INSIGHTS: Mining Peru's Andean Forests Puts Unique Species, Ecosystem at Risk

By Craig C. Downer

MINDEN, Nevada, February 6, 2006 (ENS) - Though interspersed with sobering dangers, my trip to northwestern Peru in October and November 2005 has nonetheless proven to be enlightening. Now I realize just how urgent it is to change humanity's reigning values and lifestyles in order to save the natural forest and paramo still occurring here. I realize that every support must be given to the extensive grassroots movement that aims to do this.

Between 600,000 and 800,000 hectares in the mountains and valleys of Piura and Cajamarca states have recently been given over to companies as mining concessions by Peru's national government. The biggest concession is to the London-based Monterrico Metals plc, whose Peruvian company is Majaz.

As president of the Andean Tapir Fund, I am especially concerned because Monterrico Metals-Majaz' main project, known as Rio Blanco, is located on extremely steep and erodible slopes. It threatens the very heart of the habitat for Peru's last remaining Andean tapirs, Tapirus pinchaque, also called mountain tapirs, one of the world's most endangered large mammals.

Massive mining projects are planned in and around the Cerro Negro mountain area. Here, tens of thousands of hectares of virgin, or near virgin, cloud forest and treeless plateaus called paramos provide a last refuge for this woolly and nimble tapir as well as many other endemic rare and endangered species of plants and animals.

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Highland lake above Tapal Alto. This pristine area is jeopardized by mining concessions. (Photo © A. Zegarra)
Based on recent scientific evaluations, I estimate the remaining population of the mountain tapirs in Peru to be somewhere between 200 and 300 individuals.

Monterrico and other companies plan to mine copper and other metals such as molybdenum, gold, silver, and zinc using the ecologically devastating process of open pit mining combined with heap leaching using cyanide and other noxious chemicals to extract the metal from the crushed ore.

Not only would the mountain tapir and thousands of co-dependent plants and animals be negatively affected, but the headwaters of many of northwestern Peru's major lakes, such as Las Huaringas, and rivers would be thoughtlessly damaged and contaminated.

The rivers at risk include Rio Chira, Rio Piura, Rio Blanco, and the Rio Chipillico, which fills the agriculturally important San Lorenzo reservoir. Also at risk are the Rio Quiroz, which fills the equally important Poechos reservoir, Rio Huancabamba, and the Rio Chinchipe, which affects the only nature reserve in this area, the 29,500 hectare Tabaconas-Namballe National Sanctuary.

The headwaters of the Rio Quiroz are affected by mining concessions belonging to Newmont-USA, while the headwaters of Rio Chinchipe are seriously compromised by concessions belonging to Monterrico Metals-Majaz, according to Piuran plant ecologist Dr. Fidel Torres-Guevara, in an unpublished paper written in 2005.

The area that I visited above the highland community Tapal is known for its beautiful lakes, cloud forests and paramos, as well as healthy populations of endangered mountain tapirs, yet this relatively pristine area is being claimed by Newmont for open pit mining of copper and other metals.

If these operations are allowed to go through, a tragic swath of death and destruction would ensue and thousands of unique and endemic populations would be killed. Water supplies upon which thousands of people depend downslope would be largely dried up, and the water which remains would be contaminated now and for generations to come. This must not be allowed to happen!

The negative impacts of mining in these mountaintops and side slopes would be pervasive, affecting some of Peru's richest farmlands, where mangos, zapote, lemons, sugar, banana, coffee, rice, kapok, carob bean, and many other quality crops are produced.

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Grassroots protest against mining takeover of highlands in Ayabaca, frontier garrison capital of Ayabaca municipality. This provincial government has declared its highlands to be nature reserves, but are up against the federal government's support of the mining companies. June 2005. (Photo © A. Zegarra)
In general, northwestern Peru is very dry and contains extensive deserts, yet it is blessed with more water than most parts of western Peru, which contain some of the driest deserts in the world.

By damaging northwestern Peru's few precious highland water sources, an ever more extensive and severe desertification would be caused, as Dr. Torres-Guevara has substantiated in his 2003 book, "Mineria Metalica bajo El Niño en Piura: Injustificado Riesgo para su Vida y Desarrollo."

