Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - Portrait of Victor Zambrano and Demetro Pacheco with an Ojé tree also known as Ficus...
Portrait of Victor Zambrano and Demetro Pacheco with an Ojé tree also known as Ficus insipida. They are both activists and environmental leaders, defenders of native forests and their biodiversity. Victor and Demetro work at the management committee of the Tambopata Reserve in the Madre de Dios region.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - A military man, next to a miner, observes the pit from which gold is extracted. The mining camp...
A military man, next to a miner, observes the pit from which gold is extracted. The mining camp on the Inter-Oceanic Highway South, Kilometro 101. Only 1% of mining operations are formalized in Madre de Dios, Kilometro 101 is one of the legal and formalized mining camps. However, its mining methods, and especially the impact and destruction of the forest, are no different from illegal mining. The pit is only 6 months old with 6 to 7 meters deep.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - For more than ten years, illegal gold mining has been practiced in the indigenous territory of...
For more than ten years, illegal gold mining has been practiced in the indigenous territory of Kotzimba, destroying more than 500 hectares of native forest, according to SERNANP (National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State). This caused the Malinowski River to lose its course and what should be a land covered with trees has become a desert. A land of sands dotted with pools of mercury-laden orange water.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - Detail of the tattoos on Celine's hand, a victim of trafficking and forced prostitution...
Detail of the tattoos on Celine's hand, a victim of trafficking and forced prostitution in Puerto Maldonado, in brothels run by illegal miners. Celine was recruited by false pretenses in her village in Siacuani two years ago, when she was 16 years old. At 17, she had a miscarriage and health consequences.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - Portrait of Celine, a victim of trafficking and forced prostitution in Puerto Maldonado, in...
Portrait of Celine, a victim of trafficking and forced prostitution in Puerto Maldonado, in brothels run by illegal miners. Celine was recruited by false pretenses in her village in Siacuani two years ago, when she was 16 years old. At 17, she had a miscarriage and health consequences. "Celine's story is the story of all Celine's," says her caregiver, a member of the NGO CHS, which helps victims of violence or human trafficking.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - The trafficking of minors and forced prostitution are related to the illegal mining activities....
The trafficking of minors and forced prostitution are related to the illegal mining activities. These brothels in the city of Puerto Maldonado, bear the symbol of the purple-blue light, which indicates to the local miners the presence of underage girls. Many of these girls and adolescents are recruited under false pretenses and brought from rural and indigenous communities where they are almost never claimed.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - Miners from the mining camp on the Inter-oceanic Highway South, Kilometer 101. Only 1% of mining...
Miners from the mining camp on the Inter-oceanic Highway South, Kilometer 101. Only 1% of mining operations are formalized in Madre de Dios, Kilometro 101 is one of the legal and formalized mining camps. However, its mining methods, and especially the impact and destruction of the forest, are no different from illegal mining.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - An estimated 150,000 hectares of forest has been destroyed in the Madre de Dios region. In this...
An estimated 150,000 hectares of forest has been destroyed in the Madre de Dios region. In this former mining camp dismantled in 2019 during the Operation Mercury, what should be a land covered with trees has become a desert. A land of sands dotted with pools of strangely colored water laden with mercury.
Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News - Portrait of General Bianchi at the military base located on a former mining camp. In 2019 during...
Portrait of General Bianchi at the military base located on a former mining camp. In 2019 during the Operation Mercury, 300 military personnel stopped illegal mining in La Pampa, destroying heavy machinery that is used to extract gold from the earth. Only this year, General Bianchi has led 72 operations to dismantle mining camps in which 52 million Peruvian Soles worth of mining material has been destroyed.

Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News

Profile photo of Florence Goupil
Florence Goupil
Photographer based in Cusco, Peru

Illegal gold mining in southeastern Peru has fueled the destruction of a massive swath of rainforest and the killing of dozens of environmental activists.


LA PAMPA, Peru – Deep in the Amazon rainforest, a half-dozen Peruvian military vehicles are rumbling along a dirt path that cuts through dense jungle.Roughly 90 minutes into the journey, the rows of trees come to a sudden end. The soldiers jump out of the vehicles as their leader, Gen. Paul Bianchi, surveys the landscape.The forest has given way to a barren wasteland. The lush canopy is gone. In its place are polluted ponds and vast stretches of parched sand.The only things rising from the ground here are strips of wood not much wider than baseball bats – the carcasses of dead trees.“This is an example of how unscrupulous people turn this beautiful paradise into a desert-like area,” the general says.

This section of the Peruvian Amazon, known as La Pampa, is now under the control of Bianchi’s soldiers.It’s a place that few outsiders have visited. A place where just a few years ago, even the local police dared not enter.NBC is the first news network to access the area with the special forces since the pandemic.To understand what happened here, you must go back almost 15 years when illegal miners arrived in droves, along with the mafias that direct and profit off them. What lured them to this remote jungle was the treasure that lies just beneath the soil: tiny flecks of pure gold.

As the mining operations expanded, so did the ecological devastation. The miners chopped down huge swaths of rainforest in what was once one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The toxic chemical they use to separate gold from the sediment – mercury – wreaked havoc on the land. Acre by acre, pristine vegetation was replaced by clay-colored sand and pools of contaminated water that poisoned fish and permeated the soil.

In time the area also gave rise to an illicit shantytown replete with bars, brothels and trafficked young girls. More than 25,000 people were believed to be living here in 2019.In February of that year, the Peruvian authorities launched a massive effort to eradicate illegal mining in this part of southeastern Peru for good.More than 2,000 soldiers and 1,500 police officers moved in as part of Operation Mercury, blowing up mining equipment and using tear gas to drive out the miners and others living there.The mission was seen as a success, but the story of La Pampa is still being written.


By Lisa Cavazuti, Cynthia McFadden, Kevin Monahan, Yasmine Salam and Rich Schapiro

Photography by Florence Goupil for NBC News

Drone Video by William Angelucci

Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone
 Illegal gold mining in southeastern Peru has fueled the destruction of a massive swath of rainforest and the killing of dozens of environmental activists.
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Paradise lost: Inside Peru's emergency zone for NBC News
Copyright Florence Goupil 2024
Updated Sep 2022
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