Peruvian journalist Manuel Calloquispe began reporting on illegal mining after witnessing environmental degradation in the rainforest where he grew up. (Photo courtesy of Manuel Calloquispe)

Peru’s Manuel Calloquispe faces threats and assaults to expose environmental damage from illegal Amazon mining

Manuel Calloquispe has had to face an angry mob laying siege to his house. He’s been called a traitor. He’s been punched and kicked by miners and had his equipment stolen. He once had to duck for cover when someone threw a machete at him.

The reason: His decade reporting on the environmental havoc caused by the illegal extraction of gold from his childhood home in the Amazon rainforest in eastern Peru.

Despite the danger, Calloquispe, a freelancer for El Comercio, Latina Televisión, and environmental news site Inforegión, presses ahead with his investigations and scoops.

Unlike Lima reporters who sometimes cover these issues by spending a few days in the area before returning to the safety of the capital, Calloquispe lives in the jungle and must deal with the fallout of his reporting. “The pressure against me is very strong,” Calloquispe, 57, said in an interview with CPJ in the Amazon town of Puerto Maldonado where he is based. “But this is where I want to be.”

Journalists in Peru face a variety of threats, ranging from a rising number of criminal defamation lawsuits to attacks by police during anti-government protests. Reporting on environmental issues from the Amazon, which encompasses parts of Peru and several other South American countries, can be especially dangerous due to its remote location, the lack of law enforcement that allows criminal groups to thrive, and poor communications infrastructure. Last year, British freelance journalist Dom Phillips was shot by suspected illegal fishermen while researching a book on how to protect the Amazon with Indigenous issues expert Bruno Pereira. Their bodies were found dismembered and buried in the Brazilian rainforest.

Illegal gold mining, Calloquispe’s beat, is often carried out by criminal networks which extract the precious metal without permits or authorized machinery. This underground industry is estimated to account for more than one-quarter of Peru’s total gold production, according to think tank InsightCrime. Environmental groups blame the industry for the contaminating rivers with mercury, destroying riverbeds with dredges, and for deforestation. It’s also a source of political corruption and human trafficking as girls and young women are brought into mining areas for sex work, according to the U.N.

An aerial view shows a deforested area of the Amazon jungle in southeast Peru caused by illegal mining, during a Peruvian military operation to destroy illegal machinery and equipment used by wildcat miners in Madre de Dios, Peru, March 5, 2019. (Reuters/Guadalupe Pardo)
A March 5, 2019 photo shows an area of the Amazon jungle deforested by unauthorized mining in Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru. (Reuters/Guadalupe Pardo)

In the Peruvian capital of Lima, Calloquispe’s editors describe him as an extremely well-sourced journalist willing to venture into dangerous areas to report on one of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest.

“You need courage and willpower to cover this beat,” said Ricardo León, the weekend editor at El Comercio who works closely with Calloquispe. “What struck me about Manuel is that he is one of the few journalists in the region strongly opposed to the industry.”

Aside from documenting the environmental havoc, Calloquispe’s reporting helps explain why the industry is so entrenched, León said. For example, ahead of local elections in 2014 and 2018, he found that numerous candidates in Madre de Dios province, the mining epicenter in the Peruvian Amazon, were connected to the industry.

Calloquispe often goes along on police raids against illegal miners. But Rodolfo Mancilla, a public prosecutor in Puerto Maldonado, told CPJ that political support for the industry is so strong that local mayors and legislators often try to stymie these law enforcement operations. Calloquispe has also reported on a jump in homicides in the mining zone, on the industry’s impact on Indigenous communities, and on human trafficking.  

“Manuel is very committed to his work,” Pamela Bressia, his editor at Latina Television, told CPJ. “He is always trying to investigate and uncover wrongdoing.”

That commitment comes, in part, from Calloquispe’s upbringing. When he was 5, his father moved his family from the mountains of central Peru to a plot of land in the Amazon rainforest about 25 miles from Puerto Maldonado. Calloquispe fished, hunted wild boar with a shotgun, and soaked in his jungle surroundings. His father tried panning for gold but soon switched to farming.

“He found a few nuggets but came to believe that the forest did not want to give up its gold,” Calloquispe said. “He felt a bad vibe, like he was doing something wrong. He told me: ‘This is not for us.’”

His father had been illiterate but eventually learned to read and furnished their home with three books: a Bible, a classic Peruvian novel called “La Serpiente del Oro” (“The Gold Snake”), and a volume of geography. The books sparked Calloquispe’s own interest in reading and writing.

“I figured if my father was illiterate and learned how to read, why can’t I?” he said. 

Calloquispe attended an elementary school in the jungle where there was one teacher for all six grades. He then graduated from high school in Puerto Maldonado and moved to Lima to become the first member of his family to see the Pacific Ocean and to enroll in a university. He didn’t know what a journalist was but liked telling stories and contributed to the school’s so-called “newspaper wall” where students printed out articles they had written and posted them on a bulletin board.

Upon returning to Puerto Maldonado in the late 1990s, he jumped into journalism.

At first, Calloquispe reported for a local newspaper and a TV station where he hosted a news and interview program. He started focusing on illegal mining following the construction of a highway connecting Peru’s interior to the Amazon jungle that opened up the region to a wave of fortune-seekers and made it easier to bring in dredges and other heavy machinery. Calloquispe’s coverage attracted the attention of media outlets in Lima and he began reporting for Inforegión in 2011 and for El Comercio and Latina Televisión in 2013.

León, the El Comercio weekend editor, said that reliable regional correspondents like Calloquispe are difficult to find. He said many reporters in remote areas are poorly paid and as a result often tempted to accept bribes from politicians and business owners in exchange for ignoring scandals and producing puff pieces.

“It’s very difficult to find good reporters because there is so much corruption,” León said. Before hiring Calloquispe “we never had a regular contributor” in Puerto Maldonado.

For his part, Calloquispe says he became committed to exposing environmental crimes because he was raised in the rainforest and remembers what it was like before loggers and gold miners invaded the area.

“It used to be a virgin forest and now it’s deforested,” he says. “You used to be able to swim in the rivers which were pristine. Now, they are just muddy water and lots of sediment and no fish or wildlife. It gets worse every day.”

Meanwhile, Calloquispe faces ongoing harassment and danger. In January, when a horde of miners who had discussed killing the journalist on chat groups surrounded his home and shouted threats in response to his article about an illegal mining boss allegedly funding anti-government protests. Calloquispe’s editors at Latina Television contacted the police, who escorted the journalist to the airport so he could board a flight to Lima. He stayed there for two weeks until he could safely return to Puerto Maldonado.

“We were very worried,” Bressia said. “If he would have stayed put, they would have killed him.”

Although Calloquispe has filed complaints with the police and Attorney General’s office, he says there have been no arrests stemming from the attacks and threats against him. A police official in Puerto Maldonado told CPJ he was not authorized to comment on the attacks on the journalist. CPJ emailed the press department of the Attorney General’s office but received no response.

Bressia noted that station managers have talked with Calloquispe about switching to another beat or reporting from Lima but that he’s adamant about staying put, in part, because he wants to write a book about illegal mining.

Calloquispe says that after publishing controversial stories he will go into hiding for a few weeks then return to Puerto Maldonado. He is also trying to get hold of a protective vest and to save up the USD$2,500 he needs to buy a pistol. Some of his friends in the police department have promised to teach him how to shoot.

“There will come a moment when I will have to defend myself,” he said.