Sunday, March 28, 2010

Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?

Part of my insistence on adequate preparation for my next traveling experience - rain forest or otherwise - lies in the fact that I feel sort of disjointed here. I am in a rain forest. But nothing about it suggests to me that it is specifically a rain forest in Peru, that it is the Amazon. I place the blame for this mostly on myself - as I mentioned earlier it's mostly my poor knowledge of Spanish and, I would assume, my poor knowledge of what organisms I'm seeing here place me specifically herein the Peruvian Amazon. In Kenya, we were almost, or even more, isolated than here. A four hour drive through the desert to the nearest internet cafe is far more cut off from outside than I am here with my daily internet access. I can't imagine any sort of equivalent here of finding out about Michael Jackson's death via BBC Swahili on a static-distorted radio in the middle of Turkana. But in Turkana, I was completely immersed in the local culture concurrent with fieldwork. Here, I know very little about what's happening in Lima, 4 hours down river, or even on the illegal mining barge across the way. Consequently, what intrusions of reality and context there are into my monkey-chasing haven come as quite as a surprise.

To wit - earlier this month, the Peruvian minister of the environment fundamentally changed the situation for the Madre de Dios district of Peru. In a place where more than 2/3 of the economy relies in some fashion on illegal gold mining to function, suggestions that mining be better regulated (or really, regulated at all), do not go over well. But - that's what has happened. This minister has announced that, among other things, illegal miners will be evicted from the river patches they are mining; in order to be legal, all miners must include an environmental recovery plan; no mining is allowed on the northern shore of the Madre de Dios river; and the use of mercury is no longer allowed, even for legal miners. Predictably, this has infuriated a large portion of the Madre de Dios populace.

Perhaps less predictably, a certain amount of the blame for these new restrictions has been incorrectly placed on CICRA and its parent organization, ACCA. ACCA is interested in creating corridors linking CICRA's concession with another conservation concession further away. They have been talking to private landowners about using undeveloped land for this corridor. For a variety of reasons, though, miners have decided this means CICRA wants to buy up all the land in the area and stop all mining. In recent weeks, folks connected to CICRA have been kicked out of mining towns up river, and vaguely threatened. The threats have gotten more specific, and have been coming from closer and closer to home, especially as we get closer to a planned mining strike on April 4th. These include things like burning down the building at CICRA that houses the library and labs, and trashing other parts of the facilities.

Unfortunately, this means we have to stop everything and evacuate down to Puerto Maldonado. I head down on a boat with the other members of the monkey team in the next couple of days, and we will be hanging out there until the situation calms down - at least April 9, it looks like. We're moving the contents of the lab out into the middle of the jungle in case something does happen, but we're hopeful that the miners will have calmed down and not be interested in actually trashing anything. In an effort to encourage their non-interest, a number of members of the Peruvian military who patrol the Madre de Dios River will be staying at the research station and looking impressive, I guess. We all should be perfectly safe in Puerto, though, and hopefully nothing will happen to CICRA. It is bizarre, though, being on the side of The Man oppressing the common folks in this strike situation. The gold mining industry brings all sorts of complications, but watching this clash of environment and economic development unfold in front of me is really interesting. I just hope my books don't get burned up in the process!