Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.
But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.
I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.
It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.
The reality of illegal gold mining: total environmental devastation in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler of Mongabay.com
In the waning days of President Ollanta Humala’s administration in July 2016, Peru’s National Congress approved a set of innovative climate change-related policies designed to reduce deforestation, protect watersheds and biodiversity, and provide the tools needed to leverage international investment through UN programs such as REDD+ and the Green Climate Fund.
But a new administration has taken over and lawlessness is often the rule in the Amazon basin. My story for Mongabay.com looks at the new policies and the challenges for implementation. First time with with Mongabay editor Morgan Erickson-Davis, who did a great job with my story.
This broad-leafed plant in the rubiaceae, or coffee, family was spotted at 8,000 feet elevation in the Amazon basin of the Peruvian Andes. Such species are not normally seen at such high elevations. Photograph by Justin Catanoso
Excerpt: “As I learned in my reporting last summer, (2013) in temperate or cold climates, trees and plants are adapted to wide temperature ranges and can migrate to latitudes for many miles north to stay in their ecological comfort zones. In the tropics, where most of the world’s biodiversity exists, trees and plants live in extremely narrow temperature ranges. To survive, they will need to reproduce in higher altitudes where space is far more limited and upslope soils might not be accommodating – hence the possible threat to coffee growing in the future.”