In a 2005 article, Torres-Guevara quotes a Monterrico Metals statement made in 2005, "Just the Rio Blanco project alone situated in the headwaters of Rio Chinchipe plans on extracting 20 million tons of ore per year to produce 200,000 tons of copper during each of the first five to ten years of operation. ... The flotation process that is planned would use 30 to 162 cubic meters of water per ton. This would total between 6,000 and 32,000 cubic meters of water used per year – and this is projected to increase in following years."

This impact would be devastating to northwestern Peru and its linked natural and agrarian ecosystems, because these precious waters would become terribly contaminated and their extraction for mining would disrupt the age-old, natural flow patterns throughout the region.

The millions of tons of waste rock that would be generated would continue to leach caustic sulfuric and nitrous acids for generations, releasing heavy metals that become incorporated into the food chain, including the human consumer.

The extensive algorrobo, or carob bean, forests of northwestern Peru, that depend on their deep roots to tap subterranean water flows, provide humans with a nutritious syrup that is commercially sold. This tree is also utilized as forage for goat herds and other herbivores, while affording firewood, pollen for honey, shade, wind breaks, and soil stabilization.

However, if the subterranean waters upon which this tree depends become contaminated due to mining operations up slope, and/or if the water tables sink too deeply due to the mining operations' disruption of natural flows, the algorrobo forests will perish along with thousands of co-dependent species, including many unique birds such as the endangered white-winged guan, Penelope albipennis, that occurs here and nowhere else.

The livelihoods of many thousands of campesinos would be negatively impacted, as would northwestern Peru's 231,402 hectare Man and the Biosphere site lying just to the northwest. This site covers another distinctive ecosystem with many rare and endemic species inhabiting the equatorial dry forest and the small remaining tropical Pacific forest.

The noxious effects of mining would reach the Pacific Ocean to the west, with its tidal estuaries. Thousands of fish species depend upon this fresh water inflow, having co-evolved with this continental input over thousands of generations.

Also jeopardized would be the freshwater Piuran white crocodile, unique to this area and struggling to survive in the polluted Chira River. This river has recently been dammed up at Sullana, as I observed, while noting how utterly eutrophied the dammed waters had become. These waters are now toxic due to the accumulation of human sewage and agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

This crocodile is probably a race of the American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN Red Data Book of 1996, and in need of our urgent help.

Strong winds that arise in the afternoon in Piura would become more extreme in their effects as the moderating effects of vegetative cover are undone. Scouring the ground, these atmospheric currents would lift many tons of fine particulates from the open pit mines and waste heaps. These particles would remain suspended for long periods in the atmosphere and would include heavy metals toxic to plants and animals and linked to various cancers in humans.

Of particular concern are the ever more frequent and more extreme El Niño climatic events that bring torrential downpourings and lashing winds to northwestern Peru. The exposed open pits, heap leach ponds, and discarded crushed ore mounds would be subject to damaging flooding and pounding rains and winds and would certainly spill or leach out their toxic acids and heavy metals during these El Niño events.

Potentially, not just hundreds but thousands of square kilometers would be seriously polluted, as the unique ecosystem of northwestern Peru is dealt what may prove its final death blow.

El Niño events are projected to become increasingly frequent and severe in future years. For this reason, it is all the more imperative that those Andean forests and paramos that have to date escaped destruction by humans be preserved intact.

They must be allowed to continue to act as vital living sponges that retain fertile soils and absorb rain water during storms, thus preventing floods, to release this water later during the long dry season that is becoming increasingly severe in northwestern Peru today.

As of 2003, there were about 206,000 hectares of suitable forest and paramo habitat for the mountain tapir in the northern Andes of Peru above the Huancabamba Depression, the southern limit for the mountain tapir, according to Diego Lizcano and Aivi Sissa in their 2003 article "Notes on the Distribution, and Conservation Status of Mountain Tapir" in the quarterly journal of the IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group.

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An endangered Andean, or mountain, tapir wearing a radio collar stands near a stream in a highland Andean forest. (Photo © Craig C. Downer)
Such an area could support between 350 and 375 mountain tapirs in theory, but due to heavy hunting, either for local consumption or for sale of parts used in folklore medicine, disease transmission and stress caused by habitat disturbance by both people and their livestock, I would estimate that only a little over half this number actually remains.

Very probably if the Monterrico and other associated mining projects are allowed to proceed, a final death blow could be dealt to this very ecologically important seed disperser and ancient living fossil in Peru.

