to conserve is on indigenous lands, they need the cooperation of the locals.  Efraín spoke about the clash between how indigenous communities make decisions communally, taking their time to discuss matters thoroughly, and the fast-paced hierarchical approach of government and project funders.  He noted that understanding the significance of language was crucial and shared an anecdote with us.  In these Quechua-speaking communities, the phrase good-bye is not used since they do not see departures as final; instead, they say tupananchikkama, which means “until we meet again.”

After the course ended, I rafted down the sacred Urubamba River.  During the trip, our guide, Pablo, pointed out a stream that was flowing into the river and told us that it comes from the peak of a nearby mountain.  Efraín had talked about how the mountains and lagoons were often gendered, with female genderizations linked to productivity.  I asked Pablo if the mountain had a gender and he laughed and said it was a macho mountain, that it was very large and masculine, after a pause he laughed again, shook his head, and said, “all the mountains are Pachamama.”

These are just a few of the conversations throughout my two week stay in Peru in which I saw glimpses of the deeply rooted connection to nature and reverence reminiscent of the Inca beliefs that once dominated the land.  Having only scratched the surface, I wonder about the preservation of these beliefs and how this cultural connection to nature might help bolster conservation in this beautiful land.

By Marie Mangano

The Infierno Community and Their Connection to the Wildlife

When Rainforest Expeditions made their way into the Amazon in the early 1990s the indigenous people of Infierno were largely separated from urban populations and because of this, the community was met with lack of economic opportunity and many social challenges. Several of the Ese’Eja members of the community were intrigued by the sustainable aspects that ecotourism had to offer regarding fishing and farming, and by 1996 the partnership with the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions began. Since then, Posada Amazonas has flourished, offering those who come to visit the Madre de Dios region an insider perspective into the local community and their relationships with ecology and wildlife.

Our guides at the lodge, Cesar and Ines, gave us plenty of insight into the relation between the Ese’Eja and the wildlife with whom they share their land. The indigenous community had a great deal to contribute to ecotourism –  first and foremost, their knowledge of the neighboring wildlife and ecosystems, and their connection to the land. The Ese’Eja have knowledge that cannot be learned through books, but should be experienced and observed in person. Our hiking trips through the rainforest and the boat rides on the river and lake were framed with the understanding that the land on which the lodge was built is primarily a natural jungle, and a home to animals, a fact we should always respect. We were able to see through our guides’ eyes how important and essential the wildlife is to the the area and ultimately the world. The dedication to persevering and conserving the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems appears to take paramount priority at the lodge.


The author of this post with two guides from Posada Amazonas, Cesar (left) and Ines (right). (Photo credit: Alicia Quiñones)

In addition to speaking to us about conservation efforts in the area, the Infierno community shared with us their spiritual connection to the wildlife. From the 500-year-old Ceiba mother tree to the “Where Are You?” bird call from the princess looking for her lost warrior, the connection to animals and their habitat is not only a practical one, but a spiritual one as well.

The dance the Infierno community performed for us was a direct example of this spiritual connection to the wildlife. The story behind the dance was that the daughter of the community leader was to be celebrated for a number of reasons, including her special powers to domesticate wild animals. During this seven-minute dance, a young Ese’Eja girl danced barefoot holding a young snake meant to represent an anaconda, one of the top predators that live along the Tambopata River.


A young Ese’Eja girl, one of the central characters in a dance performed by members of the community. (Photo credit: Alicia Quiñones)

My experiences among the Ese’Eja left me longing for the same prioritization of wildlife and ecology in my everyday life back home. What would the US look like if these small-scale approaches and developments had been at the core of our growth as a country? The lessons gained from successful sustainable partnerships are ones from which we could learn so much. The wildlife in the Amazon depends on us as much as we depend on it flourishing.

River Systems of the Peruvian Amazon

Deep within the Amazon rainforest, the ceiba tree towers high above the canopy, outstretching its distinctive branches for many wildlife species to call home. While the ceiba tree plays a vital role within the Amazon ecosystem, it also holds a special place in Ese’Eja folklore. Members of the Native Community of Infierno shared the legend of the ceiba tree with us as our trip in Madre de Dios was coming to an end.

As the legend goes, a young princess and warrior were in love and wanted to marry. Unfortunately, the devil was in love with the princess too, but the princess did not love the devil. Upon learning of his unrequited love, the devil chased the warrior from the village, optimistic that the princess would fall in love with him instead. While running through the rainforest, the warrior found protection within the mighty ceiba tree.

When the devil approached, the ceiba tree would not give away the warrior’s hiding spot. Feeling betrayed, the devil used his sword to cut the ceiba tree, hoping to find the warrior. Strong and sturdy, the ceiba tree did not surrender. Instead, the tree turned to water beneath the devil’s sword. The Ese’Eja people believe the resilient ceiba tree became the Amazon River, and its branches, the river’s tributaries.

This Ese’Eja tradition shows just how highly the river is regarded to the people who live on the banks of the Amazon River and its tributaries. Not only is the Amazon River important ecologically, but the river has been pivotal to defining life along the river and within the Amazon Rainforest.

More than 4,000 miles in length, the Amazon River originates in the Andes Mountains in Peru, less than 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and terminates along the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. The Amazon River stretches wide across South America, and the river’s basin includes portions of Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The actual length of the Amazon River is highly debated, with some estimates claiming the river is even longer than the Nile River in Africa.

The Amazon River, however, is unique because of its hydrological and geological relationship with the Andes Mountains. Snowmelt from Andean glaciers is the primary source of water into the Amazon River. As these glaciers melt, the runoff travels down through the mountains, and into the main body of the river. Peru’s unique geological structure is also responsible for the direction in which the river flows, toward the Atlantic Ocean. The high elevation of the Andes Mountains in the west forces the river to flow, and meander, to the east. Even more, some research suggests that more than 15,000 tributaries join from the Amazon River system as the river extends east toward the Atlantic.

The Madre de Dios River is one of the main tributaries of the Amazon. Stretching more than 700 miles in length, the Madre de Dios River extends from Peru to Bolivia and serves as an essential body of water for much of the Department of Madre de Dios. The Tambopata River is a tributary of the Madre de Dios River and merges with the Madre de Dios River in the city of Puerto Maldonado, near where the Infierno Community calls home.

During our trip to Madre de Dios, we visited an oxbow lake called Tres Chimbadas. Oxbow lakes form as a result of a large meander in a river. When the Tambopata River broke through the meander it eventually created a free-standing, U-shaped body of water. After some time, the ends of U-shaped meander were sealed off from the river itself by silting, ultimately forming a lake. This oxbow lake is today connected to the Tambopata River by a small stream, allowing wildlife species to move to and from the lake as necessary. The oxbow lake is much quieter than the river itself and provides a refuge for wildlife species that prefer seclusion from their human neighbors.

Ese’Eja folklore concerning the Amazon and Tambopata Rivers hint at the importance of these water sources to the people of the community of Infierno. These rivers provide an avenue to link the Infierno people, acting as a key transportation route from home to home. Ecologically, the rivers and the oxbow lake provide shelter to several key wildlife species and food sources for the Infierno Community. Even more, these bodies of water border the community’s protected area of conservation, representing their dedication to and respect for the land on which they live.

Spiritually, the Amazon River and its tributaries are representative of the community’s beliefs, customs, and tradition. There is no shortage of stories to link the everyday lives of the Infierno Community, and the respect they hold for both the Amazon River and the Amazon Rainforest. And while there is clear hydrological and geophysical evidence explaining the formation of the Amazon River, I prefer to embrace the belief of the Ese’Eja. The Amazon River is equal to the ceiba tree, offering protection and strength to those who need it.

By Amberly Holcomb 








Poverty Outside of the City of Cusco

The Problem

The Andes region has one of the highest poverty rates in Peru. Due to its isolation, difficult topography, and relative lack of connection to the modern economy, poverty is an everyday reality for many residents of the Andean region. Relying on agriculture as their main livelihood and absent educational opportunities, many Andean people remain in poverty. In 2018, a mayor in a highlands municipality of Cuzco defined two of the main problems as malnutrition and a lack of support for subsistence farming throughout the region.

These Andean communities are often far from cities and are frequently forced to fend for themselves to secure education, health, and other government services. The children of these Andean communities often suffer from a lack of proper nutrition, which many times translates to illnesses like anemia. Although malnutrition has been curtailed throughout the country  in the last few decades, these highland Andean communities are still suffering greatly. Unlike city centers like Lima and Cusco, these Andean communities are the last to receive government assistance and attention and therefore struggle the most.  Children in these communities also receive low levels of education due to the natural isolated landscape of the region. With the low levels of education comes a lack in technological advances, which in turn perpetuates the cycle of poverty throughout the region.

