Slicing through Peru’s rainforest landscape is the Madre de Dios river. Also known as the River of Serpents, the waterway winds for over 700 miles from the Cordillera de Carabaya in the eastern of the Andes. From here, it meanders east towards the Bolivian border before joining the Beni River in remote north-western Bolivia. The rainforest river is the largest watershed in the area and is a part of the Amazon River drainage base. It serves as an important transportation vessel to which many smaller tributaries feed into.
While on our trip to Peru, we visited the Madre de Dios river, discovering its wealth of secrets along our route. Here we look at the history and journey of this rainforest river as it courses through the Amazon rainforest.
The Discovery of the Madre de Dios Rainforest River
Several explorers tried to cross the Amazon jungle and uncover its secrets in the early sixteenth century. It was believed the region was home to Paititi, the utopian lost city of El Dorado. The legendary lost city is thought to be hidden among the remote rainforests in Peru. This saw many going on a fruitless trek into the rainforests and mountains of South America on the quest for gold.
Greek captain Pedro Anzures de Campo Redondo and his party failed twice to cross the impenetrable jungle landscape. However, a few years later in 1567, Spanish captain Alvarez de Maldonado made a successful attempt. He was the first Spaniard to explore these territories and his journey marked the discovery of the Madre de Dios river. However, the expedition too proved brutal; sickness and indigenous attacks saw over 200 men lose their lives. The hardness of these events meant it was a long time before Spaniards ventured into the region again. Thankfully, locals guided Alvarez Maldonado to safety and his discoveries could be shared with the world. His finding of the rainforest river was the first step at uncovering the secrets of the Peruvian forest.
Illegal Gold Mining Disaster in La Pampa
A theme of gold continues along the rainforest river in the Madre de Dios region. A town called La Pampa became a gold mining hotspot decades ago for miners traveling down the river from the Andes. Many small-scale illegal gold miners took to the area which then rapidly became a mining hub. However, while gold stands for wealth and luxury, the process of mining gold is far from alluring. Their activities transformed La Pampa into the largest and most dangerous gold mining zone in Peru. It was a boom of not only illegal mining, but of slavery, organized crime, and prostitution.
Mineworkers here use the same tools that laborers used in the USA in the 1950s. The uppermost levels of rock are blasted off using high-pressure hoses, leading to severe environmental damage. The runoff is collected with sluice and mercury separates the gold from the other metals. It’s a destructive yet easy-to-learn process and enabled anyone to collect silt. Even newly trained miners had the skill to dig out 15g of gold per day. On the global market, this is worth several hundred dollars. It saw the crime rate and illegal activity in La Pampa rise exponentially.
Environmental Destruction of La Pampa Being Restored
Thankfully, after years of scientists being too scared to enter the crime-infested region, La Pampa today lies deserted. However, the environmental repercussions of illegal mining are far from forgotten; the rainforest river landscape is a manmade wasteland. The lush tree-lined riverbanks and jungle now lie as a vast and empty desert. Only polluted ponds break the barren deforested landscape. Each pond is contaminated with high levels of mercury which feeds into the food chain. Mercury acts as a neurotoxin and poising the nervous system. The high levels of contamination are catastrophic for native wildlife and pose a major risk to human health.
Teams are currently working on restoring the vast area of deforestation along the banks of the rainforest river. The Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation (CINCIA) mapped the area using drones to see the extent of the damage. Working with the Peruvian government, much effort is going into restoring the area. They are researching the best ways to recolonize the landscape and replace lost nutrients in the soil. Already the number of fish in ponds is starting to increase and life is returning to the derelict Amazonian forest.
However, the work in La Pampa is not the end of the issue. Illegal miners continue to follow the gold along the Madre de Dios rainforest river. According to the Amazon Conservation Association, around 30,000 illegal miners were operating in 2013. Following the surge in poverty following this pandemic, this number is only thought to have increased. As one of the poorest areas in Peru, mining provides and income for locals. It is an ultimate poverty trap, offering temporary financial relief yet with dire health and environmental consequences.
Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Along the Rainforest River
The Madre de Dios region in Peru is occupied by diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Many of these indigenous people have called the area their home for the past 3,000 years. The Eje Esa reside in the forests lining the southern-most part of the river before it crosses the Bolivian border. Further upstream lives the Harakbut, which also branches out to the Colorado, Pukiri, and Inambari river basins. Within Manu National Park in the far western forests surrounding the Madre de Dios river lives the Matsigenka.
Within the twentieth-century rubber boom, a further four ethnic groups entered the area: The Yine, the Amahuaca, the Shipibo, and the Kichwa Runa. The latter live within the basin of the Madre de Dios rainforest river itself. All seven native communities are officially recognized by the Peruvian government. The Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (FENAMAD), founded in 1982, represents all indigenous people. It seeks to defend the rights of the native populations and protect their homes. Yet sadly, many of the indigenous people involved in illegal gold mining have been forced into it. The practice takes over regions where they live, even on protected indigenous reserves. Taking over communities and destroying biodiversity, the five-hundred-year-old ongoing search for gold in the Amazon needs to stop.