Artisanal Gold Mining in the Peruvian Amazon: Cross-boundary Interdisciplinary Work for Healthier Habitats and Healthier Humans
‘Plans are nothing but planning is everything" -Dwight D. Eisenhower
It's five in the morning on December 20 at ‘Los Amigos’ Biological Station, where different international and national teams of scientists get ready early for a new day of scientific exploration and research. My team and I arrived two days ago from Puerto Maldonado (capital of Madre de Dios department), after two days zigzagging upstream the Madre de Dios River, which widened considerably due to torrential rains the last couple of days.
The scientific station, the most active biological station in the Amazon, sits at the shores of Madre the Dios River in the middle of the triangle of the Tambopata National Reserve (west), the Native Reserve Amarakaeri –adjacent to areas inhabited by segments of indigenous peoples in isolation (east), and the conservation concession of ‘Los Amigos’ (north). Its location makes the station the perfect hub for scientific exploration through this region, which is part of the vast Amazon River watershed.
After a full local breakfast served by the station staff, we are ready to head east, parallel to Rio Inambari, to collect water and sediments samples from the Madre de Dios river’s tributaries (Colorado, Los Amigos, Manu). Suddenly, the boat stops after a sign of Jackie (our team leader) to our helmsman, and this is the moment in which all preparations come to fruition: everybody in the boat diligently starts handling sample materials under strict scientific protocols rehearsed before. Here every sample counts and is treated as gold itself, in the end, we have come so far, and so much preparation and planning are behind every sample, that we must aim for excellence.
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Communities won't care how much you know, until they know how much you care
The Peruvian Region of Madre de Dios covers one of the largest areas of tropical forests in the world (approx. 8 million hectares). However, the construction of the interoceanic highway transformed the landscape in a way never seen before. For about a decade Duke scientific teams have documented it: the increase in the human population, driven mainly by informal mining and facilitated by the new highway, has increased deforestation and environmental degradation at an unprecedented intensity and speed affecting one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
Before traveling to Peru, my team briefed me on the many environmental and human health challenges of the region with great depth and level of scientific detail. The current research questions are based on the information gathered during previous scientific immersions in the Peruvian Amazon over at least ten years. Even more enthralling was witnessing the amount of preparation and logistical arrangements required to successfully bring the necessary equipment down to the middle of the jungle.
Before coming to Duke, I worked with the United Nations on political affairs and humanitarian diplomacy during crises –from natural disasters and public health emergencies to armed conflicts, and in different settings around the world. I conducted and led myriad field missions, and I know how important it is to have a keen attention to detail while being flexible enough to improvise if necessary. This was my first scientific mission, though, and I was thrilled by the professionalism and great chemistry among the members of my team.
In addition to getting more familiar with the scientific work behind mercury science, my primary objective was to get the most critical element of my research: the perspective of local communities. This is, in fact, the starting point of my research on a subject that has allowed me to work on two significant issues related to the global development agenda: climate crisis and global health.
Duke teams have been working in the region for almost a decade, and during this time, there has been intensive community engagement that allowed us to be welcomed and reach out to different stakeholders. This is critical when working with policymakers, however, it’s an at element often disregarded by scientists. It was rewarding to discover that this was not the case and Duke teams have taken communities and stakeholders very seriously.
I spent a significant part of my time engaging native communities of the region. One of them, ‘Tres Islas’ indigenous community, was granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), on September 8, 2017, because of the high level of contamination by mercury as a result of the presence of mining concessions in their territory, and because they experienced land grabbing and indiscriminate deforestation.
Exploring multiple pathways: from global to local, top-down, bottom-up and sideways policy research
Before leaving for Peru, much of my semester was spent at the Bernhardt Lab at French Family building for the weekly Bass Connections team meeting. Three weeks before we left, I briefed the team on my work in Geneva a week prior during the COP2 on mercury,. We also discussed the logistical arrangements for the forthcoming mission to Peru.
It has been a productive semester, as I have defined the policy context of the human and environmental epidemiology of the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. For the second phase, I am attempting to craft the required actions towards the creation of an enabling environment for knowledge cross-fertilization and translation among different stakeholders, in support of the scientific activities and towards the benefit of the local communities.
My work will require sustaining engagement with different stakeholder at global, national and local levels. Throughout this rich academic journey, I also have been advising Duke ‘mercury science’ teams on harnessing and strengthening strategic partnerships across the scientific community, and on how to enhance inter-agency partnerships, coordination and cooperation on a range of science-policy -relevant matters. I am working at the intersections of environment, health, and socio-political issues, and I am interacting with key stakeholders at the different levels with the purpose of contributing to healthy habitats for healthy humans.
Local realities, global fora
When I started my first assignment with the United Nations in Geneva back in 2009, it would have been difficult to imagine I would be returning as a mid-career fellow researching on environmental science and global health. I attended the second meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP2) that took place between the 19 and 23 November 2018. Five months before, during the summer, I was in the city as part of the Duke Global Policy Program, but this time was somewhat more hectic because I was trying to make every minute count; it was an opportunity to building up a working relationship and interview as many stakeholders as possible. It was also the best platform to present Duke research streams to key stakeholders while allowing me to foster further collaborations at different levels (and across silos and sectors).
In Geneva, I connected with a whole community of practice that was instrumental during the scientific mission to Peru. In Lima, as well as in the Madre de Dios region I had the opportunity to meet the Ministries of Environment and Health, the Regional Governor of the Madre de Dios, and other national and regional authorities, as well as with key stakeholders such as WWF and cooperation agencies (visit to Lima).
Finally, last week in Washington DC, I held meetings with the World Bank Group and the Pan American Health Organization in our attempt to create a multi-level partnership strategy to strengthen outreach, dissemination, and impact of Duke scientific missions, in the benefit of the most affected communities.
In Geneva, Switzerland, during the State Parties Meeting of the convention on Mercury - Chris Lara (left) with Rossana Silva, Executive Secretary of the Minamata COP2 (center) and Mariano Castro, former Deputy Minister of Environment of Peru (right) (photo Chris Lara)
Making way for sustainable future interventions
Even though my training in the MIDP degree program at the Sanford School of Public Policy has included a considerable component of policy analysis and international development, my role in this project has been quite focused on bridging the gaps among disciplines through the identification of synergies, connecting the dots, and creating collaboration opportunities. This work has been greatly facilitated by the previous extensive work of Duke team in the region.
It is great to see how the bridges been built are serving as platforms in which halfway encounters among silos are facilitated while creating the opportunity to arrive at innovative perspectives regarding the same topics, in a more collaboratively manner.
Looking forward, I am convinced that the role of academic research institutions is critical to realize the Sustainable Development Goals, the only global framework that exists to tackle the most pressing problems faced by humanity. When I return to my assignments with the United Nations, I will continue working on strategic policy and planning tools that can help our global operations to drive responses upon challenging situations in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions.
In addition to Bass Connections grant, my research has been possible thanks to the generous support of the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies (CLACS), the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS), Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, and undisclosed individuals.
RELATED: Read Chris Lara's recap of his Applied Field Experience (AFE) over at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center blog