The threat of climate change, which has already begun to effect the agricultural production in the region, even further increases the need of these Andean communities for more assistance from the central government and non-profit organizations. With food security already being an issue, changes in climate will only negatively impact these communities unless the proper resources, education, and support are given both by the central government and outside organizations.

What is being done?

Organizations like Sierra Productiva are working to combat the ongoing poverty in the Andean communities from the ground up. They work with local farmers to educate and assist them in cultivating farming practices that not only can aid in sustaining their families and communities but also can be used as a source of revenue for the individual families. They work with local, small-scale farmers to educate and allow them the opportunity to replicate their knowledge for other community members and farmers. An example of their work is at a local guinea pig farm where they are working with the owners to create a sustainable business model in which their guinea pigs are sold to restaurants within the city. This is currently a successful model as they are selling to several well-known restaurants in Cusco, along with passing their knowledge onto other local farmers. With future work they hope to expand this business model to international sales of locally raised guinea pig, a staple in the Andean diet.

What is next?

With the work of organizations like Sierra Productiva and the continued hard work of Andean farmers the Government has begun to look to this region for it’s agricultural production opportunities. The issue will be maintaining the current small-scale approach that gives local farmers, both men and women, a way out of poverty. A way to maintain the small-scale production is through continued research into small-scale farming and production and the engineering to make such possible will be imperative.

By Tabia Gamble


Mariela Jara. “For the Rural Poor of Peru, the Social Agenda is Far Away.” http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/02/rural-poor-peru-social-agenda-far-away/

Incan Assimilation to Spanish Culture and Religion

After a short walk through the cobblestone streets of Cusco, we approached the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as the Cusco Cathedral, a grand place of worship and a sight to see from the city’s Plaza de Armas. I imagined that this cathedral would be like many I’ve seen throughout Latin America: a magnificent depiction of Roman Catholicism, with stained glass windows and Spanish art. But that was only half the story. The Cathedral was a mixture of Catholicism and traditional Inca culture and religion. The architecture, art, and adornments of the Cathedral told a story of Spanish domination and indigenous resilience and pride.

Shortly after capturing Cusco in 1533, the Spanish began to exert their influence by destroying Inca religious temples and building Catholic churches and other Spanish buildings on top of the ruins. In fact, according to our guide Maria, 82% of the Cathedral’s construction was built over the original Inca foundation. You can still see the rocks and stones used by the Inca throughout the church. Inca construction has been known to withstand Cusco’s large earthquakes, but not the Spanish buildings. Maria stated that the earthquakes of 1650 and 1950 destroyed the Cusco Cathedral and Spanish parts of the structure had to be rebuilt. Furthermore, the earthquake of 1650 forced the Spanish to migrate to Lima and build their capital there. However, the indigenous people – along with their culture and legacy – remained in Cusco, which is evident in the longevity of their influence in the Cusco Cathedral.

“The Last Supper” painting by Marcos Zapata, a Quechua painter, was the perfect representation of the mixing of indigenous culture and Catholicism. Completed in the 16th century and modeled after the original “Last Supper,” the painting features indigenous elements such as guinea pig as the main dish, potatoes, corn, chicha morada (a purple corn drink), and coca leaves. Also, in the painting Jesus and his disciples sit in a circle rather than next to each other in a linear fashion. The circle seating is representative of the communal style in which the indigenous ate meals.  Our guide Maria suggested that the depiction of Judas in the scene represented Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who conquered Cusco and the Inca. A final difference is that in the original “Last Supper” Jesus is usually depicted as blessing the food, his two fingers facing outward towards a person or the food, a motion that represents baptism. In Zapata’s version, however, Jesus’s two fingers rest against his body. This unique depiction suggests the painter may have been telling people to reject baptism and the Catholic Church.

