Months after the military expelled thousands of illegal miners from La Pampa, researchers gained access to a sandy wasteland.
“Holy shit!” Miles Silman gasped as his motorized rickshaw rattled out of the forest and onto a desolate beach. All traces of the trees, vines and swamps that once covered this patch of the Amazon had vanished. In their place were sun-baked dunes and polluted ponds created by illegal gold-mining. Silman, a conservation biologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was there to document the carnage.
La Pampa was once the largest and most dangerous gold-mining zone in the Peruvian Amazon, so riddled with gangsters that scientists dared not enter. For nearly a decade, they could only watch by satellite as gold hunters mowed down some of the most biodiverse rainforest on the planet. That ended in February 2019, when the government declared martial law and expelled an estimated 5,000 miners.
Now, La Pampa is deserted and under military guard. When Silman and his colleagues surveyed the area for the first time in late June, they found a barren, eerily quiet landscape polluted with mercury, a toxic by-product of mining. The data that the researchers collect on this inadvertent experiment could help to determine the extent to which restoration is possible — or document the evolution of an entirely new, and human-made, ecosystem.