Hugh Thomson

Peru’s beauty has been a real curse

Rich in timber and gold, the country has become one of the most exploited on Earth, according to Joseph Zárate

Getty Images

As the planet gets more and more ravaged, the mind can begin to glaze over at the cumulative general statistics — so much rainforest lost, so many glaciers melted, so much less oil left. Joseph Zárate’s masterly new book reminds us that when it comes to fighting on the front line of the environmental wars, it’s all in the detail, and that nothing is quite as simple as might at first appear.

Some years ago I went to a remote area on the border between Peru and Bolivia where a meteorite had landed on a small village and caused mass poisoning. The hospitals had filled up both with the locals and with the police who had been sent to investigate. Given that meteorites are not known to contain toxic materials, this seemed curious to say the least.

To produce enough gold for a wedding ring you need to extract 50 tons of soil and then leach it with cyanide

What had really happened was that the red-hot meteorite had landed close to a small stream that meandered down from the hills and had sent a cloud of water vapour up into the air and over the community. Unbeknown to the locals, that stream had long been contaminated by illegal gold miners using arsenic in those nearby hills. What had poisoned them was not the meteorite but a vastly increased dose of what had slowly been affecting them for years in their water supply without anyone noticing. Their early mortality and liver problems had been put down to the hardship of the villagers’ lives.

Zárate goes in search of other such stories in his native Peru, a country that combines immense natural beauty with resources which multinational corporations are only too eager to exploit: timber, oil and gold.

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