The Last Supper, as painted by Marcos Zapata. (Public domain)

We can see the evidence of tensions between Incan assimilation to Catholicism, Incan pride in their own spirituality, and Incan resistance, when we can encounter the indigenous Christ, also known as the Lord of the Earthquakes (El Señor de los Temblores). According to our guide Maria, the Lord of the Earthquakes can only be seen in Cusco, furthering the idea of uniqueness of the Incan relationship with Catholicism. The Lord of the Earthquakes is depicted much differently than the European Christ and remains popular amongst indigenous people today. His face has indigenous features, his skin is dark, his legs and hands are deformed to represent the hardworking bodies of the Andean people. His crown is made of gold (a metal that was precious to the Incas) and has a small snake weaving through it (homage to the underground God in Incan religion). He has long hair like indigenous people and wears traditional Incan clothes. The indigenous Christ is also looking downwards, another nod to the underground heaven. Importantly, the indigenous Christ is not placed on a cross but rather on a T-shaped wooden structure. The traditional cross represents destruction, conquest, and obligation for the indigenous people, so their interpretation of Jesus could not be seen in such a way. The indigenous people today believe this iteration of Christ can talk to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. They celebrate separate masses in front of this Christ. The altar was decorated with fresh flowers and new offerings. The Lord of the Earthquakes shows that Incan spirituality, despite the Spanish attempt to subjugate it, has not and will never be forgotten.

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El Señor de los Temblores being brought out in a parade in Cusco. (Photo credit: Andina)

The Inca and their descendants were forced to assimilate to Spanish culture and religion, but their pride and faith in their own religion could not be altered. Instead of succumbing to Spanish dominance, the Inca people incorporated their own beliefs into Catholicism and made it their own. This speaks to the endurance of the indigenous people and Inca culture.

By Morgan Johnson


César Chacón Rosasco & Gretel Bardález Zambrano. Cusco’s Cathedral and the Church of the Society of Jesus. Kuskin Editores, 2011.

“Cusco Cathedral” https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cusco-cathedral

“Cusco Cathedral” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cusco_Cathedral

Andean Migration: Root Causes, Negative Consequences, and a Viable Future

The Veins of Latin America

The Andes mountains are crucial to Latin America, some might say the source of life for the continent. However, the riches found in the Andean mountain range have also drawn the attention of multiple entities that seek to exploit it. In his groundbreaking book, Las Venas Abiertas de Latinoamérica, renowned Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano spoke of the history of Latin America as being centered around the multiple national and international extractive interests on the continent. His book critiques the colonial and post-colonial mode of development because it is only interested in producing raw materials for Western powers, while ignoring Latin American people’s interests and well-being. This mode of development led to a state of mass poverty that continues to impact the continent today or led to, as Galeano phrases it, “la pobreza del hombre como resultado de la riqueza de la tierra/the poverty of men as a result of the earth’s riches.”

National and international extractivism focuses on Andean natural riches and often neglect the people who reside there and local ecosystems. As a result, people in the Andes have few economic opportunities in their home region. This leads to waves of migration out of the Andes to other parts of the continent. In Peru, Andean people migrate to urban areas, like Lima and Cuzco, or to rural regions, like the Amazon basin. This migration contributes to a multitude of problems in urban and rural areas, including but not limited to environmental destruction, economic instability, urban overcrowding, and social and racial tensions.

Problems of Migration

In rural areas, Andean migration tends to negatively impact the environment. Legal and illegal gold mining concessions provide much-needed income for poor Andean people. However, much of the mining goes unregulated, causing environmental destruction and disregard of local customs. This is particularly relevant in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios. Informal and illegal mining in this region causes environmental damage that includes deforestation, erosion, and mercury poisoning. Parts of this region – which is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world – have become barren wastelands with shanty towns that pose other problems, such as labor and sex trafficking. Previous interventions to end illegal mining in these regions have proven unsuccessful and seem more a show of strength by the state. The most current intervention, Operación Mercurio 2019, given its unprecedented scale and apparent inclusion of a development plan, has the potential to create lasting changes if followed properly. However, some Peruvian analysts, like Valerio Paucarmayta (Director of the Centro Bartolomé de las Casas), are skeptical of the long-term effects of these types of interventions.

In addition to environmental concerns, migration from the Andes can cause a lot of economic stress on urban areas. Cities like Lima and Cusco do not have the labor capacity to sustain jobs for the waves of migrants from the Andean highlands. Many Andean migrants are illiterate and can’t find jobs in the formal economy. As a result, most of these migrants participate in illegal or gray-area sectors (street vendors, home-based labor, etc). Peruvian professor and former Labor Minister, Fernando Villarán, mentioned that informal workers make up around 80% of the working force, yet the productivity of informal economic activities only make up 19% of Peru’s total GDP. This means that too many people take part in economic activities that do not contribute much to the overall economy, which stagnates the Peruvian economy. However, because the Andean region provides few jobs, migrants prefer low-income informal jobs over starvation and stagnation in their home regions.

