Conflicting Industries Fuel Amazon Workforce

Mining is to ecotourism as oil is to water; however, in a region of Peru they intertwine, as local residents shift between the two economies to maintain their livelihoods.

Gordon Ulmer, a doctoral student in anthropology, studies extractive economies such as gold mining and logging in relation to biodiversity conservation in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. After an 18-month ethnographic study, he found that many locals participate in both gold mining and conservation jobs such as ecotourism. The link between these two seemingly opposite industries, he says, is that they both offer short-term earning opportunities to a disenfranchised population.

(Pictured right: Gordon Ulmer riding a water taxi on the Madre de Dios River.)

Since the turn of the century, and especially since the global economic recession of 2008, gold profits soared on Wall Street and gold fever broke out in Amazonia, Ulmer says. Increased market demand influenced nearly 40,000 people to move to the Madre de Dios region to look for work, predominantly in illegal gold mining, according to the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in Peru. These workers earn about the equivalent of $80 per day, while the minimum average salary in Peru is markedly lower at roughly $10 per day.

While the salary is desirous, the work is very dangerous, according to Ulmer.

“Almost every gold miner that I spoke to has witnessed a death or knows somebody who’s died in the gold mines,” Ulmer says.

Due to cultural and economic factors, however, other high-paying jobs in the region are not easily attainable.

One active service sector opportunity in Madre de Dios is ecotourism, which, according to the International Ecotourism Society, is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. Residents of the Madre de Dios region want to work in ecotourism, Ulmer says, because deeply ingrained in their culture is an appreciation for working in the environment.

Residents pilot boats to transport visitors to and from eco-lodges, maintain the eco-lodges, cook meals, lead tours and educate visitors. Many of these are “odd jobs,” or informal short-term earning opportunities for unskilled conservation staff. The higher-paying jobs, providing economic security, are in professional positions (e.g. educated tour guides, administrators) that require higher education, multilingualism and certification. One of the primary ways to earn money for higher education, Ulmer says, is through gold mining and logging, despite the profound environmental cost to the Peruvian Amazon.

“The intensification of mining caused a tripling of the rate of deforestation and a surge in human rights issues and labor abuses in Madre de Dios,” Ulmer says, “such as de facto slavery through debt peonage, human trafficking and child prostitution, and exposure to unhealthy levels of mercury in soils, waterways and aquatic food supplies.”

The path to removing mining and logging from the labor market without further impoverishing a society is a complicated matter, Ulmer says. While extractive economies are damaging to the Amazon, numerous families across Andes-Amazonia Peru rely on this job market for survival. Cultural and social influences also affect their labor choices, Ulmer adds.

(Pictured above: Landscape mining in the Madre de Dios region.)

“Working in conservation and extraction are complimentary responses to household insecurities and reflect broader strategies for surviving in a place where the informal economy is not just a means of living,” Ulmer concludes from his research, “but also a way of life.”

He presented his findings Nov. 16-20, 2016, at the American Anthropological Association 115th Annual Conference in Minneapolis. The Office of Energy and Environment helped fund his trip via a student travel scholarship.

Ulmer says the conference had an international reach, and he hopes his presentation had an impact on the anthropological community.

“A conference panel,” Ulmer says, “often pushes the envelope on a new concept or way of thinking about an old idea.”

Written by Carlee Frank, student communications assistant