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.
Indigenous people from the jungles of Peru line up in Puerto Maldonado to see Pope Francis. Photo by Luis Fernandez
My story here about the visit of Pope Francis to the Peruvian Amazon city of Puerto Maldonado was historic in every sense. It was the pope’s first visit to Amazonia, a region of South America the size of the continental United States. While he spoke largely about conservation of the Amazon’s great and important ecosystems, he mostly gave voice and inspiration to the forgotten, oppressed and shoved-aside peoples who live in those far-off places — the rightful owners of the land, the indigenous tribes of multiple nationalities.
Pope Francis clearly called on the Catholic Church of South America to live up to and live out the promise of his encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home, and called on the tribes for their guidance. This is a critical time for church leaders to step up, as my story discusses.
The pope greeting the people in the streets of Puerto Maldonado. Photo by Luis Fernandez