Furthermore, Andean immigration affects urban overcrowding. Andean migrants in urban areas increase stresses on city governments unrelated to the macroeconomy. A pressing issue local urban governments face is the lack of housing and proper city planning. Andean migrants often take residence in the outskirts of cities through informal shanty towns. The houses in these towns are made up of wood or recycled metals that are slowly expanded through the years. These towns lack the utilities (water and sanitation, electricity, police presence, etc.) that are provided in formal residential sectors of the cities. This creates a multitude of issues including public health hazards, insecurity and crime, and a population that feels neglected by the government. All these issues lead to distrust in the government, preventing effective governance from taking place.

Another problem Andean migrants face is racism. Peruvian racism differs from traditional Western forms of racism because it is based more on culture than it is on skin color. Those who are indigenous (determined by traditional Andean clothing, Quechua or Aymara language, and Inca-inspired religious practices) are often seen as culturally inferior to mestizos or whites (determined by modern clothing, Spanish or European languages, and Catholic practices). This dichotomy goes back to colonial times when the Spanish subjugated indigenous groups that resisted assimilation and granted some benefits to those who adopted Spanish culture and rule. Since most Andean migrants that go to urban centers are illiterate and still follow Andean traditions, they experience racism that prevents them from integrating into urban life. While Peru does have a good track record of passing laws designed to deter discrimination, laws are not easily enforced in private matters of life.

Sustainable Responses

Given all the issues that Andean migration causes, the national government needs to adequately address the root causes of migration to prevent other social and environmental ills from spreading. This requires providing more economic incentives in Andean regions so that people don’t feel the need to look for income elsewhere. A Peruvian program, Sierra Productiva, seeks to address these issues of income and development. Sierra Productiva focuses on small-scale local development that seeks to strengthen communities through socio-economic empowerment and health-based initiatives. Sierra Productiva serves as a capacity-building engine that ensures Andean communities have secure and healthy sources of food but also produce goods and services that provide living wages and incomes. Their projects include helping communities farm sustainably and organically, effectively raise cuy (guinea pigs) according to international food standards, and facilitate dairy production. Their role within Andean communities is not one based on hierarchical power structures, but rather on horizontal collaborative efforts. Sierra Productiva seeks to capacitate Andean communities to follow their preferred method of economic development. The Peruvian national government should play a larger role in this type of development to break away from colonial and neo-colonial forms of development that focus on extractivism and not social welfare.

By Julian Moreno

Economic and Environmental Migration from the Andes

Economic opportunities and social limitations continue to be a major factor in the movement of people between the departments of Cuzco in the Andes and Madre de Dios in the Amazon. While individuals move for their own purposes, the larger trends in demographic change and employment sector growth have significant implications for individuals, communities, and the environment in both places.

The patterns of migration between Madre de Dios department and Cuzco department are unique within Peru. Madre de Dios represents the third most common destination for migrants from Cuzco. While Madre de Dios is the third most common destination for migrants from Cuzco, Cuzco is the number one destination for migrants from Madre de Dios. This goes against the national trend that sees a majority of migrants going to Lima department, where one-third of the nation’s population now resides. Statistically, this means that 31% of migrants arriving in Madre de Dios department between 2012 and 2017 came from Cuzco department, while 39.7% of migrants leaving Madre de Dios went to Cuzco. These rates are similar, but represent a net-increase of migrants in Madre de Dios department of approximately 7,000 people. Demographic information indicates that the individuals arriving in Madre de Dios department from the Cuzco department are overwhelmingly men.

What is causing these movements, and what do these numbers say about the lives of average Peruanos in the Madre de Dios and Cuzco departments? An exploration into the data on employment provides some answers. Formal data collected by Peru’s National Institute for Statistics and Information shows that extractive industrials, including gold mining, account for 42.7% of legal employment in the Madre de Dios department. What this statistic fails to reflect is the high number of ‘informal’, or illegal, gold miners and the informal employment in lodging, restaurants, commerce, prostitution, and construction that are in turn supported by the informal gold mining industry in Madre de Dios’ mining shanty towns. Estimates suggest that the actual percentage of the Madre de Dios department’s population that is engaged in gold mining is significantly higher, with many of these informal miners being migrants from the Andean region of Peru.