For this reason, I am now preparing a professional justification for the creation of the Cerro Negro Andean Tapir National Sanctuary. This includes a map outlining the chief forests, including cloud forest and paramo, essential for the future survival of a viable connected population of mountain tapirs in northwestern Peru and linking with Ecuador just to the north.

This new sanctuary should contain at least 57,144 hectares of remnant tapir habitat and provide a biological corridor between the Tabaconas-Namballe National Sanctuary to the south and Ecuadorean habitat to the north, including Podocarpus National Park, where I have observed the mountain tapirs together with the ARCOIRIS conservation organization of Loja, Ecuador.

The creation of this sanctuary would fulfill the recommendation of the "WWF Rapid Biological Evaluation of the Tabaconas-Namballe Sanctuary and Surrounding Areas" that was issued in conjunction with Peru's natural resource agency, INRENA, in December 2003, as detailed in Informe WWF-OPP: OM-91.

This competent ecological evaluation urges the declaration of 57,144 hectares as an extension of the Tabaconas-Namballe National Sanctuary in order to protect a vital biological corridor to and with Ecuador linking further to the north.

Such a legally established corridor is urgently required to prevent excessive fragmentation of populations and habitats of the mountain tapir and other rare species and their respective unique habitats functioning as a unit.

This includes a new species in the genus Gynoxys, an aster genus that I documented as constituting the major food of the mountain tapir in Ecuador's Sangay National Park in a July 2001 article in the "Journal of Zoology-London."

Among the 13 species of amphibians documented by this WWF-funded study, two frog species appear to be new to science. Also observed were 186 species of birds and 59 species of mammals, the latter including one new bat and one new rodent species. Many other unknown species undoubtedly exist in this area.

The creation of the new Cerro Negro sanctuary would automatically cancel mining concessions in this ecologically precious and unique area and uphold the prohibition by Peruvian law of major industrial projects within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the Ecuadorean border. It would also assure the natural retention and provision of water to a number of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs upon which the vital domestic and export agricultural economy of northwestern Peru depends.

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An exploratory crew from Monterrico Metals drills in a Rio Blanco mining concession. (Photo courtesy Monterrico Metals)
As the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities affected by mining (CONACAMI-Peru) said in June 2004, "Open pit mining will not prove the economic salvation of NW Peru, rather it will employ only a relatively small percentage of locals in the short term while ruining their land and contaminating their water and air for generations to come. The companies will leave having enriched their stockholders and contributed to the consumerist lifestyle of the world's rich and wasteful class of people."

"In Peru, 3,500 communities have been thus affected by the mining industry, and their ecosystems have been poisoned, eroded, and devastated," the group said. "It is high time that people wake up and learn the lesson Mother Earth, or Pachamama, is trying to tell them and modify their lifestyles and priorities accordingly."

Unlike the vast areas of Peru already devastated by mining, overgrazing, and other human activities, the region of the Huancabamba Depression, where the Abra de Porciulla pass occurs at 2,144 meters above sea level, still preserves a relatively extensive viable Andean ecosystem. It is indeed an island of hope in today's world!

Mountains and valleys in this unique region are oriented not just north-south, but in diverse directions of the compass. This greater variety of formations has amplified the opportunities for the evolutionary formation of new biological species.

Acting in combination with the low elevation pass between Amazonia and the western coastal plain of Peru, this topography has allowed the intermingling, hybridization and evolution of many species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.

One species of endemic hummingbird, the Neblina metaltail, Metallura odomae, which occurs only in the paramo, is listed as Near Threatened in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and is considered a focal species for this region.

Bird species that have been judged Vulnerable to extinction in the paramo here include the bearded guan, Penelope barbata, and the masked saltator, Saltator cinctus.

The golden-plumed parakeet, Leptosittaca branickii, is another Vulnerable species found here and depends for food on the cones of the over-logged podocarpus conifer and for nesting depends on the dwindling wax palm.

The Endangered spectacled bear, Tremarctos ornatus, is found here, as is the Vulnerable cock-of-the-rock, Rupicola peruviana, and the rare Andean flicker, Colaptes rupicola, which I observed by Rio Mangas.

The region forms a key portion of the Northern Andean Center of Endemism that includes a band of subtropical and temperate Andean forest and paramo that extends from Colombia through Ecuador to northwestern Peru.

