LIMA (Reuters) - At least three protesters were killed and 32 people wounded on Wednesday as police in southeastern Peru clashed with wildcat, or illegal, miners opposed to a government crackdown on unauthorized gold mining, the interior minister and the ombudsman’s office said.
Seven of those hurt in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios were policemen. The clash was the latest test for President Ollanta Humala, who has vowed to defuse some 200 disputes nationwide over natural resources in one of the world’s top metals exporters.
Humala has sought to calm social conflicts by ramping up welfare programs and urging mediation to avert violence that plagued his predecessor, Alan Garcia. More than 100 people died in environmental protests during Garcia’s term. So far, four people have died in protests since Humala took office in July.
The government is trying to stop informal gold mining in the Amazon region by seizing dredging equipment and setting it ablaze. Wildcat mining has been blamed for turning swaths of rain forest into a toxic desert and polluting rivers with mercury used to isolate gold.
“We’ve detained 40 people and we are trying to catch the leaders of illegal mining that caused this problem,” Interior Minister Daniel Lozada told reporters.
Wildcat miners from Madre de Dios, a restive region on the border with Brazil, are politically active.
Eulogio Amado Romero, a congressman from Madre de Dios, was suspended from Humala’s coalition in September for having ties to wildcat gold mining.
Romero, who is known by the nickname Come Oro, or Gold Eater, has denied local media reports that he helped organize the protests.
“Violence has occurred today because the protesters have blocked key roads,” said Guimo Loaiza of Peru’s ombudsman’s office in Madre de Dios. “They responded with sticks and stones when police tried to restore order.”
Wildcat miners are demanding the government throw out decrees Humala issued that toughen laws against illegal mining and give the government more power to seize their equipment.
“The decrees have demonized us and turned us into criminals,” said Julio Luna, a leader of the wildcat miners.
Peru is a leading producer of copper, zinc, and silver. It is the world’s sixth-largest gold producer.
Madre de Dios produces about 19 million fine grams of gold a year, or about 10 to 15 percent of Peru’s annual output. Some 40,000 people in the region are involved in wildcat mining or depend on it. It is a billion dollar industry in Madre de Dios.
Poor Peruvians seeking jobs have migrated to the jungle as gold hovers near record prices of $1,640 an ounce. Rough-and-tumble boomtowns near mining camps are full of bars, brothels, shops selling mercury, and middlemen who buy and sell gold.
“The real promoters of illegal mining are organized mafias that exploit men, women and children, who work in slave-like conditions,” said Pedro Martinez, head of Peru’s association of mining and oil companies, which represents large producers.
Even as it cracks down on wildcat mining, the government has encouraged the construction of big, modern mines - like the $4.8 billion Conga gold project of U.S.-based Newmont Mining (NEM.N).
That project has been delayed by local community opposition over concerns it would replace a series of alpine lakes in the northern region of Cajamarca with artificial reservoirs.
Reporting By Omar Mariluz, Enrique Mandujano, Teresa Cespedes and Terry Wade; Editing by Peter Cooney