Migrants from Peru’s Andean region, especially the Cuzco department, are attracted to the Madre de Dios department in particular because of the financial opportunities available in mining gold. Many of these individuals come from high-elevation areas that lack adequate educational infrastructure, meaning that many adults from these areas are illiterate. With this limitation, these adults are effectively barred from well-paying tourism jobs in Cuzco city. In an effort to earn money that can be used to build a better life in the Andes, migrants come to Madre de Dios to mine gold.

While gold mining is a draw for many migrants from Cuzco department, it’s a repellent for many migrants from Madre de Dios department. The children of gold miners often choose not to follow in their parents’ footsteps and seek other financial opportunities elsewhere. Cuzco’s booming tourism industry, which is fed in part by the UNESCO World Heritage Site Machu Picchu, is one such opportunity. With better education than their gold mining migrant counterparts, migrants from Madre de Dios department arriving in Cuzco have more chances to be employed in well-paying tourism jobs. In short, the social capabilities of communities in the Andes and the Amazon have lasting repercussions on the financial opportunities available to individuals as adults.

These patterns of migration have lasting impacts on the environment. The rush of people to Madre de Dios department to exploit new areas of the Amazon for gold mining has increased since the opening of the Interoceanic Highway. Because gold mining in these areas requires the removal of vegetation (i.e. deforestation), and the processing of the gold releases the heavy metal mercury into the environment, including waterways, the long-term effects of gold mining on these areas of the forest is massive. Therefore, migration is facilitating an increased rate of deforestation and forest degradation.

Solving the issues of economic migration and environmental impact requires investing in communities, including through improving educational capabilities and promoting local and small-scale businesses that can provide economic opportunities in rural communities. Several organizations are currently working on this issue, including Sierra Productiva and Centro Bartolomé de las Casas, both of which we were able to meet with during our time in Cuzco. Through the efforts of these and other organizations, the structural issues that push individuals, especially those in poverty, to dangerous and illegal work can be addressed, and the quality of life for all Peruanos can be improved.

By Camille Westmont

Small Agriculture and Climate Change in the Andes

As the bus drove up the mountain to our next destination the snow topped mountains peeked through the clouds. From 1930 to 2009 glaciers have been shrinking and 50% of them no longer exist due to climate change. Not only do the farmers in the Andes depend on the freshwater from the glacier but the ecosystem depends on it as well. Glaciers act as a natural reservoir of freshwater. Without the reservoir during the dry season there will be decrease in water availability for human consumption and agriculture including small farms.

When visiting Don Francisco’s farm there were rows of cabbage, lettuce, onions, potatoes, and more. When getting the tour from Trini she stated that the crops are rotated to keep the soil rich. When asked about the effects of climate change on her crops, Trini stated that they are now able to grow crops such as corn, due to the increase in temperature, that they were not able to grow before.

We learned from Efrain Samochuallpa, Director of the Cusco office of Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA), that they focus on the conservation of the Amazon and Andes Watershed that include the Sacred Mountain, wetlands and ecosystems services related to water. The wetlands not only help sustain the ecosystem but help sustain the people who live in the area and their livelihoods. Without the watershed and wetlands, the crops will suffer and farmers like Don Francisco may suffer major losses due to inadequate irrigation of their crops.

The Andean people are adjusting to climate change by adapting. They are shifting crops; that is, growing potatoes and corn a bit higher and making small reservoirs to hold water especially during raining season so that their crops will have enough water during the dry season. Organizations like the ACCA and Sierra Productiva are assisting local farmers with adapting to climate change and educating them on how to maintain their crops. They have come up with new ways to save water through new irrigation techniques and have planted trees to protect crops from wind and other hazardous elements.

Although climate change directly affects small farmers in the Andes there are organizations who assist with educating and training the rural population on how to continue to provide for their families. Local institutions play a crucial role in shaping adaption to climate change by connecting local resources, linking local populations to national interventions and determining flows of external support to different social groups. Transparency, respect, honest,y and horizontal dialogue is key to ensuring an effective collaboration when battling the effects of climate change.

By Kristina Bunch