It contains a great diversity of small mammals, including rodents, a new species of Oryzomys in the Muridae family, and a curious collection of remnant marsupials dating from South America's period as an island continent whose isolation lasted 60 million years, from the early Paleocene to the late Pliocene epochs.

As a geographical barrier to mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, the Huancabamba Depression has played an important role in separating species by creating a divide between the more southern mid to high elevations of the Andes and their more northern Andean counterparts. At higher elevations, this includes the divide between more humid northern paramo and drier puna to the south.

The mountain tapir is closely linked to the paramo biome. The lakes of this region, including those above Tapal, the Huaringas, and the Arrebiatadas, are especially important for endemic frogs, presently found to be disappearing on a global scale; and for migratory birds, such as the blue winged teal, Anas discors; the Puna teal, Anas puna; and the Andean lapwing, Vanellus esplendens. These lakes are crucially important to many species that migrate from as far off as Canada and Argentina.

These and similar lakes purify and imbue their waters with special healthful qualities. Gravity then guides their waters downslope to make northwestern Peru one of the world's finest fruit producing areas. The majority of the people who live here do not want to see mining destroy their way of life, as their massive demonstrations for the past several years and in the present clearly indicate.

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This ancient stone statuette that appears to depict the mountain tapir is said to have been discovered in the highland forest area of Piura, near an ancient stone temple. (Photo © Craig C. Downer)
Also hidden in the cloud forests and paramos of northwestern Peru are ancient ruins, including a mysterious temple believed by locals to have been dedicated to a tapir god. From here I have observed one small statue, possibly of Chimú origin, with tiny flecks of black paint suggesting that this was meant to depict the mountain tapir. Glazed ceramic vessels have also been uncovered and are believed to be of Moché tribal provenance, particularly from the municipality of Yanta, whose highlands and lakes are a very important refuge for mountain tapirs – disturbingly, all under the dark cloud of mining concessions.

Traditional local shamans and their patients whom I have interviewed say they have experienced powerful innervating qualities when entering the pristine forests and paramo of the Cordillera de Las Lagunillas and experiencing its lakes and rivers. Perhaps it was for this reason that some of my local guides physically prohibited me from bathing in one of these highland lakes, thinking I would somehow alter its energetic balance or potency.

The force of their conviction leads me to theorize that the actual metals found in these mountains could, indeed, be important in maintaining certain geomagnetic fields and their subtle flows.

These could be intimately tied to the well being of all the plants and animals who live here and including especially humans who have been here for long periods of time, yet also including visitors like myself, who, though just briefly visiting the area, are positively affected by the harmony they feel here. This certainly has been the case with me.

This concept parallels that of the ancient Kogi who still inhabit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of northern Colombia. Their "mamos," or wisemen, warn against extracting gold, iron, or any naturally occurring metal from the Mother Earth and will even place gold statues in spots they consider strategic to the energetic balance and well-being of the life community they regard as family and which includes many wild plants and animals as well as their tribe.

Could these natives of the Peruvian and Colombian Andes be on to something very important here and which modern civilization ignores at its peril?

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Native purification ritual and rite of offering with local shaman in highland Tapal Lake, center of still occupied endangered mountain tapir habitat, including high elfin forest in proposed Cerro Negro Mountain Tapir Sanctuary. 2005. (Photo courtesy © A. Zegarra)
Does this involve the subtle electromagnetic force fields and currents that both protect and unite both individuals and species of plants and animals and are somehow essential to a more amply defined ecological well being for us all, individually and collectively?

And could this not have much to do with the electrical conductance that various metallic elements naturally dispersed in the earth and water maintain?

Perhaps in some little-recognized and remarkable way, the whole planet is kept alive by such subtle energies whose dynamics are maintained by the metals found in the Earth, and that give each region a special quality with which its life forms have co-evolved.

It follows that humans' thoughtless and insensitive, rock-pulverizing extraction of these metals, especially in the enormous scale of open pit mining, could do enormous damage to a finely balanced and tuned ecosystem that has been millions of years in the making.

This is a subject that demands greater investigation and further calls into question the massive processing of millions of tons of metal-bearing rocks to extract their metallic content for incorporation into an artificial world of humans' own making - one that today has lamentably, but not irremediably, become a monster parasite of Pachamama - Mother Earth.

{Craig C. Downer is president of the Andean Tapir Fund. Contact him by email at: ccdowner@yahoo.com}