13 Dec 2013

The social price of gold: child prostitution

Latin America Correspondent

Global demand for Peruvian gold has led to illegal mining that has fuelled unprecedented levels of child prostitution. Filmmaker Guillermo Galdos reports for Channel 4 News.

Since the price of gold nearly doubled five years ago, thousands of illegal miners have flocked to a remote corner of the Peruvian jungle to take advantage of a once untouched ‘El Dorado’. In a few short years they have not only created a huge environmental problem, but also a tragic social problem: child prostitution.

While gold mining takes place all year around, the most productive months are in the dry season from March to December. During that time hundreds of young Peruvian women arrive in Puerto Maldonado, in Southeastern Peru and its surrounding areas. These are often women dispatched by their families and lured on the false promises of well paid jobs as waitresses, they end up working in one of the regions hundreds of so-called prostibars.

The average prostitute is around 16 years old, but many are as young as 12.

The social effect of illegal mining

I wanted to see for myself what damage illegal mining was really doing, so I spent a week in the city of Puerto Maldonado where I spoke to miners, prostitutes and the police.

My first stop was the red light district of Puerto Maldonado or ‘Puerto’ as the locals call it, in the outskirts of the city. It offers little more than 20 brothels lining a badly lit dirt road. The red flashing lights draw attention to girls as young as 15 offering themselves to the men passing by. Most of them are miners.

Photo: Catherine has been working as a prostitute since she was 16 when she was first offered a job as a waitress in Puerto Maldonado.

The intrinsic sadness of those inside

We went to a bar called Las Peladitas. Inside there were 25 girls standing by the doors of their tiny rooms made out of thin wood, containing only a fan, a red light, a roll of toilet paper, a few condoms and an air freshener.

The girls looked incredibly sad. I was standing inside a real human market. I was told that most of the bars have a “special girl”, a prostitute under the age of 16.

Inside Las Peladitas I met Catherine. She had been working as a prostitute since she was 16. She was offered a job as a waitress in the booming city of Puerto Maldonado, but realised after she arrived that it was a job in a brothel.

A week later the miners were offering her big sums to sell her body. Coming from a poor family thousands of miles away, the offer of money was too good to pass up, especially with a one-year-old daughter to take care of which she took with her to the brothel. Days later she was working in the brothel.

Three years later, her daughter is back at home with her parents. Catherine has now worked in more than three prostibars. She started her job in ‘Las Peladitas’ just a few weeks ago. She charges eight pounds for 30 minutes of her time and sees anywhere from 20 to 30 men a day; over twelve hour shifts. She pays the proprietor £20 a day to rent the room.

Photo: The gold extraction process is dangerous for workers and the environment, with dangerously high levels of exposure to mercury which is subsequently dumped in Amazonian rivers.

In just one day Catherine can make what many other Peruvians earn in a month. Catherine says it has allowed her to support not only her daughter but also her parents. “They don’t know what I do, they think I work waiting tables in a restaurant.”

How demand fuels supply

Peru is the fifth exporter of gold around the world and has substantial mineral reserves. For over 15 years the country’s economy has been growing steadily, largely because of mining. For as long as international gold buyers continue to ignore the price of cheap Amazonian gold, girls like Catherine will continue to fall into prostitution.