Illegal mining is destroying the Amazon. Most people know this, but it is chilling to see the destruction in aerial images that show details of the mining camps, trucks and backhoes operating 24 hours a day. The images also show dredges extracting material from riverbeds, as well as the continuous movement of dozens of people operating them without consequences.
The Peruvian Air Force has given us a look into what is occurring right now at 327 different points in the provinces of Tambopata and Man, which are in Perus Madre de Dios department. Using drones and airplanes, more than 20,000 high-resolution photos and videos of the devastation have been captured.
Monitoring this part of the Amazon took place from Aug. 7 to 9 and was known as Operation Harpa. While the Peruvian military captured the images, two police operations were also carried out in real time on the ground near the Madre de Dios River, in the communities of Puerto La Pastora and Tres Islas.
On the morning of Aug. 9, a team of 12 people carried out this operation using images they received on their cell phones immediately after the images were captured by the Peruvian Air Force. The team was comprised of members of the police force, lawyers specializing in environmental matters, the harbor master of Peru, and the Peruvian Air Force.
It was a real-time operation, says attorney Karina Garay, who specializes in environmental matters in Madre de Dios. That day, according to Garay, while the Peruvian Air Force captured the photos in 327 different areas, they used WhatsApp to send confidential information to the team on the ground. In the following hours, the team entered several of those areas.
The georeferenced data shared by the Peruvian Air Force included the exact location coordinates of the mining camps. They also sent the team on the ground the number of people and dredges in certain areas, along with other information that the team could expect to find when they reached an identified location.
The result was the destruction of four dredges, seven rafts, 11 motors, 11 suction pumps, an electric generator, hoses and other equipment used to extract gold from the rainforest. The coordinated effort put into the operation allowed the team to ensure the effectiveness of their intervention.
Many times, they inform us about places where there is illegal mining, and when we arrive we dont find anything because they had time to flee. However, under this system, when we arrived, we found everything that the images had indicated, Garay said.
Each of the places monitored by experts from the Center for Amazonian and National Vigilance (CEVAN) has now been georeferenced and will be watched vigilantly in the coming years. The CEVAN belongs to the Aerospace Control Command within the Peruvian Air Force.
Gen. Jos Miguel Davis Molina of the Peruvian Air Force told Mongabay Latam that the team will continue to apply this type of operation in other areas of Peru. We began in Madre de Dios because of the quantity of information that we received about the area, but we have planned to be prompt in other settings in the country, he said.
A second operation, also based on the information from the Peruvian Air Force, took place on Aug. 14 along the Malinowski River near the indigenous community of Kotsimba. The area lies in the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. Garay, who also participated in this, said the Peruvian Navy requested the inspection in this area. When the images from the first operation were collected, it was decided that the second operation would follow.
What is revolutionary about Operation Harpa is that the monitoring points were defined in such a collaborative way. Davis said it was important to talk with people who have spent years studying environmental impacts in the Peruvian Amazon. For this reason, the operation was put together based on requests from several indigenous and civil organizations, along with some other public institutions.
The important thing has been the coordination with civil society allies in order to combine our abilities. They have certain requirements for information, and we have satisfactorily completed that need, Davis said.
The work was completed in collaboration with the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and its Tributaries (FENAMAD), the Amazonian Conservation Association (ACCA), the Ministry of Culture, the Regional Emergency Operations Center (COER), the Peruvian Coast Guard, and lawyers specializing in environmental matters.
For almost two months, each of these institutions presented a list of possible places to observe. The ACCAs requests mainly focused on logging camps and illegal logging, while FENAMAD focused on those issues as well as illegal mining. The Ministry of Culture wanted to observe areas close to uncontacted indigenous communities. The areas close to the Madre de Dios River were most important to the Peruvian Coast Guard. Those from the COER wanted to evaluate the condition of 15 caverns close to the city of Puerto Maldonado.
Daniela Pogliani, director of the ACCA, told Mongabay Latam that for this operation, her organization sent georeferenced points to the Peruvian Air Force to detect the presence of illegal mining in the Los Amigos area and in other areas.
For Julio Cusurichi, the president of FENAMAD, it was crucial to monitor some vulnerable areas where, according to his federation, there are problems with illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking. The land owned by native communities is invaded, and that puts the lives of uncontacted indigenous communities at risk because these activities are entering their forests. He said the information from the Peruvian Air Force will serve to show what is really happening in the rainforest.
Davis said the information will also be used to propose new public policies or to suggest modifications to existing ones. In other cases, it may also be used for tactical actions in certain areas that have been identified as being extremely threatened.
An uninterrupted video recorded over the course of 40 hours in the air can show a bleak scene. Some of the images show how the rainforests green canopy is perforated by gaps full of toxic waste products from illegal mining. Many of these spaces have been contaminated by mercury.
Empty mounds of land have replaced some areas once covered by forests, and the illegal miners have covered many natural areas with plastic. Dredges, bridges, people, trucks and unthinkable deforestation have all been captured in the images.
The videos are perhaps even more striking because they bring the viewer even closer to each place. The scenes show everything from empty hills to detailed views of vehicles, people and gallons of fuel.
The images taken overnight come with their own dynamic. In them, the night sky lights up with the activity of motors and the people using them. The destruction of the Amazon never stops; it continues all night long.
In some cases, software was used to analyze the images with color ranges. This was the case for the caverns near Puerto Maldonado, where there are large depressions in the land caused by erosion. They could collapse at any moment, destroying the surrounding houses. In these images, the red areas are the points that face the highest risk of collapsing. The COER was the organization that requested these specific images because it is vital for them to know the current state of the cracks in the caverns so that they can take measures to avoid a tragedy.
In total, a team of 47 people participated in Operation Harpa. It took over 18 hours flying in a C-26B aircraft outfitted with an ADS80 sensor and a high-resolution camera. It also took 22 hours of flight with unmanned aerial vehicles and eight drones using high-definition video cameras to capture videos of the caverns. Infrared cameras were used for the nighttime operations.
The minister of the environment, Fabiola Muoz, told Mongabay Latam that part of this monitoring work consisted of sharing information between the involved organizations. According to her, in Madre de Dios, a group of officials from eight different organizations have come together to confront the illegal mining in the area.