The pope is visiting a Peruvian town ‘absolutely destroying itself’ for gold

Guadalupe Tayori and her four children spent eight hours traveling by truck, canoe and bus to reach the capital of Madre de Dios, in southeastern Peru, in hopes of hearing Pope Francis.

And the weathered 58-year-old woman from Puerto Luz is clear about what she wants from him: help clearing out the illegal gold-mining operations that have been encroaching on her indigenous reserve.

“Our rivers are dirty and drying up and the plants and the fish are dying,” she said. “We need him to help.”

When Pope Francis arrives in this troubled and far-flung community on Friday, he’ll be stepping into a political minefield, where environmentalists and some of the region’s most powerful politicians are fighting each other for the future of the region.

Puerto Maldonado — about 500 miles east of Lima — is the country’s gateway to the Amazon, the jumping-off point for eco-tourists who want to explore the natural riches of Tambopata national park.

But it’s also one of the hemisphere’s hotspots for illegal gold mining. And much of that metal winds up in the United States, where authorities say it has become a prime driver for money laundering.

On Tuesday, in response to a Miami Herald investigation about the global gold trade, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio urged the White House to investigate the practice.

“Trade in gold from Latin America, which is largely destined for U.S. consumers, is becoming the preferred way for drug cartels, terrorists and bad regimes to launder their dirty money,” he said.

The effects of that trade are plainly visible here. Large swaths of once verdant forest have been turned into desert-swept landscapes. Local environmental authorities say at least 270 square miles of forest have been felled in recent years, as about 30,000 to 40,000 informal and illegal miners have rushed into the area, encroaching on the buffer zone of the Tambopata park and indigenous reserves, protected areas designated for particular tribes, like Puerto Luz.

“This is a town in the Amazon that is absolutely destroying itself and no one seems to care,” said Puerto Maldonado Mayor Alain Gallegos, 46, who was ousted from office on Tuesday amid corruption allegations, hours after talking to the Miami Herald. “We’re being overrun by illegal mining … and we’re turning our jungle into a desert.”

It’s not just a conservation issue, said Humberto Cordero Galdós, the head of the Ministry of the Environment for Madre de Dios.

Mercury used in the mining process is leeching into the water, contaminating fish and working its way into the food supply. Now, villagers hundreds of miles away from mining areas are showing signs of mercury exposure.

“We’re seeing mercury contamination in humans, particularly in rural communities that rely on fishing to eat,” he said. “This has gone far beyond being an environmental problem; this is a public health problem.”

Pope Francis was in Chile this week, where he has been embraced by the faithful, but also faced sometimes violent protests by those who accuse the Catholic Church of turning a blind eye to pedophile priests.

He’ll be arriving in Peru’s capital, Lima, on Thursday and in Puerto Maldonado on Friday addressing crowds at an open air arena and holding a smaller meeting with indigenous leaders.

In some ways, this region is a stark example of some of the pope’s most pressing concerns. As he’s traveled the world he has often warned about how man and nature need to coexist — and how avarice is threatening the planet.

In a 2015 letter, called an encyclical, that he devoted to environmental issues, the pope specifically condemned gold mining as an example of the ways consumer demand from wealthy nations can degrade ecosystems in the developing world.

Describing scenes that are familiar around Madre de Dios, the pope wrote of “great human and environmental liabilities such as … depletion of natural reserves, deforestation … open pits, riven hills [and] polluted rivers.”

The governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Otsuka Salazar, is a proud native son — and a longtime gold miner. On his desk he keeps a fake golden ingot. On his finger he wears a heavy gold ring.

Salazar said he’s hoping the pope will weigh his words carefully during this trip — making clear that the needs of man have primacy over nature.

In the governor’s telling, the international community and conservation groups are forcing this region into abject poverty in the name of protecting the rainforest.

Global powers “are out there destroying the world, but they won’t even let us touch a tree,” he said. “Why should we be so poor when we’re surrounded by such riches? Why do we have to starve to death?”

Salazar said environmental groups — which he has sometimes tried to shut down — have been pushing the pope to take on the mining crisis during his speech, but he hoped Francis would be more diplomatic.

“I hope the pope will talk about integration and harmony with nature,” he said.

What’s clear is that the pope’s choice of words could have an impact in a country where 76 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.

More broadly, Francis has the potential to awaken international consumers to the perils of illegal gold mining, said Susan Egan Keane, senior director of global advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C., environmental group.

“There’s a responsibility of people in the developed world to pay attention to how their products are made,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of awareness. [The pope] may inspire consumers to be more educated about where their gold is coming from and make an effort to support jewelers and others who use mercury-free gold.”

Mercury pollution isn’t limited to Peru. Miners in more than 80 countries use mercury, including nations in Latin America, Asia and Africa, according to Keane.

Helping small-scale miners adopt mercury-free methods, obtain formal financing and gain legal status from governments can reduce environmental destruction, she said.

“Really at the root of this problem is people trying to earn a living,” Keane said.

While poverty is certainly fueling Peru’s gold rush, there’s also an element of greed in the industry, said Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos with Asociación Huarayo, a local nonprofit. For 20 years, his organization has been helping rescue children who have been lured to the mines to work for slave wages.

Young men are forced to do the heavy lifting and the women usually end up in the sex trade, he said. Most of them are recruited from the highlands far outside the region, to minimize their flight risk, he said.

“They call them ‘Andean kids’ and say they work like adults but get paid like children,” he explained. “The great riches of mining are built on the sweat and tears of children.”

Zevallos will be taking 15 girls recently rescued from the mines to hear the pope’s speech on Friday.

But he said it’s the government that needs to be moved by the pope’s words. The illegal mining camps aren’t a secret, but the administration seems unable or unwilling to shut them down.

“We have a weak and permissive state that’s allowing all this pollution and crime to happen,” he said. “This is all happening because someone is turning a blind eye to it. And that’s called corruption.”

Corruption has been a hot topic in the country for the past few weeks. In December, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly avoided being impeached after it emerged that he’d received payments from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht when he was prime minister during the Alejandro Toledo administration (2001-2006).

Three days later, on Christmas Eve, Kuczynski pardoned former President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who had served eight years of a 25-year sentence for human rights violations, including murder and kidnapping.

Kuczynski’s opponents see the pardon as a thinly veiled bribe for a faction of the Fuerza Popular congressional group — including Fujimori’s son Kenji — that ultimately prevented his impeachment.

Kuczynski has denied any wrongdoing and has said the pardon had been in the works for months. But many here are waiting to see if Pope Francis will address the issue.

Tayori, a member of the Harakbut indigenous group, said she hopes the pope’s presence will finally shine light on this neglected part of the country. There are expectations that Francis will be accompanied by Kuczynski during his trip, and Tayori said she planned to be front and center.

“I want the pope and the president to see that indigenous people really do exist,” she said. “[And] I want them to know that we don’t have any water.”

Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

Follow Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss